Thought for the Day - Catherine Pepinster - 01/02/2013

Good morning or should I say dzień dobry.

That’s the greeting that more than half a million Poles who live in this country will be giving one another this morning. According to census figures revealed this week, Polish is now England’s second language. In my West London neighbourhood, you hear Polish regularly, see many Polish shops, and those of us living there have come to rely on Poles for painting and decorating, plumbing and childcare. This isn’t entirely new. Although large numbers settled here since Poland joined the EU, I grew up with the children of Poles who’d fled to Britain after the Communists took hold of their country following the Second World War. As a Catholic child, I was used to meeting people through school and at church who came from around the world to Britain and spoke more than one language. That’s what we did in my own family: when we visited my Belgian relatives, conversation slipped back and forth regularly between English and French. In fact my great-grandmother’s budgie was trilingual; he could even swear in Flemish.

So to me, and probably countless other Britons from a huge variety of racial, cultural and linguistic backgrounds, the census revelations about the numbers of languages spoken in Britain is official confirmation of an attractively diverse nation. As a child, hearing different languages, eating different types of food, and learning about various cultures hinted at the infinite variety of the world and was a reminder that Britain was to many arrivals a beacon of freedom. But there are tensions too when our nation opens its doors to people from many other places, and the experience of the Catholic Church in this country, which has so many migrant members, highlights these. While Poles and Nigerians, Brazilians and Britons can come together for Mass celebrated in English, many members of ethnic groups prefer to attend their own church services instead. They feel comfortable worshipping in their own languages, and it helps bind their migrant communities together. But the Church sees the special ethnic chaplaincies as staging posts, a path into a wider Church. It doesn’t want permanent parallel Catholic Churches, one that’s African, another that’s Irish or English, just as Britain needs to be one nation rather than hosting various separate ones. In the Old Testament the story of the tower of Babel suggested that speaking in many languages was a source of confusion and division, but the New Testament account of Pentecost, when the disciples spoke in tongues, shows multiple languages as a gift. For a nation, like the Church, and like the disciples, variety becomes enriching and is welcomed when alongside it people strive to forge common purpose and shared values.

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