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29 October 2014
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"Being bilingual is like being able to see a magic eye picture. You squint a bit but still see more." Robin de la Motte, London.
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Are we really a multilingual nation?

You wouldn't know it at first glance, but the British Isles are home to over 350 languages. Some of them, such as English, Irish and Manx, originated here; most of them began elsewhere and have arrived through migration.

While most speakers of other languages also speak English, some do not. We're lacking concrete statistics about language use, but according to one 2001 estimate, one and a half million people in the UK do not speak enough English to be employable. It's very hard to get along without English, although we do have certain rights to use other languages in public life.The Human Rights Act (1998) guarantees liberty and a fair trial. That's relevant because it means that suspects must be told why they are being arrested or charged in a language they understand. They are also entitled to free assistance from an interpreter in court.But what about the everyday stuff? The Human Rights Act does not entitle pupils to education in their own language. It doesn't ensure patients understand their doctor's diagnosis. It doesn't help non-English speakers report crimes, attend parents' evenings or fathom tenancy agreements.Deaf people are better off than most in this respect, since anti-discrimination legislation gives them more rights to use BSL in public. According to the Act, disabled people (which, in law, includes Deaf people) may not be treated unfavourably because of their disability. This means that in many circumstances, companies and organisations are obliged to provide BSL interpreters or other means of communication in order for Deaf people to access services.Web reader Richard Jones believes that there should be a BSL Act equivalent to the Welsh Language Act (1993). Under the latter, speakers have more solid linguistic rights.The Act guarantees that Welsh and English be considered equal in the provision of public services in Wales. And Language Schemes ensure that people can do certain things such as applying for a passport or receiving healthcare in the medium of Welsh.Speakers of other languages of the British Isles, such as Bengali or Chinese, don't have legislation to help them use everyday services. Yet people whose first language is not English commonly communicate better and feel more at home, less frustrated and less marginalised when they speak their own language.Nava Freeman wrote to Voices to explain how this feels: "When I speak Hebrew my confidence rises, because it's my mother tongue, and no one looks at me in a strange way!"Farzaneh from London agrees: "I am comfortable [speaking Persian] and enjoy many things which I can not still feel and understand in English." Abhinav Kishore adds: "Speaking Hindi unifies our community and we feel more relaxed."As many of you have testified, the British Isles are undoubtedly multilingual, but people who do not speak English or Welsh do not enjoy the same linguistic freedoms as those who do. The British Council website has an excellent section on multilingualism, if you're interested in finding out more.


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