Languages other than English in the UK

Quite literally, there are hundreds of languages spoken in the UK in addition to English. In fact, it is probably more accurate to speak about Great Britain because the oldest of these languages, which are older than English itself, are spoken in certain parts of the British Isles. Those languages are called Welsh, Gaelic and Cornish.

These languages are spoken in parts of the British Isles like the west of Wales, the north of Scotland and the far west of England which are furthest from the south of England. There are historical reasons for this. Great Britain was invaded many times and the invaders brought their language and their culture with them. The only places where the culture and language of the invaders did not completely take over were places far from London in Wales, Scotland and Cornwall. The two invasions which had the biggest impact on the language spoken on the British Isles were the Anglo-Saxon invasions of the 6t -8th centuries and the Norman invasion of 1066. The Anglo-Saxons brought with them Germanic languages, a lot of English (the word comes from Angle, a Germanic word) came from this time. Then when the Normans came in the 11th century, they added a lot of Norman words. Norman is strongly related to French.

Welsh is spoken in many parts of Wales by more than 1 million people. There has been a strong movement over recent decades to protect and promote Welsh. All signposts in Wales are written in both English and Welsh. Many primary schools in Wales teach through the medium of Welsh. The number of speakers has increased a lot and many Welsh people are bilingual. Gaelic is spoken by fewer people, about 65,000 who live in remote parts of Scotland. There are also many Gaelic speakers in the Republic of Ireland where the language has official status. There are today very few speakers of Cornish. In linguistic terms, these three languages are connected to each other and they are also similar to Breton which is spoken in the Brittany region of France. They are Celtic languages which were spoken widely in Europe before the Roman Empire expanded to include northern and western Europe.

These three languages reflect the ancient history of Britain. However, there are many other languages spoken in the UK which reflect more recent history. These could be divided into two groups. The first group are the language spoken by people who immigrated to the UK from countries which used to be part of the British Empire. In numerical terms, the most important ones are Panjabi, Gujarati, Urdu, Bengali and Hindi from the sub-continent and Yoruba, Igbo and Akan from West Africa. The second group are languages spoken by immigrants who have arrived in the last two decades. These include a wide range of European, Middle Eastern, Asian and African languages. In the UK, there are millions of speakers of Polish, Turkish, Kurdish, Farsi, Arabic, Somali, Amharic, Romanian, Italian, Ukrainian, Albanian, Tamil, Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese and many other languages.

After English and Welsh, the five most spoken languages in the UK are Polish (612,000 speakers), Romanian (472,000speakers), Panjabi (291,000 speakers), Urdu (270,000 speakers) and Portuguese (225,000speakers).

Modern Britain is a very rich and varied country with millions of speakers of many different languages. These languages reflect Britain’s ancient history of invasions, its 18th and 19th century history as a maritime and colonial power and its contemporary role as a melting pot for immigrants from many parts of the world.