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Speaking the LanguageBack to top Back to main Skip to menu
United Kingdom (UK) - Speaking the Language
English is the official language of the European Union, United Nations and various international organisations. In 2016, it was estimated that around 400 million people spoke English as a first language, while 1.1 billion spoke it as their secondary language.
It is the official language of the United Kingdom, spoken by about 60 million residents over the age of 3, which is about 98% of the population. It is estimated that 700,000 people in the UK speak Welsh, which is an official language in Wales. There are also around 1.5 million people in the country who speak Scots, but there is a debate about whether this is a different language or a variety of English. There is also a significant number of people speaking Irish in Northern Ireland, with large communities also in Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester and London.
When it comes to dialect varieties in England, English can be divided into four major regional dialects: South West English, South East English, Midlands English, and Northern English. There are several local subdialects in each of these regions. For example, in the Northern region, there is a difference between the Yorkshire dialects, the Geordie dialect which is used in the area around Newcastle, and the Lancashire dialects, with local urban dialects such as Scouse in Liverpool and Mancunian in Manchester.
Regarding the accents of the English, there are some significant differences across the country, such as the ones in the West Country, where two groups of accents exist. There is also a huge variation within the London urban area, with various accents such as Cockney, Estuary English, and Received Pronunciation.
Other languages spoken in the UK
In 2011 a census was conducted to see how well non-native speakers could speak English, and to find out what their first language was. According to the results, the list of the main 20 languages spoken in the country was:
- English (or Welsh if in Wales) 49,808,000 or 92.3%
- Polish 546,000 or 1%
- Punjabi 273,000 or 0.5%
- Urdu 269,000 or 0.5%
- Bengali (with Sylheti and Chatgaya) 221,000 or 0.4%
- Gujarati 213,000 or 0.4%
- Arabic 159,000 or 0.3%
- French 147,000 or 0.3%
- All other Chinese (excludes Mandarin and Cantonese) 141,000 or 0.3%
- Portuguese 133,000 or 0.2%
- Spanish 120,000 or 0.2%
- Tamil 101,000 or 0.2%
- Turkish 99,000 or 0.2%
- Italian 92,000 or 0.2%
Language in the workplace
In recent years, the migrant workforce from Eastern European countries in particular has grown and there is a highly diverse range of cultures within the United Kingdom's labour force. In some lower paid sectors such as agriculture and hospitality, there is a particular reliance on those workers whose first language is not English. It is important to know that the Equality Act 2010 protects employees against discrimination on the basis of colour, nationality and ethnic or national origins. But when it comes to language in the workplace, many often ask if employers require their employees to have excellent or basic English skills. In general, there is no law that obliges the expats in UK to speak excellent English at work.
If the employer thinks that a fluent English speaker is necessary for satisfactory performance of the job, they should be able to objectively justify the requirement. This depends entirely on the role of the employee. Some roles may demand a higher level of English compared to roles such as working on a production line, where only basic English skills may be necessary to perform the role satisfactorily. It is also important to know that there is no law that forbids workers to communicate in a foreign language at workplace, if they share the same mother tongue.
Expat language learning in the UK
When expats want to learn and understand the local language in the United Kingdom, there are a variety of options available. There are government websites, language schools, private lessons and self-help. There's a rise of resources such as self-help CDs and software such as Rosetta Stone and Linkword Languages. English language courses are widely available via the internet as distance learning projects and can enable individuals to gain the standard necessary for living and working in the UK. A good starting point is the ‘learn English’ website from the British Council. Cambridge English, part of Cambridge University, offers a comprehensive range of language courses designed for beginners, intermediates and those who wish to gain an English language qualification recognised by many businesses in the UK.
Another option is to attend an English language school in the UK. Lessons are usually not only structured in a classroom setting but also encompass practical elements such as a variety of social events that include opportunities to talk to native speakers. There are a vast number of schools throughout the country, with London offering the widest choice of teaching establishments.
Language varieties on public media
A small number of TV stations in Wales launched the initiative to put English subtitles into shows made on Welsh. Other than that, most TV shows are not subtitled.
Language differences between areas and generations
The differences between language in urban and rural areas are evident because of the fast developing technology in major cities. There are also differences between the language use of younger and older generations. This is partly due to social media, which increased the spread of new expressions between young people.
English language test certificates as a means of employment
TOEFL is the most common international English language test in the UK. All expats who want to work in areas such as translating, interpreting or tutoring other future UK residents should show their future employer their TOEFL certificate.
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