What makes London and not Beijing the Capital of Languages?

According to a survey of school children in London, the City’s residents speak over 300 languages from around the world. On the other hand, China has more language graduates per year than any other country. So the question is, what makes London the ‘capital of languages?’

First and foremost is the monumental legacy of the British Empire and, later, the Commonwealth. It’s an oft-quoted piece of historical trivia that, at its peak, the British Empire comprised 25% of the world’s landmass. As a result, London has seen successive waves of immigration from colonies and former colonies. Residents of Britain’s Caribbean colonies were encouraged to emigrate to help rebuild after the Second World War, and many came from the Indian subcontinent after it gained independence in 1947, to name a couple.

Britain’s imperial reach also turned London into a major transport and trade hub, which has continued to the present day. The wealth this has brought the city has attracted many economic migrants, most recently from Eastern Europe. The historical establishment of Greenwich Mean Time, and the resulting International Date Line in the Pacific Ocean, has meant London is uniquely placed to deal with Asia in the morning and the Americas in the evening. This has resulted in the city’s massive financial industry, which has helped maintain London’s importance on the world stage. It has also been of great benefit to the translation industry, which is needed to facilitate the worldwide trade.

More visitors, and with them, languages, have arrived on British shores to benefit from its world-renowned educational establishments. While this is most clearly shown in the rising numbers of international students attending British universities, there are also a significant number of foreigners studying at British boarding schools, and learning at British teaching hospitals.

The net result of which is a vibrant, multicultural, and multilingual city. While some may joke that Londoners don’t talk to each other, if you listen a little closer you will hear the sounds of over a hundred nationalities and languages – a true ‘capital of languages.’

Yet it must also be said that there is no room for complacency. I chose to study Mandarin at university because my childhood in Asia not only gave me a fascination with other cultures and travel, but it also impressed on me the need to communicate across cultural and language barriers.

While growing up in China, I saw the clear advantage that Australian students had from Mandarin being taught in their schools. Later, at university, I would make friends with a Malaysian student who could speak six languages, purely from his high school education. With the rate of British students studying languages dropping, more must be done to encourage language learning in the UK. It is vital in the connected world we live in and necessary to maintain London’s position as the world’s leading financial and multi-lingual city.