During last week’s by-election in Oldham and West Royton, commentators criticised the apparent inability of a large number of constituents to speak English. In the lead-up to the poll, the Guardian’s Northern Correspondent tweeted:

A dismaying number of voters I met in Oldham today can’t speak English despite living there a decade or more. But they’re voting Labour.

And following Labour’s overwhelming victory, Nigel Farage claimed that the result was ‘bent’:

In some of these seats where people don’t speak English and they sign up to postal votes, the electoral process is now dead.

Seeing that the families of Bangladeshi and Pakistani immigrants aren’t very likely to vote UKIP, it’s pretty clear that what they’re really trying to say, is: if you don’t speak English, you shouldn’t be able to vote. 1 In fact, there has long been a sense in Britain (and especially England) that people who don’t speak English are worthy of suspicion. This should be somewhat surprising, given the incredibly multilingual environment out of which modern English developed, but actually echoes strongly with British language policy over the last 500 years.

As early as 1392, mistrust was felt towards foreign speakers – even when they were speaking the same language as the English elite: French. During negotiations between the royal families of England and France, whilst proceedings were carried out in French, the English delegation preferred requests to be submitted in written form:

For the French language has subtleties and hidden meanings […] the French manipulate them the way they want to, for their own profit and advantage: which the English do not realise, nor can they do themselves, for they only want to understand it clearly and plainly. 2

So even in medieval, multilingual England plain-speaking Englishmen were wary of being duped by the linguistic wiles of manipulative foreigners. Gradually, non-English speakers came to be seen as anything from untrustworthy and duplicitous to barbaric and backward, and English became increasingly seen as the only acceptable form of communication. 3

In 1536 it was decreed that the language of government in Wales should be English, and that no-one who spoke Welsh could hold official office. By the nineteenth century, the hanging of a ‘Welsh Not’ around the neck as a punishment for children who spoke Welsh at school was common practice. 4

While bi- or multi-lingualism is the norm across much of the world today, Britain has remained isolated its monolingual complacency. Boris Johnson has even suggested children should be prevented from using other languages in school, and councils should stop translating information to help local residents.

But the demand that voters should ‘speak English’ also has a number of practical problems. To begin with, not being able to partake in an impromptu political conversation with a Guardian journalist does not mean that you ‘don’t speak English’. When you learn a second language, you generally learn to use it in the most efficient way for your needs, acquiring the ability to communicate in certain situations you encounter a lot; talking about Jeremy Corbyn’s policy on nuclear weapons or ‘shoot to kill’ is probably a long way down the list.

Nor does a lack of spoken English mean that you can’t use the language effectively in other situations. Many people find it easier to understand, read and even write in a language long before they are able to speak it fluently. And even if a person has a low level of English, it doesn’t mean they can’t function perfectly well in society, including making informed decisions on who will best represent them as their MP. Often the children of immigrants play an important role in translating and interpreting for older family members, who tend to learn new languages less quickly. People are able to find out what they need to know to make important decisions.

One of the reasons negative sentiments towards non-English speakers still persist in Britain is surely our inexperience of learning and speaking other languages ourselves. Learning another language does far more than simply improve linguistic competence in a specific language. It helps people understand other cultures and ways of thinking and, crucially, makes them better at dealing with the challenges of cross-cultural communication. 5 Perhaps if we in Britain did this more, we would better understand the challenges faced by second-language learners in Britain today.

James Chetwood is a Wolfson Postgraduate Scholar in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. He is currently researching personal naming patterns in medieval England. You can find James on twitter @chegchenko.

Image: Multilingual Maidenhead, courtesy of David Short [Creative Commons].


  1. There is currently no requirement for voters in UK elections to speak English.
  2. Cited in Serge Lusignan, ‘French Language Contact with English’ in Jocelyn Wogan-Browne (ed.), Language and Culture in Medieval Britain (York, 2009), p. 26.
  3. Soon after, French was discarded as an elite language of everyday use and, following the Reformation, Latin was replaced as the language of the church.
  4. The Welsh Not was passed on to a different child if they were overheard speaking Welsh. By the end of the day, the wearer would be given a lashing. Of course, linguistic nationalism is by no means a purely British-English phenomenon. French policy towards minority languages has been arguably even more repressive. In the words of the Committee of Public Safety in 1794: ‘Federalism and superstition speak Breton, emigration and hatred of the Republic speak German, the counter-revolution speaks Italian and fanaticism speaks Basque […] Amongst a free people, the language should be one and the same for all.’ Even today France has not ratified the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.
  5. As is so often pointed out, immigrants who learn English benefit as it helps them better understand the culture and history to which the language is so inextricably linked. This is true, but too often for British English speakers, language learning is a one-way street. The EU average for students at upper secondary level studying two languages is over 50 percent. In the UK it is just 5 percent(Learning a second language also makes you more intelligent).
Tags : Boris JohnsonEnglish as a second languagehistory of Englishlanguage policyminority languagesNigel FarageOldham and West Royton
James Chetwood

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