Language diversity will make London a true global player

10 May 2012

Understanding linguistic diversity among London’s schoolchildren is key for the city’s future as a ‘global player’, research shows.

A study funded by the ESRC mapped the distribution of languages spoken by London state school pupils. By combining language spoken with ethnicity, researchers have shed new light on patterns of educational inequality.

“London’s increasing language diversity attracts much interest and debate among public service providers, educationalists and the public. Yet little was known about the numbers of people who speak different languages, and the implications of this dimension of population structure and change,” explains Professor Dick Wiggins of the Institute of Education, University of London.

“Our research used data on the language spoken at home, requested for the first time in the 2008 Annual School Census. This shows that 60 per cent of London pupils record English as their first language and nearly 40 per cent a minority language. There are over 40 languages spoken by more than 1,000 pupils. Bengali, Urdu and Somali are the top languages spoken.”

The Census showed that pupils in the ‘black African’ and ‘white other’ categories were among both the high and the low achievers. Language provided an extra dimension: within the black African category, English Yoruba and Igbo speakers were among the high achievers, while within the ‘white other’ group, Spanish, English, German, Serbian/Croat/Bosnian and French speakers appeared to be high achievers.

“The language we speak often says more about us than our broad ethnic group; it gives researchers clues about where people come from and their likely socio-economic position, religion and culture. It is therefore of great value to public services or any organisation that use social data. Knowing where the speakers are can help target services where they are most needed, as well as helping public organisations and businesses find people with language skills, particularly the more unusual ones where there is a sudden need,” states Professor Wiggins.

“I believe that a plan is needed for developing and exploiting the linguistic skills we have available. Having speakers of all these languages means we have connections across the globe with other speakers of these languages. We are globally connected, which is an incredible benefit for international trade, particularly at this time when the balance of global economic power is changing and European economies are in such crisis.”

“But having all these cultures represented in one city is also a source of cultural and creative enrichment. We benefit from the cross fertilisation of ideas and it means we live in a more dynamic, multi-faceted society. And global cities attract global companies so it’s good for inward investment and tourism.”
ESRC Press Office:

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Notes for editors:

  1. This release is based on findings from ‘Population, language, ethnicity and socio-economic aspects of education‘, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. The Principal Investigator was Professor Dick Wiggins at the Institute of Education, University of London, with Ruth Lupton (now at the London School of Economics) as Co-Principal and Michelle von Ahn, London Borough of Newham, as User Fellow.
  2. Languages spoken by pupils – interactive maps
  3. To obtain copies of ‘Language Capital’ go to CfBT Education Trust
  4. The project was part of Population, language, ethnicity and socio-economic aspects of education programme that finished in 2010. The primary aims of the UPTAP initiative were build capacity in secondary data analysis; promote the use of large-scale social science data sets, both qualitative and quantitative
  5. The project involved analysis of the 2008 Pupil Level Annual School Census to map the distribution of languages spoken by London state school pupils. The was combined with the use of several administrative data sources in the London Borough of Newham, including the General Practice register with births and deaths, the Electoral Roll, Council Tax liable persons, Council Tax benefit recipients, the school pupil register, housing tenure lists and the Local Land Property Gazetteer.
  6. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC’s total budget for 2011/12 is £203 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes. More at
  7. The ESRC confirms the quality of its funded research by evaluating research projects through a process of peers review. This research has been graded as very good.

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