Using more than one language matters now more than ever

Conflict is all too common when intolerant eavesdroppers hear foreign languages being spoken, says Marek Kohn. But multilingualism is here to stay

Anja McCloskey was on a bus to Hove when her phone rang. It was her mother, calling from Germany. They chatted in German for a few minutes. When the conversation ended, a man turned round to her and said, “Excuse me, but we speak English in this country.”

Anja was shocked – it’s not the sort of thing people expect to hear in Brighton and Hove, a city that enjoys a reputation for openness and produced a 68.6 per cent Remain vote in the Brexit referendum. She didn’t come up with a rejoinder at the time, and she won’t need to now. Facing uncertainty about her status in this country after Brexit, she went to live in Hamburg. We – whoever we may be these days – are left with the question: what do you say to that?

The man’s passive-aggressive style echoed the kind of genteel intolerance that once found a congenial habitat in places like Hove. It suggests a response in kind. “We don’t eavesdrop on private conversations in this country”, perhaps, or “We mind our own business in this country”, or simply “It’s a free country”. But we won’t get far with such appeals to outdated notions of how the British are supposed to behave in public. The vigilantes who take it upon themselves to police people’s conversations are trying to lay down the law for the future.

You need to speak in English, you’re in fucking England,

Some of them are ready to enforce it, too. A woman travelling on a London Overground train last October was allegedly punched in the face after a man heard her speaking Spanish on the phone. A witness said the attacker shouted: “You need to speak in English, you’re in fucking England. You shouldn’t speak other languages.”

Earlier in the year, the British Transport Police reported an incident on an Underground train in which two women set upon another woman whom they overheard speaking Spanish to friends. They shouted that she should be speaking English when in England, and pulled her around by her hair.

A few months after the Brexit referendum, a group of men attacked a student whom they heard speaking Polish with friends in a park in Telford, Shropshire. According to the victim, one of the men declared that he “had a daughter living round the corner and he didn’t want her to hear us talking Polish”. Protecting the English child from the sound of a foreign language, drifting through the air on a warm summer’s evening, the attackers left the student with a neck wound from a broken bottle that needed 13 stitches.

We should try to work out why some people are so insistent that only one of those languages should be heard in public,

Most, perhaps all, of these language vigilantes would probably prefer it if the foreign-language speakers were not in their country at all. The real objection may be to their presence rather than their conduct. But many languages are spoken in this country, and always will be, so we should try to work out why some people are so insistent that only one of those languages should be heard in public.

Two themes in particular emerge from their protests: suspicion and ownership. Both are illustrated by a woman’s tirade, caught on video, against two fellow-passengers on an Underground train going through east London. “Don’t fucking sit on my train and speak about me behind my back in your lingo,” she ranted. If you mistrust foreigners, as her catalogue of accusations made clear she did, you are likely to suspect that they are up to something, they’re using their language to conceal it, and it’s about you.

Foreigners in public must therefore make their conversation, however private, available for monitoring at all times. Language vigilantes feel that they are entitled to make such demands because public space is their space – their trains, their space, their rules.

There’s no perfect riposte to them – not even the widely-shared tale of the bus passenger in Newport who told a woman wearing a niqab that she should be speaking English to her son, and was promptly told by another passenger: “We’re in Wales, and she’s speaking Welsh.” It would have been perfect, if the likelihood that she actually was speaking Welsh were not so tiny. Fewer than 10 per cent of Newport residents speak Welsh, only about five per cent are Muslim, and only a minute fraction of Muslim women in Britain wear niqabs.

People evidently wanted the story to be perfect all the way through though, and they often show that they want to support those criticised or assaulted for speaking foreign languages in public.

DID YOU KNOW…

The Big Issue magazine is a social enterprise, a business that reinvests its profits in helping others who are homeless, at risk of homelessness, or whose lives are blighted by poverty.

After a man on a number 22 tram in Warsaw punched a university professor for speaking German to a visiting German colleague, protesters rode number 22 trams in Kraków speaking foreign languages and reading aloud from books in German and Russian. British bus and train passengers could imitate that example to send an unfamiliar but necessary message: “We respect and appreciate languages in this country.”

Four Words for Friend: Why Using More Than One Language Matters Now More Than Ever by Marek Kohn is out now

(Yale University Press, £20)

Illustration: Joseph Joyce