The impact of Brexit on native languages spoken in the UK

The UK referendum in 2016 on the decision to exit the EU forced a resounding split through the country, turning friends and families against one another and making many conversations hostiles. The resultant rise in xenophobia in the UK that followed was both horrifying and anticipated; those who have always had a Britain First agenda feeling justified in their bigoted rhetoric because of the referendum result. This is still true, and vastly worse three years later, the country more divided than ever,  with those who aren’t obviously British openly attacked on a regular basis, both verbally and physically. What happens in a multicultural country where a vast number of languages are spoken in the home when a decision like Brexit has led to open-season on racism? 


Photo via Flickr


A multicultural nation

Make no mistake; the UK is multicultural. We have Chinatowns, communities from every country you can think of, and corner stores that keep us supplied in cigarettes, alcohol, and that pint of milk we forgot to buy on the way home whose owners speak Urdu, Punjabi, Gujerati, Bengali, and so many others. We have a large number of ‘Euro’ stores that sell groceries from predominantly eastern Europe, where you’ll hear Polish, Russian, and a range of other languages while perusing the pierogi. We have mosques, and synagogues, film and food festivals celebrating our rich heritage of languages and culture, and the opportunity to hear a language other than English almost everywhere we go. We should be fiercely proud of our multicultural status.


Languages of the UK

English is the official language spoken in the UK, this is true, but it is not the only one; not by far. We have a number of indigenous languages before we even get to all the other languages of the world whose people have chosen to make the UK their home. The 2011 Census listed the top twenty languages spoken in the UK as English, Polish, Punjabi, Urdu, Bengali, Gujurati, Arabic, French, Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish, Tamil, Turkish, Italian, Somali, Lithuanian, German, Persian, Tagalog, and Romanian. Foreign students coming to study in our universities come from China, Japan, Korea, and so many other countries, their languages helping form international communities in our university towns. We are not an English-only country, despite how we currently present ourselves.

Hostility towards other languages

So what did Brexit mean for those who speak languages other than English? Well, where do we start? Racism has always been prevalent in the UK, with mumbled go back to your own countries and you’re in our country, speak English heard by many an unsuspecting person just minding their business going about their day. This isn’t new, not by any means, but the thing with Brexit is that it gave these bigots a voice, the confidence to speak their prejudices out loud. Ethnic minorities in the UK have seen a large increase in the incidents of racism targeted at them since the referendum. 

You can hear Spanish waiting staff being insulted in restaurants, Polish people yelled at outside their stores for stealing jobs, Chinese restaurant and takeaway owners loved for their food yet still having racial abuse hurled at them. You have people tutted and sighed at on buses when they speak anything other than English on their phones, train platforms becoming a divide of us and them. And of course, this isn’t everywhere, and it’s not all the time, but how must this feel to have this barrage of nastiness and bigotry targeted at you for doing nothing other than opening your mouth?

Racism has become a bigger stain on our football than ever, anti-semitism rife in one of our political parties, and Islamophobia prevalent in another. It is sickening that this bigotry is essentially a way of life for some of us in the UK, and while this can’t be blamed entirely on Brexit, Brexit has undoubtedly been a catalyst for so much of this prejudice to rise. Brexit has left people afraid to speak anything but English in public, tried to shame people for having any other mother tongue. The shame should be on us, for letting this happen.


Photo via Wikimedia


Language, more than ever, is crucial to understanding, to bridge cultural differences, and to show our friends and neighbors that they are not alone. Learning languages to spite the bigots around us might be a quiet rebellion against what is happening in our country, but it is a rebellion all the same. If that is something you are interested in doing, then we can help. Drop us a quick enquiry to see how our courses work.