News | 07.04.2010

The race is on for the 2010 General Elections – but will it be multilingual?

This week saw the much-anticipated announcement confirming the general election in May. Pitted as the closest fought campaign for 20 years and with talk of a hung parliament in the air, politicians up and down the country will be vying for that all important vote. Language is an issue which falls under the umbrella of social inclusion and for many communities rich in immigrant populations, this could prove to be a decisive factor.

Linguistic issues are extremely relevant to an election campaign – at the very start of the process with the Prime Minister’s announcement of the dissolution of parliament, all the way through to polling day. There are the practicalities of providing multilingual information to ensure that those eligible to vote can register; directions to the polling booths on the day itself; instructions and signage inside the stations and the provision of bilingual staff to assist non-English speakers and those requiring documentation in braille. As for the media barrage set to grip the nation up until 6 May, there are also television and radio party political broadcasts; newsletters, posters and leaflets; speeches, debates and podcasts – all of which offer the possibility of multilingual treatment. A further consideration is a party’s policies in relation to long-term access to language services. 

In Wales, Scotland and Ireland, laws are already in place which cover the use of Welsh, Gaelic and Irish languages. In Wales, The Welsh Language Act of 1993 states that the English and Welsh languages are to be granted parity on ‘a basis of equality’, but unfortunately this is not strictly adhered to as professional translators are not always employed to translate Welsh texts – a situation which breeds mistranslations. Some texts are not even translated at all with many households still receiving monolingual (in English) letters from certain politicians. According to the 2001 census, over 570,000 people (over 20% of the population) were Welsh speakers to varying degrees of competency. Failure to respect the Welsh Language Act and provide bilingual information or proper translations could cost politicians dearly – at the time of going to press only three of the main parties could provide fully operational bilingual Welsh/English websites.

Unfortunately, there are no statistics available as to the number of people who do not speak English as a first language in the UK, but information about children and languages is available. According to the DCSF (Department for Children, Schools and Families) survey of Schools, Pupils and their Characteristics, 492,390 pupils in primary schools did not speak English as their first language; 364,280 in secondary schools and 8,820 in special schools (15.2%, 11.1% and 10.4% respectively of the total number of pupils) – an increase on the previous year’s figures. Although these children are evidently not eligible to vote, it does provide an insight into the amount of households with English as a second language and identifies a need for linguistic assistance and increased access to language services. Community radio and groups are resources providing services in this respect but there is certainly room for improvement.

Information on the most popular languages other than English which are spoken in the home is provided in the 2009 census carried out in Scotland: 138 different languages were reported as the main home language, of which the most common were Polish, Punjabi and Urdu; closely followed by Arabic, Cantonese, French and Gaelic. The statistics also showed that 21,223 children were not fluent in English (an increase of 2,222 from the previous year’s figures) but who had English as an additional language.

How the various political parties will deal with the dissemination of bilingual and multilingual information will be interesting to observe. This is the first time that the party leaders will participate in live televised debates and it is unclear at present if these broadcasts will be accompanied by sign-language or subtitles for the deaf or hearing-impaired.

Gathering information about the percentage of the population speaking community languages is increasingly important for proper social inclusion policies to be put in place. Information online is scarce and difficult to locate, and it would appear that there is some confusion within some councils as to the policy for the provision of community language services in the run up to the election and the responsibility (if any) of providing multi-lingual information and assistance on voting day itself.

Language professionals will be eager to see whether these issues will be truly embraced, or if they will be treated with mere lip service. It remains to be seen how politicians will deal with these linguistic concerns both on the campaign trail and beyond. Whilst it looks set to be an interesting (albeit short) path to No. 10 this year, it would seem that language matters are still being forced down the road less travelled.


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