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Languages in the UK

Bore da, madainn mhath, dzién dobry, su prabhat! In some UK regions or neighborhoods, you may hear these greetings – or a plain “good morning”. In our intro to languages in the UK, we talk about Standard English and dialects, about the languages of the Celtic Fringe and immigrant communities.
From the UK to North America or Down Under – English is a global language today.
  • Never mind the various languages, the way you speak English in the UK defines, not only where you’re from, but also your social standing to a certain extent.
  • In a bid to hold on to various local heritages across the UK, Welsh, Cornish, Scottish and Irish Gaelic, Scots and Ulster Scots are all spoken, even if only by a few people.
  • The majority of people in the UK only speak one language and expats are expected to have a decent grasp of it as well. Don’t panic — there are plenty of courses available.

The most common of all languages in the UK is indeed English. Nonetheless, there are quite a few interesting things that foreign nationals relocating to Great Britain and Northern Ireland may not know about languages in the UK.

For instance, most people have some vague idea what Cockney English sounds like, but what about “Jafaican”? Were you aware that there are now two official languages in the UK? Where can you improve your own English language proficiency, e.g. for academic or professional reasons?

English: A Global Language

Let’s start with a few factoids about the English language. It remains the most widely used language in the world. As far as the number of native speakers is concerned, English ranks “merely” fourth, behind Mandarin Chinese, Hindi and Spanish. However, as it frequently serves as a lingua franca in fields like business, technology, or air traffic, English dominates on a global scale.

English has an incredibly vast vocabulary, with 475,000 to 1 million words (depending on whom you ask). This is due to the different groups of people, cultures, and nationalities that use English on a regular basis, and to the numerous varieties of English that result from this prevalence. There is even a wide range of dialects across the British Isles. They do not count as fully-fledged languages in the UK, but they all differ more or less greatly from Standard British English, as defined in textbooks.

From RP to Regional English

In the United Kingdom, your individual way of speaking English expresses your social standing, as well as your regional or local identity – even today. You may have seen the musical My Fair Lady, based on a 1912 play by Bernard Shaw, in a UK theater. In this comedy, the eccentric language scholar Professor Higgins transforms the working-class flower girl Eliza into a perfect lady – by teaching her “proper” English.

We have come a long way since what is known as “Received Pronunciation” or “RP” – aka “the Queen’s English”, “Oxford English”, or “BBC English” – was considered the best manner of speaking, associated with a sound education and social privilege. Since the 1960s and 1970s, regional English dialects have risen in popularity. They are no longer automatically regarded as “inferior”.

You do still hear RP English these days. The members of the Royal Family adhere to the Queen’s English, as do current Prime Minister Theresa May and Boris Johnson, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. On the present-day channels of the BBC, though, news readers and moderators speak with an array of regional accents: from Scottish English, with its distinctive ‘r’, or the Scottish-influenced “Geordie” of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, over the northern burr of Yorkshire and the “Scouse” sound from the Liverpool area, to the Estuary English of Greater London and the very southeast.

And from Cockney to “Jafaican”

Estuary English is related to Cockney, the famous dialect of London’s working-classes. Nowadays, however, the hip slang of London’s youth is more likely to be “Jafaican”. “Jafaican” is the colloquial name of what researchers have termed London Multicultural English – a mixture of Cockney, Caribbean, and South Asian influences. Immigrant languages in the UK are leaving their indelible mark.


We do our best to keep this article up to date. However, we cannot guarantee that the information provided is always current or complete. 

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