The End of Babel? Meeting the Challenge of global English in a Multilingual Society

Date: 26 September, 2001
Location: University of Southampton
Event type: Symposium

Past Event Summary


to encourage academics, policy makers and community leaders to come together to debate the issues surrounding the promotion of multilingualism in a world that increasingly relies on English.

Keynote Speakers will include

  • Professor Hugo Baetens Beardsmore (Vrije Universiteit, Brussels)
  • Professor Robert Phillipson (Copenhagen Business School)
  • Professor Mike Kelly (Nuffield Enquiry member, Southampton University)
  • Professor Christopher Brumfit (Southampton University)


Over the past few weeks we have heard controversial claims surrounding the nature of multicultural Britain. Claims that have suggested everything from the implied degeneration, according to MP John Townend, of Britishness to that of a 'mongrel race', the insistence by Norman Tebbit that 'no multicultural society is a happy one' to the somewhat glib description by Robin Cook that we now live in a 'Chicken Tikka Masala Britain'. If explicit racism is indeed kept off the electioneering agenda over the next few weeks, the implications of racial harmony -- either in terms of the society we now are, or as regards the visitors we do or do not welcome, or in our attitudes to collaborating more closely with our continental neighbours - certainly will not be. One of the most obvious features of multicultural diversity is language diversity. And it is in response to the urgent need to link multicultural harmony with linguistic harmony that the European Commission has launched the European Year of Languages this year.

As a European-wide initiative this is timely with the debates surrounding the increasingly over-burdened EU language policy of official recognition, and translation and interpretation services of all member states' national languages heightened by the imminent entry of yet more states with yet more languages. The tensions between the overwhelming use of English, the desire to maintain equality between member states' official languages, and the demands of so-called lesser-used languages of the minority linguistic communities should at the very least underlie the reasons why a consciousness-raising programme designed to promote the learning and teaching of languages and the promotion of linguistic diversity is so important. Moreover, the debate here in the UK has barely taken place. On the one hand our complacency towards any need to learn another language given the global dominance of English, and on the other a deafness to the existence here in Britain of large linguistic communities whose mother tongue is not English have led to the well-known scenario of negative attitudes towards learning languages amongst the British. It is of course a myth that languages are difficult to learn. It is also a dangerous myth to believe that knowing English is enough: the implications for linguistic imperialism and intolerance on the one hand, and the exclusion for the monolingual from the richness of linguistic awareness on another, are only two of the many reasons why this cannot be true.

The European Year of Languages is encouraging member states to promote a range of activities to counteract such anxieties or prejudices towards language learning that may exist. In a unique response to this the City of Southampton has brought together the City Council, education establishments, businesses, community groups, social clubs and individuals to offer a programme of language challenges and language celebrations throughout this year. We have been rewarded with one of the four only grants awarded to a UK project. A highlight of the Southampton programme will be the day symposium The End of Babel? Which we will host to encourage academics, policy makers and community leaders to come together to debate the issues surrounding the promotion of multilingualism in a world that increasingly relies on English. Besides our keynote speakers who have expertise in a wide range of relevant issues and who all share a passionate interest in shaping national and transnational language policy, we will conclude the day with a colourful Round Table where the speakers will be joined by other panellists to discuss the theme of the symposium.