London in November – Bilingual communities in the city

London in November – still blessed with warm weather and proud of its charming parks with vast lawns of dark green grass covered in heaps of golden leaves. Winter season is fast approaching with festive decorations in the streets, Christmas traditional fairs and ice-skating rinks, where you can hear skaters talk in dozens of different languages. London has become a second home for many immigrants who, by starting their lives over in a new country, entered a totally new social network formed by the majority of ‘natives’ and minority communities, all of which live by certain rules, also rules governing their modes of communication.


If you cared enough to run a short survey among the members of London’s national minorities, you would find out that many of them secretly worry that their native language becomes obsolete and they do not speak English good enough to feel self-confident in all British social group. Why is it so? Don’t they exaggerate a little? After all, they manage perfectly well in both languages. Aha! But the thing is – they use more than two languages, they might even have to use four of them!


When two languages are used in the same society, their values and functions differ. Each bilingual community develops several varieties of language, which are used for particular domains and according to their own norms of correctness. Let’s take a look at a randomly chosen member of the Polish minority in London – let’s call him Marek. English is the majority language, which is associated with formal, less personal relations outside the group and Marek will use it in public places like workplace, bank, post office, school, etc. Polish is the minority language, connected with informal, in-group relationships, when only Polish persons are present, mostly at Marek’s house.

Another two language varieties of this community are Polish English, in which Polish patterns are transferred into English; and English Polish which involves code-switching and borrowing. These varieties are a mode of expression applied to avoid defining the social situation in terms of either language and culture. For instance, Marek will use Polish English during informal mixed gatherings, let’s say a night at the pub during a football game. He is sitting there with both Polish and English friends and he doesn’t want to be considered as ‘one of them’ or ‘one of us’, but to spend some quality time with all of them.

When you are forced to code-switch

English Polish variety with its code-switching patterns becomes the marker of a certain ambivalent ethnic identity, it indicates the dual affiliation with two cultures. Marek and his Polish friend may talk in Polish and switch into English for topics or concepts which are typically English or have no Polish counterparts, like Christmas pudding, London Tube, Bank Holiday, etc. By switching Marek may also wants to express solidarity with his social group. In fact, in certain bilingual communities a person who fails to code-switch is considered distant and affected. Moreover, speaking in one language only, e.g. using English only in a Polish-English community, may make its bilingual members think that the speaker tries to show off, wants to break the ties with the community and indicate his affiliation to the English majority.

So I would say, there is nothing wrong with Marek’s linguistic skills. He just needs to realize that sometimes he will compromise his perfect British accent and repertoire of sophisticated phrases for the sake of a peaceful night out with the boys. Sometimes he will be lost for words trying to explain to his grandfather what he actually does at work. Try as he might, he probably will lose it the very moment his grandfather repeats with disbelief the same question as ever: so you really deal with your customers in English?

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