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The hidden face of the UK’s public language policy

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Humphries, Emma 
Ayres-Bennett, Wendy 


Our analysis challenges three common misconceptions:

  1. The United Kingdom (UK) has little to no language policy;
  2. UK language policy concerns ‘modern languages’ only; and
  3. UK language policy is primarily, if not exclusively, found in the Education domain.

Our analysis of UK legislation shows that much of the language policy is actually ‘hidden’ in legislation which is primarily about another issue and is therefore not easily visible to either the public or policymakers. We found 1,501 examples of primary and secondary language legislation, most of it ‘hidden’.

Legislation concerning the UK’s indigenous languages is more numerous than modern language policy, which is perhaps surprising given that the UK is often seen as monolingual.

We found language policy in 21 domains, including Public health and safety, Law and crime, and Media, much more than just Education.

With over 90% of language legislation hidden–some of which marks important landmarks in the status of languages–legal coverage for languages is patchy and the importance of languages risks being overlooked. This is a barrier to a coherent, joined up language(s) strategy.

Most language legislation is being drafted by policymakers and civil servants whose expertise lies in other domains. Those drafting legislation might benefit from training and support which encourages a systematic consideration of whether their portfolio has a language dimension, in the same way that gender and ethnicity are now considered.

Further work is needed to determine the extent to which ‘hidden’ language policies are implemented. There is doubt about this first, because of a potential lack of awareness of the policies, and second, due to the way legislation is formulated. The use of hedging clauses, permissive auxiliaries such as ‘may’ and vague phrasing may mean that the legislation is not consistently applied.

With the diversity of language policies in the different jurisdictions of the UK, more cross-jurisdictional comparison and collaboration might be beneficial to highlight best practice where it is found.



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Languages, Society and Policy

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