Chartered Institute
of Linguists

The authority to speak


In her Threlford Lecture, Bernadette O’Rourke examines growing linguistic intolerance and asks if linguists unwittingly promote monolingual ideologies

Let me begin with a story. This is a story that I have told on a number of occasions. It is a very personal story and one which has stimulated a lot of my thinking on linguistic intolerance in our contemporary societies. In September 2016, my 7-year-old son was out shopping with my husband in our local supermarket in Edinburgh. They were going about their usual business when my son was approached by a stranger who tapped him on the shoulder and told him (politely) that this was the UK and he should be speaking English.

My son had been speaking French with my husband, who is French; French is the language they always use together. This does not mean, of course, that they can’t speak English, but in the monolingual English-speaking space of the Edinburgh supermarket, speaking French was seen as out of place. It was in some way marked, and even deviant, and did not fit in with the local environment.

This is just one example of where the authority to speak is contested – where a particular language is out of place. Nobody in the supermarket seemed to question the use of English or the fact that in the supermarket there was no bilingual signage. English was the default language. The unquestioned norm. The anonymous language.

To understand these dynamics, I draw on the lens of language ideologies as a way of questioning and trying to understand. I ask why it is that certain speakers (new speakers, native speakers) are given authority; why it is that particular languages (majority or minority languages) are given authority; what the consequences are for the speakers themselves; what the consequences are for the use of certain languages; and what role we play as linguists in responding to these types of issues.

In the globalised world in which we live, with mobilities and flows, transnational working, economic migration and forced migration, our societies have become more diverse than ever before. Multilingualism is the norm – not the exception – in 21st century societies. In February 2018, the Salzburg Global Seminar’s Statement for a Multilingual World was launched, calling for better policies and practices to support such multilingualism. It opened with the statement that all 193 UN member states are multilingual, as are most people in the world. It also pointed out that more than 7,000 languages are spoken across the world but nearly 2,500 are endangered.

The statement emphasised that languages enrich our experience of the world and that multilingualism provides a window into the diversity of our societies. However, much of the multilingualism in our societies is ignored or overlooked, and monolingual ideologies underlie a lot of the discourses that shape many Western societies in particular. Although multilingualism is associated with mobility, productivity and knowledge creation, monolingualism continues to be the norm, with linguistic diversity seen as both suspicious and costly.

Linguistic nationalism

While it is true that there have been attempts at transnational and national level to address the opportunities and challenges brought about by increased linguistic diversity, the management of such diversity on many levels continues to be influenced by the traditional foundations of linguistic nationalism. Such foundations have tended to be based on

the principles of linguistic homogeneity, nativeness and monolingualism. These principles have kept in place a social order which has come to be characterised by socioeconomic hierarchies and inequalities, with linguistic difference playing a key role.

Such principles also constituted – and continue to penetrate – the basic epistemologies of linguistics itself, giving primacy to the ‘native’, ‘first language’, ‘mother tongue’ speaker of a language as a linguistic model over the ‘non-native’ or ‘second language’ speaker.1 In the current social and political climate, we are seeing an even greater return to monolingual regimes, leading to linguistic intolerance.

The monolingual status quo which led to my son’s supermarket experience is rarely questioned, despite the fact that more than 150 languages are used in the UK. Britain is a multilingual society, although a lot of that multilingualism is not recognised and is almost completely absent from the public sphere.

Multilingual speakers very often do not demand services in their own languages. Many don’t have to because they can communicate in English. Many restrict the use of their other languages to the privacy of their own home – sometimes as a means of fitting in and sometimes because it makes life easier. It is, however, when these languages become more visible and are used in the public space that questions are asked: “Why are you speaking that language?”, “What are you saying?”, “Are you talking about me?” or “Are you laughing at me?”

Linguistic intolerance covers up other kinds of intolerance, of course, often linked to race, social class or ethnic group. Sometimes language can be an easy target, and being insulted about the language you speak – or the way you speak it – is not always seen as a form of discrimination. It can often be hidden in statements such as: “I don’t mind people speaking those languages in their own homes, and it is good they keep their languages, but in public we speak English so people need to adapt to it in order to integrate.”

Brexit and acceptable intolerance

The example of linguistic intolerance in an Edinburgh supermarket can be placed in the context of tensions around Brexit. It suddenly became more acceptable to question ‘otherness’ and set up markers of differences, with language being just one of them. Numerous examples have been reported in the media, including a call for an English-only policy for new migrants to the UK; Polish workers being banned from speaking Polish in the workplace; and insults levied at a Muslim woman in Wales, who was told to speak English when in fact she was speaking Welsh.

In a post-Brexit context, there have been incidents of verbal abuse and even physical violence. However, this is not particular to the UK. In Denmark, a growth in migration created tensions and increased linguistic intolerance around the need to speak better Danish. In France, President Sarkozy attacked the burkini and told migrants to speak French. Across the pond, Trump supporters called on him to make English the official language of the US, while on the day the Trump administration took over, Spanish was removed from the White House website.

So how then can we explain such acts of linguistic intolerance? Where do these ideas come from? How should we, as linguists, react? Behind these acts of linguistic intolerance are beliefs and ideologies about language which have become so deeply engrained that they are no longer questioned. An example is the ideology that monolingualism is the norm and that multilingualism, in contrast, is at best exotic and at worst dangerous and out of place.

Linked to this is the ideology of anonymity, whereby hegemonic languages such as English hold authority as the unquestioned ‘normal’ language: the lingua franca or neutral language which belongs to everyone and is appropriate for use in the public sphere. This leads to a naturalisation of linguistic authority, which allows institutionally or demographically dominant languages, such as English in the UK or US and French in France, to consolidate their position into one of hegemony. Their superordinate position is thereby naturalised, taken for granted and placed beyond question. When another language enters the same public space, thereby undermining this superordinate position, its presence is questioned and its speakers seen as disruptive of the status quo.

‘Deviant’ native tongues

This is also relevant in the context of some of Europe’s minoritised languages.2 Galician, Basque and Catalan hold co-official status in their autonomous communities, but Spanish is still the official language of the State. In certain contexts, the use of these minority languages can be seen as deviant or out of place compared with the ‘neutral’ use of Spanish.3

We see a similar pattern with languages such as Irish, Welsh and Gaelic in contact with English. Having lived in Scotland for 10 years, I have become familiar with discussions around the place of Gaelic in the public space, with frequent media outbursts about Gaelic being a waste of money, and tensions around visibility of the language on road signs. Because of the hegemony of English, groups which demand language rights for Gaelic, Irish etc can be seen as insular – or not global enough – in their thinking, as opposed to the perceived neutrality and cosmopolitanism of English.

English has become the language from ‘nowhere’, and millions of non-native speakers around the world have now made it their own. However, for some, English has also come to represent a particular culture – this sometimes revolves around neoliberal ideologies and sometimes relates to injustice or domination. So, essentially, there is no such thing as a neutral language.

Accents vs access

Similarly, there is no such thing as a neutral way of speaking – i.e. not having an accent. Intolerance is not restricted to the use of a certain language, but also relates to the way of speaking it and whether or not you are a so-called ‘native’ speaker. Legitimacy is often given to the native speaker, and native-speaker ideologies are strong in linguistics and related strands. But what, then, of the non-native speaker? What legitimacy do they have to speak, to write, to translate, to teach? Their non-nativeness denies them authenticity and authority because they don’t sound native.

Speaking with an accent can have serious consequences in terms of access and credibility – of being accepted as one of ‘us’ – and have repercussions in terms of people’s ability to access resources such as the labour market and education. Following the Brexit vote, there were reports of linguistic intolerance relating to the way new speakers of English were using the language. Hate crimes increased fivefold in the week after the vote.4 Economist Marianna Koli, who had lived in the UK since moving from her native Finland, told how she experienced what she says was her first racist incident in 16 years when a passer-by shouted, “I like your accent”. While the comment in itself was not explicitly negative, the woman perceived it as threatening in a Brexit context, where she was being explicitly labelled because of her accent and therefore perceived as foreign. 

Many studies have shown that accent has a strong influence on the way in which people are perceived and then treated.5 Even though we don’t like to admit it – or perhaps no longer realise we are doing it – we often judge people because of their accent and the way they speak. We associate certain accents with certain ethnic groups, social class and race.

An experiment in France showed that the way people speak has a striking influence on whether they can access housing. Two people contacted estate agents to arrange a viewing for a flat: ‘Anne’, with a standard French accent, was three times more likely to get a viewing than ‘Babacar’, who had an African accent. He was asked if his salary was three times the rent by 40% of the estate agents, while Anne was only asked 10% of the time.6

The responsibility of linguists

Linguistics as a field, and we as linguists, have played our part in legitimising many of the concepts and much of the terminology used in linguistics today. One such concept is that of the native speaker versus the non-native speaker. There has been a good deal of work in recent years which questions the basic epistemologies of linguistics and related strands, which had previously been unquestioned and taken for granted.

The EU-funded project ‘New Speakers in a Multilingual Europe: Opportunities and challenges’ advocated for terminological changes, replacing the term ‘non-native speaker’ with ‘new speaker’. As such, it drew attention to the debate around what it means to be a ‘non-native’ speaker of a language, questioning the deficiency model inherent in being the ‘non’ native user.

The term ‘new speakers’ refers to individuals and groups who adopt and use a language variety other than their native language. It includes all multilingual citizens who, by engaging with languages other than their ‘native’ or ‘national’ language(s), need to cross existing social boundaries, re-evaluate their levels of linguistic competence and creatively (re)structure their social practices to adapt to new and overlapping linguistic spaces.7

I’d like to share the story of one such new speaker: the story of Dawid. Originally from Poland, Dawid became a new speaker of English after settling in the UK in 2002, but this did not happen overnight and his language-learning journey had many challenges. Dawid had learned English at school from an early age and had a good grasp of the language. However, he spoke “with an accent” and felt that his English was not as good as he wanted it to be. This made him nervous about applying for jobs in his specialised field (engineering), so he applied for temporary hotel work and cleaning jobs, hoping that this would help to improve his English.

Unfortunately, in these jobs a lot of his colleagues were also Polish speakers, so he did not get much exposure to English. At night, he was often too tired after a long day at work to attend formal classes or do self-study.8 In the longer term, his English did begin to improve, mainly when his son started school. Initially, he questioned whether he should be speaking Polish to his son and worried that this would confuse him – another of the myths about bilingualism which feeds into monolingual ideologies.

Who’s proficient anyway?

While Dawid came to the UK with a good grasp of English, this is not always the case, and many newcomers require translation and interpreting. This is, of course, a contentious political issue which frequently creeps back into public discourse. A few years ago there were talks about cutting social welfare payments for those who did not speak English. Even those who speak enough English to get by may need interpreting services: asking for a pint of milk in the shop, for example, is not the same as trying to defend oneself in a court of law.

The important question that needs to be asked is what do we mean by proficiency, who decides this and what are the consequences for individuals? These are questions which are pertinent to linguistics and those in the linguistic professions. We need to ask ourselves, ‘How should we react to these situations, if at all?’

It is, I think, important for us as linguists to question the different levels of linguistic intolerance in our societies. Often it is not seen as intolerance because such behaviours and ways of thinking have become the norm, and it is our job to challenge these norms. It is also our job to be self-reflective and self-critical of our own practices and our own monolingual ideologies, which are so deeply engrained that we tend to accept them without question.

In 2008, a Group of Intellectuals was set up to advise the European Commission on the contribution of multilingualism to intercultural dialogue. They proposed the idea of a personal adoptive language, arguing that for those Europeans whose mother tongue occupies a dominant position in the world, acquiring a personal adoptive language would be particularly important in order to avoid remaining isolated in monolingualism. This is perhaps a lesson for us all.

This is a shortened version of Bernadette O’Rourke’s Threlford Memorial Lecture, delivered at Members’ Day on 16 March.



1 O’Rourke, B and Pujolar, J (2015) ‘New Speakers and Processes of New Speakerness Across Time and Space’. In Applied Linguistics Review. 6,2, 145-150

2 For a broader discussion on minority languages see Hogan-Brun, G and O’Rourke, B (2019) The Palgrave Handbook of Minority Languages and Communities, London: Palgrave Macmillan

3 See O’Rourke, B (2019) ‘Carving Out Breathing Spaces for Galician: New speakers’ investment in monolingual practices’. In Jaspers, J and Madsen LM (eds) Critical Perspectives on Linguistic Fixity and Fluidity: Languagised lives, Oxon: Routledge

4 Jones, B (1/7/16) ‘Hate Crimes Up Fivefold in Week After UK Vote to Leave EU’. CNN

5 Cunha de Souza, LE et al (1/7/16) ‘The Legitimizing Role of Accent on Discrimination Against Immigrants’. In European Journal of Social Psychology, 46,5, 609-620

6 Cazenave, F (19/2/14) ‘Discrimination: un testing épingle les agents immobiliers’. In Le Monde

7 O’Rourke, B and Pujolar, J (2019) ‘From New Speaker to Speaker: Outcomes, reflections and policy recommendations from COST Action IS1306 on “New Speakers in a Multilingual Europe: Opportunities and challenges”.’ IAITH: Welsh Centre for Language Planning

8 For a discussion of similar examples see Holm, E, O’Rourke, B and Danson, M (2019) ‘Employers Could Use Us, But They Don’t. Voices from blue-collar workplaces in a northern periphery.’ In Language Policy, Springer

Bernadette O’Rourke HonFCIL is Professor of Sociolinguistics and Hispanic Studies at the University of Glasgow. Her research focuses on the role of language in the construction of social difference and inequalities. She is co-author of the Palgrave Handbook of Minority Languages and Communities.