The debate about the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union is, belatedly, underway, according to France’s former Ambassador to the Court of St James, HE Sylvie Bermann. In theory, this should be prompting a wide-ranging discussion around what it means to be in the UK in this period of intensified globalization, including questions of migration, freedom of movement, and economics.
At the start of the summer, the journal Language, Society and Policy was launched at the British Academy, with the Baroness Coussins – a long-standing advocate of modern languages in the life of the UK – calling for greater prominence for multilingualism in British life. In particular, she called for a recognition of the value of multilingualism, and an acknowledgement of it as an everyday, lived reality for British citizens. At the journal launch, the scope for the representation of multilingualism in British cultural life was highlighted.
As someone who doesn’t watch soaps, I can’t comment on the visibility and audibility of multilingualism on British television, but now is the moment for me to reveal myself as a close follower of The Archers, BBC Radio 4’s drama set in a fictional farming community in the county of Borsetshire. The issue at stake is not the ethnic diversity of the characters – a question that has been raised with regards to EastEnders. Here, the debate turns on the extent to which listeners to The Archers (and other cultural products that punctuate people’s viewing and listening habits) are exposed to languages other than English.
The Archers has engaged with Brexit and the consequences of the ending of subsidies – implausibly, enlightened Adam Macy (who has long advocated a more creative approach to farming) was a Eurosceptic, whilst equally implausibly, conservative and cautious David Archer was a Remainer. More pressing for Adam and all at Home Farm is the free movement of labour, since the soft-fruit enterprise is almost entirely dependent on east European workers.
And here’s the worry about the workers from Bulgaria, Romania, and Poland: they never get to speak in their first language. Clearly, in a multilingual community in the countryside outside Birmingham, the working language amongst the pickers of different nationalities is going to be English. However, no matter how closely I listened, not a single exchange took place in Polish, Romanian, or Czech. It’s true that Lexi – the Bulgarian picker given a short but not insignificant role – took us through the challenges of learning English and mastering idioms that characters suddenly started to use in her presence, as if seeking to remind her that The People have voted to leave this kind of multilingual funny business. However, there were plenty of opportunities – at the annual barbecue for the pickers that the Brits pack out to signal to the workers who is boss, or at the village fête where things turned ugly and those dreadful incomers from the housing estate were given the space to air their racist views – for the non-British characters to say a few words in Lithuanian or Slovakian.
I appreciate that there is a technical challenge here – radio can’t do subtitles – but I’m not suggesting that entire plot-lines are conveyed in any language other than English. And I fully acknowledge that a dusting of Polish or Bulgarian might disorient the listeners – but in part, that’s the point. I often ask why these things matter, and in this case, there is a need to take opportunities (even just greetings between Latvians arriving at The Bull for a post-work swift half) to present multilingualism back to the British public. Wherever we’re going in post-Brexit Britain, it’s not back to a mythical monolingual past, and the soaps – including The Archers – have both the chance and the duty to present the realities of multilingualism to their audiences, even if that means a moment or two of not knowing exactly what Konstantin or Pawel are saying.