The language class system

The Language Class System: How Desirable is your Language?

Class systems will be familiar to almost everyone around the world. Us Brits, in particular, are renowned for our entrenched class system. In fact, if you want a laugh, try this social class calculator to see which of the UK’s seven social classes you fit into.

But it’s not just the British who are obsessed with class. Like it or not, there’s even a class system for languages, with countries around the world attaching a higher status to some languages than others. In multilingual countries, the status of a language carries so much weight that it determines whether it thrives or struggles to survive over the long term.

Anecdotal evidence of the language class system

There are many examples of the language class system in practice around the world. For example, in US schools, many students prefer not to and even refuse to learn Spanish because they see it as a lower-class language. Instead, they choose to learn languages they perceive to be aspirational, such as French or Italian, which in reality are of less practical use.

It is also common for immigrants to encourage their own children to speak the language of their destination country and not value their own native tongue. A consequence of this classism is that native language skills rarely last long across immigrant populations.

Another example of language classism can be seen in the cultural melting pot that is Eurovision. Certain countries like Denmark and Azerbaijan have never entered a song in their own language. Instead, they borrow languages like English, French and Spanish.

Additive and subtractive bilingualism

It’s fairly unusual for a language to have an almost universal high status, but English enjoys a high social cachet almost everywhere you go. However, most other languages are the subject of ‘additive’ or ‘subtractive’ bilingualism based on the region they are spoken in.

Subtractive bilingualism – In the multilingual Netherlands, those speaking languages like Dutch, English and German won’t be expected to give up their language due to their high status in that region. However, Polish, Turkish or Arabic speakers would be expected to add to their existing canon with a high-status language such as English or Dutch. This is an example of subtractive bilingualism, as the native languages of immigrants are quickly replaced.

Additive bilingualism – Over the last decade, the Polish language has become much more widely spoken in the UK, where it recently became the second-largest minority language after Welsh. There have also been some efforts to encourage Polish language education in the UK, which is an example of additive bilingualism in action. The fact that Urdu, Punjabi and Gujarati are also taught in some UK schools shows there is an element of additive bilingualism taking place.

Where English dominates it’s difficult to compete

Two of the laziest countries in terms of language learning are undoubtedly the UK and the US. The high status of the English language around the world reinforces its dominance in countries where English is the native language and that makes it difficult for other languages to compete.

However, when it comes to marketing businesses and selling goods and services overseas, the dominance of the English language means UK companies often need a little assistance, and that’s where we can help.

At Linguistica International, we provide leading translation, transcreation, copywriting and telephone interpreting services that allow you to speak your target market’s language, wherever you are. To find out more, please email or call 02392 987 765 today.