Colombian flags flank the entrance to La Bodeguita, the unassuming café I walk into for my first coffee of the day. I’m lulled in not merely by the scent — though my caffeine-deprived senses have perked up at the promise of their next hit — but the bouncy rhythm of a Latin tune playing inside. Behind the counter, five members of staff talk loudly in Spanish over one another, their voices rising to a crescendo before crashing into laughter. One turns to acknowledge me. “Hola,” she says. “Hola. Un café latte, por favor,” I reply, grateful for the crumbs’ worth of Spanish my brain has retained since GCSEs.
I’d love to seem cool enough to be relaying adventures from my foreign travels, but this is actually SE1. Elephant and Castle shopping centre, to be exact; it’s London-meets-Latin-America (minus the sunshine), as the area is home to the biggest Latin American community in the city. I want to know how important it is for non-native Londoners to speak in their mother tongue. As if clarifying my point, the waitress I ask looks at me perplexed and replies: “No se…”, and points to her colleague.
“Our customers are mostly from Latin America, so I’m speaking Spanish more than English”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently claimed there are parts of London where ‘English is not spoken by some people as their first language’ and ‘that needs to be changed’. He pledged to make immigrants learn English to ‘feel British’. His comments sparked outrage from people who felt he was disrespecting ethnic minorities and centuries-old languages. Even his sister Rachel was baffled. “We spoke Ancient Greek at home I genuinely don’t know what he’s on about,” she tweeted.
London is culturally and linguistically diverse, with more than 100 different languages spoken in virtually every borough. The majority of Londoners speak English as their first language, but a good 22% say they speak another main language. This linguistic richness is visually brought to life via Tube Tongues, a map of the most common second languages by tube stop, created by urban data visualiser Oliver O’Brien.
Polish, Punjabi, French, Arabic – it shows how languages cluster into distinct areas. That’s also true of the Spanish-speakers I meet in Elephant and Castle. They don’t think English should be their first language to feel part of society. “Our customers are mostly from Latin America, so I’m speaking Spanish more than English,” Gleida De La Cruz, a waitress at Castle Brasserie, tells me. “It’s useful because you can get to know the people here.”
“I prefer it because you build a connection with others,” says Colombian-born Elizabeth Duque, shop assistant at Medellin Y Su Moda. Owner of alteration shop Nicole’s Claudia Bernal says she gets ‘the best of both worlds’ speaking to her Latin and English customers. I see this for myself — we’re interrupted by customers stopping by with a casual ‘que tal?’, and Claudia slips comfortably into and out of both tongues.
The area is undergoing a major redevelopment that could see many of the Latin locals displaced as house prices and rent inevitably rise. But Claudia isn’t worried. “We’ve been here for 20 years and we’ll always be a strong community.”
“I speak English for work, but I am away from my country so talking Arabic makes me feel closer to it”
My next stop is also famed for its locals flexing their mother tongue’s muscles: Edgware Road. If you’ve never been, just think of it as a vibrant, cacophonic souk lifted from a Middle Eastern street and plonked onto this stretch of road in west London. Signs, music, voices, even car horns all shout in Arabic. Being Iraqi-Lebanese, my ears are well-tuned to this unmistakably Arab soundtrack.
Standing outside a community centre to meet charity worker Yusuf Anwar, I can’t help but eavesdrop on the conversation next to me. The trio switch from Arabic to English smoothly, performing a linguistic cross-stitch between the two. It sounds natural, like they’re creating their own hybrid vernacular (Arabish?). Yusuf is more comfortable using his first language and asks to have our conversation about speaking Arabic… in Arabic. “I speak English for work, but I am away from my country so talking Arabic makes me feel closer to it,” the Bahraini tells me.
His friend, freelance videographer Mohamed Alaradi, feels the same. “Many people don’t want to lose their home language or don’t feel as confident to speak English — both are the case for me.
“But I think you should at least know the basics in English to communicate with people.”
Exposure to other languages can make children’s grasp of English stronger, says Hazik Rehman, a financial contractor. “At home we speak a mix of Urdu and English with our three kids, and we’re teaching them Arabic.
“I think it makes their grasp of English richer.”
He’s right – data gathered by the Department for Education shows that students who speak English as a second language are outperforming native speakers at GCSEs. “My kids can feel both British and Asian because they’re bilingual,” Hazik says.
“Elderly customers find comfort coming here and speaking their first language”
That dual identity is noticeable across London’s multilingual boroughs. You only have to wander along Brick Lane to feel the South Asian vibes, from the throng of curry houses to the English-and-Bengali street signs. I hear a conversation in the latter tongue as I enter Madhubon sweet shop.
The owner is on the phone but comes over to me. When I start speaking English, he points to the woman behind the counter. “My husband is more fluent in Bengali and I’m more fluent in English, so it’s helpful for business to have that balance,” explains Shabana Choudhury.
She says 80% of their customers are Bengali speakers, some of whom have weekly social gatherings in the shop. “Our more elderly customers who can’t speak much English find comfort coming here and speaking their first language,” she says, “it makes them feel like they belong.”
Not speaking English as your first language is part of London’s multicultural beauty. While it’s important to know and use English, the people I spoke to demonstrate that being a Londoner is about celebrating all sides of your identity. The multitude of mother tongues in London makes the city linguistically and culturally wealthier, stuffing its wallet with words and traditions from many backgrounds.
Rather than trying to change it, as Johnson wants to, let’s embrace the diversity of languages Londoners use. We would scarcely be the crème de la crème of multicultural cities without it.