UK Languages

The United Kingdom (UK) is a melting pot of different languages, with English and its interesting dialects, various other indigenous languages, and many foreign languages spoken by residents of the UK. 

What Is the official language of the UK? 

English might seem the obvious answer to this question, with the UK being the birthplace of this language. However, surprisingly, there is no law declaring English the official language of the UK. 

English is the most common language in the UK. According to the UK census of 2011, it is spoken by 59.8 million speakers or 98% of the UK’s population.

It is predominantly used almost everywhere except in a few Northern Scotland and Wales areas, where some people also speak regional languages fluently alongside English. English is more dominant in England than in other parts of the UK.

In fact, English is just the de facto official language of the UK, which means it is not legally sanctioned as official but spoken by the majority. People in the UK speak English in numerous different dialects; you might even mistake some dialects for a completely new language.

The UK is a sovereign state consisting of four countries: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. England and Scotland do not have any official languages. Northern Ireland’s official languages are English and Irish. Wales has a de jure (legally official) language called Welsh and Northern Ireland’s secon. 

Besides English and Welsh, twelve other indigenous languages are spoken in the UK, including Breton, Irish, Gaelic, Cornish, Manx, Scots, and three sign languages. The most spoken language is English, while the least used is Cornish.

English vs other indigenous languages

The UK has an incredibly rich history when it comes to languages. 

People in different parts of the British Isles spoke different languages – mainly Celtic or Gaelic languages-  making inter-regional communication difficult.

English was dominant across most of the island, but became ubiquitous in the 19th century, leading to a steady decline in the number of people who could speak other indigenous languages. 

Rather than seeing English as a unifying element, the majorities who preferred using their regional language were hesitant about its widespread growth. It created political tension amongst different nations in the UK.

However, English still became the primary language due to the following reasons:

  • Irish had remained the first language for half of the Irish population till 1800. However, the Great Famine of the 1840s caused many native speakers to die or immigrate to other areas. They had to settle down in other areas where English was predominantly used.
  • Moreover, the high usage rates automatically made English the primary language without coercion. Although the use of other languages was never officially prohibited (to force them out of public use), learning English had become crucial to advance in society. Most schools started teaching in English, marking the need for everyone to master this language. 

What language do Scottish people speak?

Three widely used native languages in Scotland are English, Scots, and Gaelic. 

Scots is the most popular language in the UK after English. Similar to English, this language is spoken by 1.5 million people in Scotland (that’s just over a quarter of people living in Scotland) and is considered a crucial part of Scotland’s national identity.

Gaelic was the founding language of Scotland. Most Scottish people spoke Gaelic in the past, a fact quite evident from the rich history of the country and the Gaelic names of most places. However, Gaelic is now an almost endangered language with less than 60,000 daily speakers in the UK. 

While Gaelic was the main language in Scotland’s Highlands and Islands, Scots became the dominant language in the Lowlands. Unlike Gaelic, the Scots language is far closer in style to English, and the controversy of whether it is a separate language or a dialect has continued for many years. Scots was recently accepted as a regional language by the UK government under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.

Arabic, Farsi, Dutch, French, Hebrew, German, Hindi, Japanese, Italian, Kurdish, Mandarin, Makaton, Punjabi, Spanish, Polish, Turkish, and Urdu are popular foreign languages spoken in Scotland by immigrants.

What languages are spoken in Wales?

Wales is bilingual with two official languages; English and Welsh. You can find roads signs in both English and Welsh when you visit Wales.

English is the most commonly used language in day to day life. Welsh is increasingly commonly spoken and holds official status in limited but important circumstances established by the law. Both have the same significance in the Welsh parliament. Most people in Wales can speak English, while only a quarter of the entire population can speak Welsh to different levels of fluency.

After Scots, Welsh is the next most popular language, having 900,000 speakers in the UK. It is the only language in the UK that holds a legal status but is still not spoken as much as English, even in Wales. Only 19% of the population of Wales speak Welsh compared to the 99% who speak English.

Welsh stems from the Celtic language spoken by the ancient Britons living in Britain long before the Roman occupation in 43 AD. That Celtic language later evolved into a Brythonic version from which the languages of Welsh, Cornish, and Breton were developed later. The Welsh Bill in 1992 gave it the same status as English in all public organizations.

Languages spoken in Northern Ireland

There are two official languages spoken in Northern Ireland – English and Irish. English is by far the most commonly spoken and used in day to day life, but a significant minority (around 11%) of people claim to have some knowledge of the language. 3.7% of the population reported in 2011 that they could speak, write and understand Irish.

Additionally Ulster Scots, a variant of Scots, has been designated as a language with official minority status. This means that some documents and public services can be provided in Ulster Scots. In the 2011 census, 0.9% of people in Northern Ireland reported that they could speak, read, write and understand Ulster Scots.

Other British indigenous languages

Other minor indigenous languages spoken in the UK include Angloromani, Scottish Gaelic, Shelta, Irish, and Cornish. 

Foreign languages spoken in the UK

The UK is one of the main immigration hubs in Europe. Therefore, it has experienced an influx of numerous foreign languages. Here are some of the most spoken foreign languages in the UK.

  • Polish became one of the biggest immigrant languages after Poland joined the European Union in 2004. 
  • Languages from India and Pakistan are also commonly spoken in the UK because of England’s connection with India during the 19th and 20th centuries. They include Punjabi, Urdu, Bangladeshi, and Gujarati. 
  • Besides these languages, people in the UK also speak Arabic, French, Chinese, Portuguese, and Spanish

According to the UK Census 2011, the top five foreign languages (that is, non-indigenous languages) in the UK can be summarized below:

LanguageSpeakers
Polish546,000
Punjabi273,231
Urdu268,680
Bengali221,403
Gujarati213,094