Answers from Our Experts (3)
London is a hugely diverse city, with hundreds of languages spoken by its approximately 8 million inhabitants. The most widely used is of course English, but around 22% of residents have another mother tongue. The most common other languages you'll hear in the city are Polish, Bengali, Gujurati, French, Urdu and Arabic. The 2011 Census revealed that over 100 languages are spoken in 30 of London's 33 boroughs, meaning that this astonishing diversity is to be found right across the capital.
But this variety isn't the only notable feature of London's linguistic landscape. Listen closely to the English spoken by the natives and you might hear some unexpected things. If someone told you to 'use your loaf' for example, or described a friend as having 'huge plates', would you understand what they meant? Probably not, because deciphering both these phrases relies on a knowledge of Cockney Rhyming Slang, a form of phrase construction that developed in the East End of London in the 19th century. The slang involves substituting a word with a short phrase that rhymes with it. The rhyming word is then dropped. Thus 'head' becomes 'loaf of bread', then just 'loaf', while 'feet' becomes 'plates of meat', then ultimately 'plates'. There are hundreds of examples, with new variants evolving all the time, but only a handful are used in common parlance these days. So now you know – why not get on the dog and tell a china about it?
London can claim to be the most multicultural city on the planet and, as a result, one of the most multilingual. It is hard to put an exact figure on just how many different languages are spoken in the city, but we can be sure that it is more than 300 - so you could hear just about any language, anywhere in the city.
Some of the most common languages spoken in London are Polish, Bengali, Gujarati, Punjabi, Cantonese and Mandarin - which gives you a clue as to where our residents are coming from!
That being said, English is the city's primary language and it remains the mother tongue of the majority of people living here. It is almost impossible to find anywhere that English is not understood.
English is used as the main language in all the major tourist attractions and few places translate live speech into any other language. However, attractions offering audio guides will always have these in a wide range of languages and most attractions also provide information in numerous different languages, especially the major European languages, Chinese and Japanese. Many of London's central pubs and restaurants also have staff who speak more than one language.
As you would probably expect, the vast majority of Londoners speak English as a first language — even if it doesn't always sound like it — and if you stick to the mother tongue you will be understood pretty much everywhere you venture. However, as a long-established multicultural capital, London can also boast an extraordinary range of other world languages spoken within its borders – more than 300, in fact.
It's hardly a surprise to discover Mandarin and Cantonese widely spoken throughout the city's Chinatown, and other long-established communities that speak non-English languages are becoming a normal part of life; from Bangladeshi in Bethnal Green to Yiddish in Stamford Hill. But the fact is that people of different backgrounds, with different languages, live and work right across the city, so don't be surprised to hear restaurant staff, officials or people on the street speaking just about anything from Polish to Arabic to Urdu.