Musings on Multilingualism in London and Mumbai

Shortly after I posted this, a slightly earlier version of the article was (finally!) published by the online magazine Scroll here.

“When we want to be dramatic or romantic,” Sangeeta informed me, “we speak Hindi. When we want to be formal, we speak English. But when we want to respect our family culture, we speak Marathi.”

I nod, enviously conscious of the fact that for me and many of my fellow Brits, conversation, whether formal or romantic, is mostly restricted to English. Yet the everyday multilingualism described by Sangeeta, a young graduate from a Mumbai suburb, is familiar to the point of cliché across India. Take my friend Murtaza, an architect based in Mumbai’s Lower Parel. I’ve heard him conduct business calls in Gujarati, then speak to his girlfriend in Hindi before Skyping his family in Mewari, all the while maintaining an English conversation with me.

Recently, I have found myself drawing comparisons between the linguistic life of my adopted home city, London, and the city that forms the basis of my academic research, Mumbai. London is frequently claimed as one of the world’s most multilingual cities, with 300 or more languages in regular use. Even on a short stroll through the city I wouldn’t be surprised to hear snippets of conversation in English, French, Urdu, Polish and Somali alongside numerous languages I cannot identify. For some this is a sign of cosmopolitanism to be celebrated, while for others, like comedian John Cleese, it makes for a London that is “no longer English”. A similar phenomenon was described by one Captain Hall who roamed the bazaars of Bombay (as Mumbai then was) in 1812 and heard “the sounds of every language” he had ever heard elsewhere. A century later, Joseph Gerson da Cunha described the city as a “real Babel of tongues”.

London Diversity

London diversity (credit:

Clearly there are some similarities between the two cities, but I can’t help wondering whether sheer number of languages spoken is an appropriate yardstick to measure the multilingualism of a place. In London, according to the 2011 UK Census, nearly four fifths of the city’s residents speak English as their main language, while the next five most widely spoken languages (Polish, Bengali, Gujarati, Urdu and Punjabi) only account for 1-2% each of the population. In Mumbai, by contrast, no one language is the mother tongue of more than half the city’s population. The frontrunner, at around 45%, is Marathi, while slightly under 20% each speak Gujarati and Hindi as a first language. Other languages spoken include Tamil, Sindhi, Kannada and Konkani.

Furthermore, the British, unlike Indians, are hardly noted for their polyglot tendencies, and nearly two thirds of the country speak only English. Of course, in multicultural London there is a higher prevalence of bilingualism, but even so, the dominance of English in public life is overwhelming. With a few exceptions, such as the use of French at St Pancras International Station and Bengali street signs around Brick Lane, public signs and announcements tend to be English only. Likewise, the vast majority of London’s schools teach in English medium.

In Mumbai, conversely, the trappings of official polyglossia are everywhere. Street signs are bilingual in English and Marathi at the very least, while trilingual station signs and railway announcements include Hindi too. Schools, meanwhile, operate in each of these language media, or in others such as Gujarati, Urdu and Tamil. Does this make Mumbai the more multilingual of the two cities? My own feeling is that treating multilingualism as a scale is meaningless in this context, and that it makes more sense to think of the two cities as multilingual in very different ways.


Trilingual station sign in Marathi (top), Hindi (middle) and English (credit: Wikimedia Commons, user Superfast1111)

In London, you can get by your entire life speaking only English, and would live a restricted life without it. Indeed, despite the populist perception that the British metropolis is overrun with foreigners who don’t speak a word of English, Census data indicate that only around 3% of Londoners can’t speak English even to a basic level. In Mumbai too, many regard English as the passport to commercial success, and the furious uptake of English-medium education has been likened to an “English storm”. I have met several Mumbaikars who went to a Marathi medium school themselves but are determined that their children be schooled in English.

Simultaneously, however, a regionalist orientation in local government has pushed the Marathi agenda into prominence in recent decades. Directives have been issued for all state schools to teach Marathi, for buildings to display nameplates in Marathi and even for multiplex cinemas to allocate a certain number of screenings each year to Marathi films. This also appears to extend to law enforcement. “All the cops here speak Marathi,” Murtaza once told me, “so if you get into trouble it pays to know some of the language.” Others have gone further, hinting at darker consequences for failure to speak Marathi. More constructive, however, are private initiatives such as Mumbai resident Kaushik Lele’s excellent Learn Marathi blog which has been a lifeline for many students of the language (including me).

Despite these moves, the language most commonly heard in public (at least outside the Marathi-dominated former cotton mill belt) is, arguably, Hindi. While the city has a sizeable population with roots in Hindi-speaking North India, the use of Hindi extends well beyond this community. Indeed, Mumbai is famous for its “Bambaiya” variety which has been celebrated as a “mongrel language” by historian Gyan Prakash and functions as a lingua franca across the city. More than one North Indian acquaintance has admitted to me that mastering the nuances of Bambaiya felt more of a priority than learning Marathi when they settled in Mumbai.

Again, speaking as a monolingually-raised Brit, the idea of London or any other British city functioning in a language other than English is hard to imagine. Equally hard to imagine is London as the centre of a world-famous French or German film industry. I therefore forgive my 18-year old self, arriving in Mumbai for the first time in 2003, for assuming that Bollywood produced Marathi films. Actually, the most accurate label for the language of Bollywood films is a matter of ongoing debate. Hindi? Hindustani? Some even suggest Urdu, and arguably the fact that Bollywood gets dragged into cross-border politics with Pakistan is an indirect consequence of the linguistic (if not cultural) unity of Hindi and Urdu.


Poster for Anarkali with Hindi, English and Urdu text (credit:

Meanwhile, the more explicitly linguistic brand of identity politics that Mumbai continues to experience has faint parallels in London. Ethnolinguistic identity is increasingly coming under the spotlight in the wake of the “Brexit” vote to leave the European Union. Successive British governments have demonised those immigrants not yet able to speak English, while in 2016 PM Theresa May damned cosmopolitanism everywhere by proclaiming that “If you believe you are a citizen of the world you are a citizen of nowhere.”

So far, neither city seems to be losing linguistic richness as a result. London retains the edge in terms of number and diversity of languages spoken, although in practical terms it is dominated by English. In Mumbai linguistic capital is more evenly distributed. English may be essential for getting ahead, but Marathi remains the most widely spoken mother tongue, and its importance in greasing the wheels of diplomacy is perhaps growing. And regarding Hindi, I’ll let Sangeeta have the (almost) last word: “in times of crisis and riots, Bollywood binds Mumbai together. Everybody speaks Hindi. Everybody understands Hindi songs.” Not, I suspect, entirely accurate, but nevertheless profoundly sincere.



On the Bus: Overheard on the 171

A young lady of about 30, evidently connected to the theatre, talks into her phone without apparent inhibition:

“And I said ‘Look. If you’re going to dislike me could you at least do it quietly?’ I just really hate loud public drama… He said that last night they’d slept without touching for the first time ever and apparently it’s my fault. And I just thought, ‘You know what? I’m really not interested in your sleeping arrangements.’ Do you know what I mean? …Stephen Sondheim’s boyfriend came over to our table… I’m thinking let’s just call Stephen and ask him.”

An earnest man talks to an earnest-looking woman who remains largely silent:

“A central theme in the Titanic is the lack of integrity of the middle classes. They completely lack soul and so they parasitize the working classes. It’s like in Brixton Village Market. They sell champagne now and it’s just the same price as it would be anywhere in London. And all the places there are like that now, right in the middle of an old working class district. I feel really uncomfortable in that place.”

A loud, drunk, nerd bellows at his companion in what is apparently English:

“Yeah I played it. It was really weird. It had no verticality. It didn’t talk about game information. I love Star but… One of the other sources that I listened to said that the GVC was really biased because nobody wants to play. 12 people came in and they wanted to play but it was really aggressive because nobody wanted to play a support role. No engineers, no spies. The sources that I listened to say that this totally invalidated the class…

“There was all this class synergy that we could look at and see…

“There’s a thing. It’s really important but I can’t show it to you…!

“I totally and utterly agree, it was the equivalent of seven years ago and everyone playing Level 2… You know as well as I do that 66 is two soldiers and a demo. There is no one single key to fit all locks…

“… new version of Overwatch… the opinion of people that played it. Yes there are class-class encounters… the bigger meta… One time out of ten you have the non-verbal polls and it works… What we consider in the FBS as an encounter…

“…and I know that I sound like an arsehole…

“By having 14 classes at this point maybe more… if you diversify too much it explodes. As someone who plays primarily sport classes, primarily Medic, I have the scenario when I got to the last minute and I have built up 80% uber and my team fucking disappears. Do I let them die? Or do I go in with 80% uber? I am SO potentially talking out of my arse right now…

“I cannot conceive of myself at this point of time being a professional [game name I didn’t catch] player. I’m too old, too disaffected…”

On the bus: three London vignettes

These all occurred over six years ago, but they could have happened yesterday.

Route 250: Between Norbury and Thornton Heath (August 2008)
A Jamaican woman is screaming down her phone, slamming her fist. “I’m goin’ home to pray for my sister, because she’s a wicked woman! She’s a wicked woman. Dem church people doin’ shit. She’s a wicked woman!” Her anger seems to be welling up from a bottomless pit connected to an ocean of every conceivable evil: racism, slavery, oppression, depression, poverty, depravity, disease… Yet suddenly she peers out of the window and spots a little boy she knows. “Hello darlin’!” she coos, radiant, it seems, with happiness for two seconds. And then it’s back to rage and hatred. “She’s a wicked, wicked woman…”

Route 59: Somewhere around Oval (October 2008)
The last leg on a trip back from Paris. Somewhere around Oval a handsome young black man gets on and sits next to me at the front. I casually glance at a billboard outside the window, which uses the metaphor of slavery to advertise a Card Protection Plan. My companion bursts out laughing.

“It’s like slavery but changed” he observes. “That’s what art is all about – taking something and changing it. Metaphor. English people don’t understand metaphor.”

A pause. He introduces himself as Chief Kingsley, from Cameroon.

“Who can understand metaphor, then?” I ask, slightly puzzled.

“Africans can understand it. And most Europeans too.”

Another pause.

“Oh, and the Irish. The Irish are very good at understanding metaphor.”

He proceeds to tell me about a recent visit to the Writers’ Museum in Dublin.

“Have you read any Irish literature?” I ask.

“No, I didn’t stay there long enough – only a few days.”

I point out in my puzzlement that it would surely be possible to read Irish literature here in London.

“I don’t trust English bookshops. They change things, you know, they change things. I only like originals. I don’t like fakes.”

A night bus: Somewhere between Soho and South Woodford (June 2007)
It is well after midnight. We are going back to a friend’s house from a club and the same is probably true of many others on the bus. Behind me is a noisy bunch of English lads, and somewhere towards the back a mixed group speaking in Polish. At some point the English boys pick up on this fact and decide that it would be hilarious to shout the only Polish word they know at the top of their voices: kurwa (literally whore, but often used as a more general expletive).

I mentally roll my eyes and turn round to them.

“If you want to be a bit more original you could sayŁadna dupeczka’ – means nice arse.”

“Awesome! How do you say it again?”

“Wad-na du-pech-ka“ I enunciate as carefully as my tired, drunk state will allow.

“OK. Wad… Wadna du… Dupiska.”

I laugh and let them get on with it. Their enthusiasm outstrips their accuracy:

“Wadna dupiska!”
“Wapna dupashka!”
“Wazna Dubrovnik!”

I smile to myself as I imagine what this must sound like to the Poles (assuming they are anything other than oblivious to the cross-cultural badinage going on in their honour):

“Nice arze!”
“Niece urse!”
“Norse ears!”

Salt Beef and Synagogues: London through a Jewish Lens

A slightly altered version of this post first appeared as an article in the SOAS Spirit in December 2014 (print only).

Some time ago my uncle opened the door to a flustered neighbour who asked, somewhat sheepishly, if there was any chance he could come round and turn on her dishwasher. It was a Friday night in the heart of Barnet, North London, and the neighbour was observing the Shabbat (Jewish Sabbath). This meant that a range of activities, or melakhot (loosely translatable as “work”), were forbidden.

I will not attempt to unpick the complex Rabbinical Law that enabled the neighbour to ring a doorbell but not switch on her dishwasher. Nor will I speculate on the legitimacy of getting the goy next door to do it for her. I do know, however, that her being able to carry her house keys around came courtesy of a phenomenon called the eruv, a ritual enclosure within which certain Shabbat prohibitions are relaxed.

Of the handful of eruvim in the UK, the North-West London one is by far the most famous. It is also the most controversial, with criticisms that include visual intrusiveness, de-secularisation of public space and risk of promoting religious segregation as more and more Jewish families move to be within in an eruv. Whether or not this last point has any factual basis, the location of the eruv is hardly surprising given the high concentration of Jews in this part of London, sometimes referred to as the “Bagel Belt”.

Golders Green in particular is renowned for its Kosher Restaurants (try Grodzinski’s bakery for braided challah bread), as well as numerous synagogues and a late Victorian Jewish Cemetery in which the cellist Jacqueline du Pré is buried. Nearby Finchley Road was previously dubbed “Finchleystrasse” when it became a magnet for German and Austrian Jews – amongst them Freud – fleeing Hitler’s regime. Now it is home to a new Jewish cultural hub, JW3, which offers talks, films, music and comedy as well as “Zest” café, run by Tel-Aviv born disciple of Ottolenghi, Eran Tibi.

As well as hosting refugees from Nazi Germany, this area has traditionally been a staging post for upwardly mobile Jewish families from the East End. Now synonymous with hipsters and Bangladeshi curry, Whitechapel and Stepney formed the epicentre of London Jewry in the early 20th Century. Hard as it is to imagine today, the aroma of brisket would have wafted up Brick Lane while Shoreditch echoed with the sound of Yiddish.

While the East End Jewish community has dwindled, a fascinating legacy remains. Some of London’s most beautiful synagogues can be found in this part of town, such as the Congregation of Jacob Synagogue on Commercial Road and nearby Bevis Marks, the oldest synagogue in Britain. In fact, the Jamme Masjid (Friday Mosque) on Brick Lane is said to be one of the only buildings outside the Holy Land to have served all three Abrahamic faiths. It started out life as a Huguenot and subsequently Methodist Chapel before becoming the Spitalfields Great Synagogue, which it remained until the 1970’s.

For some context, visit 19 Princelet Street just round the corner, an old Huguenot weavers’ house, briefly a synagogue and now hosting occasional exhibitions on the area’s rich past. If that’s not enough, why not check out Stephen Burstin’s Sunday morning Jewish walking tours?

Staying on Brick Lane, a more tangible relic can be found in that quintessentially Jewish institution, the bagel shop. Of the two establishments at the top of the road make sure to go to Beigel Bake (the queues are longer for a reason) and opt for salt beef if your diet permits.

Meanwhile, at another institution over on Charing Cross Road, Gaby’s Deli, named after its Iraqi-born proprietor, the bagels are best passed over in favour of the delicious range of salads and hummus. As famous for its surly staff as for its food, the place looked set to be ousted by a chain restaurant until a Who’s Who of West End stars descended for a weekend of protest, cabaret-style, in 2011. Saved from encroaching neoliberal blandness, at least for now, you would still be wise to visit sooner rather than later.

Due to its long-standing history, amongst other factors, the city’s Jewish community is less obviously visible than some of its other religious minorities. One can forget the Jewish provenance of household names such as Marks and Spencer, Fish and Chips (look it up!) and Lord Sugar. Dig deeper and you will find plenty of Jewish Societies. These include SOAS’ own J-Soc which holds Shabbat events and is committed to combatting anti-Semitism on campus, a London Jewish Male Choir and even a Gay Jews in London network. And for a blast of high-vis why not check out Chanukah in the (Trafalgar) Square on December 16th? It promises free doughnuts, live music and an appearance from Boris Johnson to light London’s Brightest Menorah. Mazel Tov!


From Portobello to Peckham Rye: A Guide to London’s Markets

This post first appeared as an article in the SOAS Spirit in November 2014 (p20)

Vibrant local markets are a stock-in-trade of guidebook writing and no trip to Bangkok or Brindisi would be complete without sampling street food and attempting to engage a surly stallholder (who we readily interpret as a “character”) in lively repartee. London is no exception, and punches above its weight in world-famous names – Covent Garden for tourist trinkets, Spitalfields for dubious art and, of course, Camden Lock for international food and the evergreen pastime of Goth-watching. Venturing outside this narrow orbit you hit neighbourhoods such as Brixton and Brick Lane, now firmly hauled out of the economic doldrums by young creatives and bankers, but if this scene starts to pall it’s probably time to cast your net wider.

For a slice of echt South London life, for example, head to East Street (nearest tube Elephant and Castle) where the staunchly un-gentrified daily market (closed Mondays) does a roaring trade in cheap veg, bric-a-brac and household goods. Lining the street you’ll find Afro-Caribbean grocers and halal butchers and for a dazzling range of spices, pick any of the shops at the Walworth Road end. Otherwise expected the unexpected – bargain deals on a mattress announced through a microphone, perhaps, or you may catch the Serbian Roma singing duo (“Like someone strangling a cat” as I heard a disgruntled stallholder describe them).

Staying south, why not check out Peckham (nearest station Peckham Rye) once a byword for gang crime but now yielding to an unstoppable tide of soda bread and soya lattes. Stick to Rye Lane, however, and you can enjoy a scene as absorbing as any London has to offer. Frequently cited as one of the most ethnically diverse neighbourhoods in the UK, the West African presence is easy to spot here – Sierra Leonean restaurants, Nigerian churches and stalls piled with cassava, plantain and all those other vegetables you wanted to know about but were afraid to ask. Chicken feet go for a reasonable £1.99 and, if that’s not enough, a fiver can get you a “Big Hard Chicken”.

If strange fruit and crossing the Thames aren’t your thing, Clerkenwell’s frightfully hip Exmouth Market may appeal. It’s the kind of place where people sit outside pubs in hand-knitted jumpers drinking craft beers while tapping film reviews into their Macs. If that’s not blatant enough, the presence of Gail’s Artisan Bakery should convince you you’re a far cry from Dalston Junction (for the uninitiated, Gail’s is a wayside shrine to sourdough and German rye bread, whose libations of organic milk can be sampled in all the capital’s chi-chiest neighbourhoods – Hampstead, Dulwich, Notting Hill…).

Indeed, the street is mostly about food, be it the excellent English fare at Medcalf restaurant, razor clams at Bonnie Gull Seafood Café or Moorish classics at Moro, where ladies like to lunch on pumpkin salads and slow cooked rabbit. On weekdays there are food stalls at the Farringdon Road end (a brisk 15 minute walk from campus), some run by the street’s restaurants, others including burritos, pulled pork and an incongruous-sounding “German BBQ”. Meanwhile, if you do want to branch out into the non-edible you could always get a tattoo at “The Family Business” or pick up a present at Bookends childrens’ book store before popping round the corner to The Old China Hand to sample their fabulous range of real ales.

Of course this is just the tip of the iceberg. If you’ve been to all the above and time hangs heavy then consider heading south to Deptford High Street, a gem of a traditional shopping street with markets stalls on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, or west to Goldborne Road (market every day except Sunday) a quirky extension to the more famous Portobello Road and informal hub to London’s Moroccan community. (S)he who is tired of London, as they say…