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Since the United Kingdom does not have a formal constitution, it follows that English cannot be recognised by it. Nonetheless, even if it is not officially proclaimed as such (except in certain very old laws dating back to the Middle Ages), it is the de facto official language by virtue of its being the language of the British government and administration. It is spoken by over 92% of the population[1] and, despite having little formal legal recognition, it is mentioned in important legal and regulatory texts: the 1981 law on British nationality, the law on nationality, the 2014 Immigration Act, or the Code of Practice (English Language Requirements for Public Sector Workers) Regulations 2016, to name but a few of the more recent occurrences.

In the same way, a “sufficient understanding of the English language” is stipulated as a condition for obtaining British nationality in a 2005 text. It is, however, interesting to note that this is a regulatory text and that the relevant legislative text, the 2002 law on nationality, immigration and asylum rights, speaks only of “a sufficient understanding of the British way of life” and a “sufficient understanding of a language” without specifying further. It is also interesting to note that in the 1981 law on British nationality, although English is explicitly mentioned, it is given equal status with Welsh and Scottish Gaelic: it is only necessary to be able to master one of these three languages to meet the criteria for naturalisation.

Since 1997 for Scotland and 1998 for Wales and Northern Ireland, new powers have been devolved by central Government to these three countries, permitting them to develop and implement autonomous linguistic policies. Wales is an interesting case in point. Since 1993, followed up by the Government of Wales Act 1998 and further enshrined in the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011, the law on the Welsh language ensures that, in principle at least, Welsh and English have equal status.

In the national UK parliament, although the swearing in of Members can take place in English, Welsh or Gaelic, only English is permitted for parliamentary proceedings; although in 2016 the House of Commons Procedure Committee recommended that Welsh should be permitted for use in the Welsh Grand Committee at Westminster.



Legal framework

The only UK nation to not have benefited from a devolution of powers and specific statutes, England is governed by legislation adopted for the United Kingdom by the UK Parliament. There is very little legislation concerning the status and usage of the English language.

Official data collection mechanisms on language diversity in England exist in terms of periodically updated municipal register data, census data and survey data. In these data collection mechanisms, national, regional or minority (R/M), and immigrant language varieties are addressed, based on a home language and a main language question and a language proficiency question in terms of whether (and how well) this language can be spoken/understood/read/written.

Parliamentary institutions

In the UK Parliament, English is the sole language used in debates as well as in the drawing up and promulgation of laws. 


Procedures are in English, but, in criminal proceedings a translation or interpretation service is available to those who do not speak or do not understand English. This is enshrined in the 2010 EU Directive on the right to interpretation and translation in criminal proceedings.


English is the language of use, but a large number of government services and administrations, particularly in local government, publish brochures in minority languages. This is required by equal opportunities policies. For example, the Department for Education publishes information brochures aimed at parents who speak a minority language, information leaflets for asylum seekers are available in different languages from the Department for Work and Pensions, and maternity and public health information is provided in different languages by the Department of Health.

Some local authorities have chosen to print bilingual signage (English/Urdu or English/Somali, for example), or even multi-lingual signage, in areas where a large number of inhabitants do not speak English.

However there has been an increase in political pressure to reduce the provision of translation services in the public sector with many Members of Parliament asking questions about the associated costs, and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government describing such provision as a “very expensive and a poor use of taxpayers’ money” in 2013[2] and examples of local authorities reducing the amount of translation offered, with an increased emphasis on expecting people to learn English.[3] 

World of work

There is no regulatory legislation concerning languages. The fact that English is the language of general use means that it is the language required for most jobs. The United Kingdom Government has committed to not limiting the use of minority languages in documents relating to economic life, and specifically in contracts of employment, without reasonable cause.


Advertising is not subject to any law or regulation. Advertising campaigns can run in languages other than English without the need to provide a translation. There are a number of bilingual signs but they are a matter of choice rather than the implementation of regulations, with advertising in languages other than English reflecting either the language of the target audience, or the branding of a product.


Education in England is compulsory from five to 18 years of age. Children between the ages of 16 and 18 must stay in full-time education, for example at a college, start an apprenticeship or traineeship, or spend 20 hours or more a week working or volunteering, while in part-time education or training.

The government issues a collection of programmes for state schools (the National Curriculum), which include English as a compulsory subject. However, many types of state school in England are now quasi-independent and do not have to follow the National Curriculum (academies, free schools). The government and education standards authorities such as Ofsted measure pupils’ performance in English as part of the inspection regime and league tables. In practice, almost all schools teach in the medium of English and have English as a core subject.

A substantial number of school pupils are bilingual and the proportion is increasing. In 2013, one in six primary school pupils in England did not have English as their first language; in secondary schools this was just over one in eight. Once special schools and pupil referral units are taken into account, the total number of bilingual pupils rises to just over a million at 1,061,010. These figures more than doubled from 1997 to 2013.[4]

Children whose native language is not English receive linguistic support alongside their studies to enable them to attain the minimum level of understanding and expression to follow their course.

There is a highly developed network of supplementary schools (operating in the evenings and/or at weekends) providing lessons to children in their home language, but this is entirely privately organised and outside national education legislation.

Anyone wishing to undertake teacher training, whether British or of any other nationality, must prove a level of competence in English and are required to pass a Professional Skills Test before gaining Qualified Teacher Status.


Legal provisions concerning the linguistic integration of migrants and public linguistic training facilities provided for them (UK-wide)

The conferral of British nationality is subject to sufficient mastery of the English language, with exceptions for those over the age of 65 and nationals from certain countries.[5] To be able to settle in the UK (Indefinite leave to remain), immigrants must pass a Knowledge of Language and Life in the UK Test (KOLL).

There has been a reduction in the provision of English-language classes for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in England; whereas in Scotland there is an integration strategy which provides language classes.[6]


Principal legal provisions in force concerning the use of regional or minority languages (UK-wide)

The United Kingdom is a signatory to the 2001 European Charter on Regional and Minority Languages. As such, it recognises the importance of respect, understanding and tolerance where linguistic diversity is concerned, whether this be for Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Scots, Irish Gaelic or any other ‘regional’ or ‘minority’ language. In England, the only regional/minority language covered by the Charter is Cornish, which benefits from the support of a local office.[7]

Manx is also protected under the Charter in the Isle of Man, which is a separate legal entity from the rest of the UK.


Teaching foreign languages within the education system

Since Autumn 2003, it has no longer been compulsory to begin learning a modern foreign language in England after the age of 14, leaving only three years of compulsory language learning at secondary (ages 11 to 14).

However, in 2014 it became compulsory to learn a modern foreign language at primary school between the ages of 7 and 10.

A number of state-funded primary and especially secondary schools however are quasi-independent and have no legal requirement to follow these rules.

Government guidelines have used official performance measures to put pressure on schools to include languages in their teaching; for example:

  • Since 2016 the schools inspectorate, Ofsted, has begun to look more closely at modern foreign languages provision at primary in their inspection reports.[8]  
  • Since 2010, the Ebacc measure of attainment for secondary pupils at age 16 has been used to measure schools’ performance. In 2015 the government further announced that it expects all secondary pupils to study all Ebacc subjects (include a modern foreign language) until the age of 16, by 2020.[9]
  • The appointment of an MFL Lead within Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, in 2017.

The number of pupils taking a GCSE in languages has fallen by nearly 30% since 2003, although performance measures have stabilised numbers at approximately 50% of the cohort in recent years.

Progress 8, the additional schools performance measure which measures pupil progress across a range of 8 subjects (which does not have to include a modern foreign language), is currently being blamed for a renewed fall in the number of secondary school pupils taking a language at GCSE.[10]



Since 1993, Wales has held on principle that the Welsh and English languages are of equal status. Around 24% of the population of Wales speak Welsh – a proportion that is increasing year on year.[11] The Welsh Language Board, a specific body with responsibility for promoting the use of the Welsh language, reports directly to the Welsh National Assembly.


Legal framework

The Welsh Language Act, enacted in December 1993 by the Welsh National Assembly, put in place the basis of a national strategy for promoting and supporting Welsh language teaching and set out the principle that Welsh and English hold equal status in Wales. This was followed up by the Government of Wales Act 1998 and further enshrined in the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011.

Administration and public services

The Welsh Government aims to make Wales a truly bilingual nation. A specific body has been created with responsibility for promoting and facilitating the use of Welsh. The Welsh Language Board, an official organisation financed entirely by the State and run by a committee selected by the Secretary of State for Wales, reports directly to the Welsh National Assembly.

In July 2006, the Welsh Government published a ‘Declaration on bilingual services’ which referred to the services provided by the Parliamentary Assembly. The administration will respond in Welsh to a letter written in Welsh and in English to a letter written in English. On the telephone, staff will answer in the language used by the caller. All documentation is bilingual. Those applying for public sector jobs are at an advantage if they can express themselves in both languages.

All public services in Wales were to draw up and implement Welsh language programmes. The 1993 law on the Welsh language defines those organisations which should be considered to be public. This list is regularly updated by amendments to the law.

The Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011 establishes a legal framework to impose a duty on some organisations to comply with standards of conduct on the Welsh Language. The Measure notes that Welsh Ministers may, by regulations, specify standards in the following areas:

  • service delivery
  • policy making
  • operational
  • promotion
  • record keeping

The duties which come from the standards mean that organisations should not treat the Welsh language less favourably than the English language, together with promoting and facilitating the use of the Welsh language (making it easier for people to use in their day-to-day life).

Standards aim to:

  • make it clear to organisations what their duties are in relation to the Welsh language
  • make it clearer to Welsh speakers about the services they can expect to receive in Welsh
  • make Welsh language services more consistent and improve their quality. 


Since 1982, the channel S4C broadcasts Welsh language programmes. S4C is a wholly Welsh language channel broadcasting over 115 hours of programmes each week. It commissions independent producers from across Wales to make the majority of its programmes. ITV Cymru Wales is also commissioned to produce programmes. BBC Cymru Wales provides around 10 hours of programming per week for S4C, including the news and daily soap Pobol y Cwm, funded out of the licence fee. [12]

Since April 2013, 90% of S4C's income comes from the licence fee in agreement between the S4C Authority and BBC Trust. This agreement, originally until March 2017, has been extended to 2022.[13]

Wales’s two daily newspapers, the Western Mail and Daily Post, publish various Welsh language columns, as well as Welsh language media pages at the weekend.

Weekly newspaper Y Cymro and news and current affairs magazine Golwg are wholly in Welsh.

A number of regional newspapers such as the Cambrian News, Carmarthen Journal and the Glamorgan Gem feature Welsh language pages.[14]

Teaching Welsh

Welsh language is an integral part of the national teaching curriculum established variously by the 1988 Education Act, 1996 Education Act, 1998 School Standards and Framework Act, the Welsh Government’s School Admissions Code 2013, and School Standards and Organisation (Wales) Act 2013.[15]

From primary school, pupils can receive their education in Welsh if their parents request it. Legally, such a request cannot be refused.

Following the introduction of the Education Reform Act 1988, Welsh was phased in as a compulsory subject for pupils aged 5-14 (Key Stages 1, 2 and 3) from 1990. From September 1999 onwards, Welsh also became compulsory at ages 14-16 (Key Stage 4). With the introduction of the Foundation Phase in 2011, Welsh or Welsh Language Development is also taught to all 3-7 year olds. The National Curriculum for Wales is made up of core and foundation subjects, which are listed in the Education Act 2002. Welsh and English are both listed as core subjects through primary and secondary education.

Higher education establishments are authorised to teach in Welsh, but very few do, although the numbers of students learning through Welsh is rising, and the rate is accelerating. 7,070 students studied at least 5 credits through Welsh-medium in 2015/16.[16] 

By 2010/11 16.7% of pupils were being taught Welsh as a first language (nearly all in Welsh-medium schools). All other pupils are taught Welsh as a second language although the level of achievement is low.


Foreign language teaching

In addition to Welsh, all pupils are also taught at least one foreign language during their first three years in secondary school. The percentage proceeding to take a public examination in a modern foreign language when aged 15 has been falling for many years. Between 2002 and 2016, the number of pupils studying a language to GCSE fell by 48%.[17]

In 2015 the Donaldson Review was published which recommended that MFL should be incorporated into primary school education from 2020.

Also in 2015 the Welsh government published Global Futures, a 5-year plan “to help learners in Wales communicate effectively in other languages and appreciate other cultures” – with the ambition that Welsh learners will follow a “bilingual +1” approach (English and Welsh plus a modern foreign language) from Year 5 onwards.[18] A British Council Wales schools survey in 2016 found that Global Futures had reached as many as 72% of the schools who responded, with many teachers commenting favourably on the support they had received.[19]



English is the native language for 93% of the Scottish population.

The Scots language is spoken or understood by a large part of the population although there has been debate about how to measure this. A question about Scots was included in the 2011 census for the first time. The total number of people who stated they could either, speak, read, write or understand Scots was 1.9 million (38% of the population). Out of this figure the number of people aged 3 and over who said they could speak Scots was 1,541,693 (30% of the population).[20]

A very small number speak Scottish Gaelic (around 1.7%).[21]


Legal framework

On 21 April 2005, the Scottish Parliament adopted the Gaelic Language Act. This states that Gaelic is an official language on the same footing as English.

It established an institution called the Bord na Gaedhlig and usually known simply as the Bord, which aims to promote the use of the Gaelic language and culture. In particular, it is charged with ensuring that the number of speakers able to understand the Gaelic language increases, supporting the use and understanding of Gaelic and facilitating access, both in Scotland and elsewhere, to the Gaelic language and culture.

This public agency also has the role of controlling the way in which the European Charter on Regional and Minority Languages is applied.

The relatively favourable standing given to Gaelic has raised questions about the position of the Scots language, which is also recognised under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, along with Ulster Scots. The Report of the Ministerial Working Group on the Scots Language (November 2010)[22] called for the Scottish Government to develop a Scots Language Policy and for Scotland to be presented internationally as a trilingual country. This policy was officially launched in September 2015. This national Scots policy sets out the Scottish government's position on the Scots language, its aims and objectives for Scots and the practical steps we will take to achieve these. The Scottish government states that it will be working towards an Action Plan that will form an extension of the 'practical steps' section of the policy, followed by the development of a Scots Language Plan.[23]


Until 2005, English was the only language recognised in the Scottish Parliament. Two consecutive Gaelic Language Plans have been published (2008-13[24] and 2013-18[25]) to ensure a systematic increase in Gaelic-medium parliamentary business, activities, services and documents. In practice, a majority of parliamentary business and services are conducted in English.


A large number of public administrations and bodies have produced a Gaelic language plan: the Scottish Executive, the Scottish Parliament, Scottish Arts Councils, public national agencies and regional or municipal councils (most notably, the City of Glasgow).


Throughout Scotland, teaching is mostly carried out in English. Scotland’s national curriculum, the Curriculum for Excellence, recognises Gaelic as a mainstream subject of the curriculum and provides extensive curriculum guidance for its inclusion in mainstream teaching. The Curriculum for Excellence also recognises Scots as being an integral part of the Curriculum.

Teaching Scots

Provision for Scots in the eduacation system was found to be characterised by strong provision at primary and higher education levels in a 2009 audit commissioned by the Scottish government. It found support for Scots across higher education, including specialisms in Literature, History, Language, and in particular, Lexicography.[26]

Teaching Gaelic

Ever since the law on education of 1980 (The Scottish Education Act), education authorities have been obliged to offer teaching in schools and appropriate further education in Gaelic in regions where it is spoken. After the Standards in Scotland’s Schools Act 2000, education authorities had to report on their Gaelic teaching programmes.

The 2016 Education (Scotland) Act amended the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005 to enshrine a duty on local authorities to “promote and support Gaelic education”[27]with specific statutory guidance for Gaelic Medium Education in primary and secondary schools. It enshrines the right of parents to access Gaelic Medium Education for their children from primary upwards.

The number of pupils who are in Gaelic medium education has risen from 24 in 1985 (its first year) to 3,892 in 2016, with a further 6,323 being taught Gaelic in school. This is equivalent to 1.45% of all pupils.[28]

Three Higher Education institutions offer degree courses in Gaelic: Sabhal Mòr Ostaig and Lews Castle College (both part of the University of the Highlands and Islands), and Ionad Chaluim Chille Ìle (The Islay Columba Centre)


Foreign language teaching

Introduced in 2010, Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence treats learning holistically rather than as a series of separate subjects and therefore foreign modern languages are not technically compulsory at school but rather an ‘entitlement’. There have been concerns about the implications for MFL uptake; for example, in 2011 more than half of Scottish Local Authorities reported having at least one secondary school where languages were not compulsory with schools interpreting the ‘entitlement’ to language learning as having been met in primary school.

Language learning has been in decline in Scottish schools: whereas in 2001 practically all pupils studied a language up to the 4th year of secondary education, by 2010 this had dropped to 67%.[29]

In 2012 the Scottish government published its 1+2 policy, which aims to ensure that every child has the opportunity to learn a modern language (known as L2) from P1 until the end of the broad general education (S3). Additionally, each child is entitled to learn a second modern language (known as L3) from P5 onwards. The policy should be fully implemented across the country by August 2021.[30]

Nonetheless, the persistently low number of students choosing to study a foreign language at Higher Grade (A Level) has provoked a debate on the usefulness of the system and the absence of any compulsory teaching.


With the exception of one magazine and local newspapers, the press and media in general are in English. A number of daily newspapers do contain a Gaelic page or column.

The 1996 law on radio broadcasting aims to increase the number of Gaelic language broadcasts. The BBC-radio nan Gaedheal and four television channels, including the BBC, currently broadcast Gaelic language programmes.



English is the de facto official language of Northern Ireland, even though there is no official statute conferring that status. While English is the vernacular, the 2001 census found that 10% of the population reported ‘some knowledge’ of Irish.


Legal Framework

The Belfast Agreement of 1998 specifies that the signing parties recognise “the importance of respect for cultural diversity…particularly for Irish, Ulster Scots and the languages of the various ethnic communities.”

Both Irish and Ulster Scots are protected by the UK’s participation in the 2001 European Charter on Regional and Minority Languages. 

The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 set out principles of respect and tolerance in relation to linguistic diversity. ‘The Irish language, Ulster Scots and the languages of the various ethnic minorities’ were all explicitly mentioned as contributing to the ‘cultural wealth’ of the province[31].  The North/South Language Body, established on 2 December 1999 and comprising two separate agencies, Foras na Gaeilge (Irish Language Agency) and Tha Boord o Ulstèr-Scotch (Ulster-Scots Agency), promotes Irish and Ulster Scots and implements policies agreed by Ministers in the North South Ministerial Council (NSMC) in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland with regard to these two languages. In August 2000 the Department of Education in Northern Ireland established Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta to encourage and facilitate the strategic development of Irish medium education and provide guidance and advice to the Irish-medium sector.

The proposal of an Irish Language Act was first made in the St Andrew’s Agreement 2006 but has not been implemented. Fierce debate surrounds the proposal which touches on sensitive identity issues in the region.

Parliament & Administration

With very rare exceptions, English is the only language used in administration, the justice system, economic life and education.


It is worth noting that the BBC broadcasts around 150 hours of Irish language radio but only three to four hours of Irish language television per year.


Teaching Irish

Irish medium education (IME) has been increasing in Northern Ireland since the first Irish medium primary school was set up by parents, outside the mainstream system, in 1971. 1.67% of all primary schoolchildren now attend IME primary schools or IME units within English language primary schools and the number is increasing year on year. IME is supported by government policy.

Up until the introduction of the Northern Ireland Curriculum in 1989, Irish was the second most common language after French despite being taught only in the Maintained (Catholic) sector, and maintained this position in GCSE entries until 2002. The language was excluded from fulfilling the compulsory language requirement offered by schools under the Northern Ireland Curriculum [1] but since 2006 has been reinstated. A GCSE Irish medium (Gaeilge) exam was introduced in 1993 to cater for the relatively small number of post-primary pupils being educated through Irish. Irish medium education presents more difficulties at secondary level than primary as a result of a lack of teachers able to teach other subjects through Irish at this level. Fewer than 0.5% of all secondary pupils are in Irish-medium education.


Foreign language teaching

Modern Languages did not find a place in the new Northern Ireland primary curriculum which was revised in 2007, despite a positive evaluation of pilot projects which took place between 2005 and 2007, involving 21 schools teaching mainly French, with some Spanish. Despite the lack of curricular requirement, a survey in 2007 found that 57% of responding primary schools were making some provision for the teaching of a second language, although in over half of cases this was in the form of extra-curricular activity.

From 2008 to 2015 the Department of Education for Northern Ireland funded a Primary Languages Programme which provided peripatetic teachers in Spanish or Irish to work alongside existing Key Stage 1 primary school classroom teachers (Polish was also included from 2009). The scheme was criticised for excluding French, which is the most widely taught language in secondary education. The scheme had involved approximately half of all Northern Ireland’s primary schools[32]. 

Modern foreign languages in secondary schools in Northern Ireland deteriorated rapidly after languages were made optional after the first three years of secondary education as part of the 2007 curriculum reform. This resulted in a 19% drop in numbers sitting GCSE examinations over three years with French, as the first foreign language taught, being the worst hit. However from 2012-17 MFL entries were stable, with MFL accounting for 7.2% - 7.3% of all GCSE entries year on year.[33] French has lost in popularity while Spanish and Irish have increased in popularity over this period. The trends are the same at A Level, where MFL accounts for 4.5% - 4.6% of entries every year.



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