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Boris Johnson sparks outrage, saying everyone in UK should speak English first

Boris Johnson, former U.K. foreign secretary, stands with supporters ahead of a Conservative Party leadership hustings in Darlington, England, on July 5, 2019.

MATTHEW LLOYD/BLOOMBERG

By SIOBHÁN O'GRADY | The Washington Post | Published: July 6, 2019

English is far from the only language spoken in the United Kingdom.

In fact, significant time and resources have been put toward preserving indigenous minority languages across Britain, including Welsh, Gaelic, Scots and Irish. And then, of course, there is a diverse range of other languages spoken as well - from Polish and Punjabi, to Arabic and French.

So it's understandable how Boris Johnson, a front-runner to replace British Prime Minister Theresa May at 10 Downing Street, ruffled some feathers on Friday when he said "there are too often parts of our country . . . where English is not spoken by some people as their first language."

"And that needs to be changed," he said.

The most important priority for immigrants should be "to be and to feel British," he said, "and to learn English."

The comments sparked outrage across the U.K., where they were seen both as echoing populist talking points targeting immigrants and disrespecting centuries-old languages indigenous to the region.

Scottish lawmaker Angus MacNeil tweeted that "Boris is just moronic & clueless."

"Same arrogance of centuries past that did down native Celtic languages for the Germanic import," he wrote, referring to the English language's West Germanic roots. "Multilingualism please Boris and drop the cultural imperialism."

Even Johnson's sister Rachel derided the comments, tweeting that their family "spoke Ancient Greek at home."

"I genuinely don't know what he's on about," she wrote.

Since British voters opted to leave the European Union, representatives from minority language groups have expressed concerns that Brexit could marginalize certain groups that have relied on European funding for protection and promotion of their indigenous languages.

In recent years, activists have urged governments to invest in preserving indigenous languages. In Wales, for example, the government has pledged to have 1 million people speaking Welsh by 2050. And just this week, the British government announced a new fund intended to preserve the Cornish language.

A 2011 census found that in England and Wales, more than 90% of people spoke English or Welsh as their first language. Around 7.7% of the population reported they spoke another main language, although the proportion in London was much higher at around 22%. Polish was the most widely spoken secondary language, followed by Punjabi and Urdu.

Only 1.3% of the population said they could not speak English well, and just 0.3% said they could not speak it at all.

But other politicians have made comments like Johnson's before. In 2014, now-Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage said parts of Britain felt like a "foreign land."

He claimed that "in many parts of England you don't hear English spoken anymore."

"This is not the kind of community we want to leave to our children and grandchildren," he said, admitting that he felt "slightly awkward" on a train ride where he heard people speaking other languages.

Similar debates have unfolded in the United States. On the campaign trail in 2015, Donald Trump criticized fellow Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, a former governor of Florida, for speaking Spanish. "He should really set an example by speaking English in the United States," Trump said.

When asked about that comment in a Republican debate, Trump said he meant it "a little halfheartedly," but then he doubled down on the point.

"We have a country where to assimilate, you have to speak English," he said. "We have to have assimilation to have a country. We have to have assimilation."

"This is a country where we speak English, not Spanish," he repeated more loudly. 
 

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