[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered International Mother Language Day 2022.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I start by wishing everyone happy St David’s day—I can see many of my Welsh colleagues here. I begin my remarks by speaking the language of my parents—Sylheti—for what I understand could be for the first time in a UK parliamentary debate by simply saying,
“Ekta basha kuno dino jotheshto oy na”.
In English, that means, “One language is never enough”.
I am delighted to have secured this debate about Language Martyrs Day and International Mother Language Day on the date that those remembrances fall—21 February, or Ekushey February in Bangla, when 70 years ago this year political activists and students in Dhaka were killed while demanding official status for their mother tongue Bangla. Honouring those Bengali students martyred in 1952 has, of course, deep personal meaning for me as a British Bangladeshi growing up in, and now representing, an area with a large Bengali-speaking community. Every day I feel acutely a deep sense of responsibility from knowing that I owe so much personally to those who came before me, who had to struggle to keep our culture and language alive, facing prejudice, discrimination and state repression.
The language of my family—Sylheti—is spoken by an estimated 11 million people, primarily in the Sylhet district of Bangladesh and, of course, around the world by a diaspora community, including in my constituency of Poplar and Limehouse. In fact, we are lucky in east London to be one of the most linguistically vibrant areas and communities in the entire country, with at least 90 identified different languages being used in Tower Hamlets alone.
Globally, there are a wonderful 6,500 spoken languages in the world today, and each is superbly unique in a number of exciting ways. Language is one of the most important parts of any culture and society, and it is critical for our daily lives as we continually seek to further understand and improve the world around us. The words that we use are constantly evolving and changing. New words are created to describe new things, and old words invariably take on new meanings. The nuances and multiple levels on which a single word can operate are just incredible. Our language can be remarkably simple and extraordinarily complex, and sometimes both at the same time. Words can be extremely specific, and yet they can mean almost anything and everything in between. Language diversity is at the heart of this human brilliance.
I am glad that the hon. Member said that old words can grow new meanings. In this place, I have actually asked Members on the Government side, “Is having a curry on the veranda of my bungalow, with some chutney and a lager, English?” Clearly, it is English, but it is also a huge number of other languages, which have contributed to the mix that is English and to the mix that is Welsh, as I will explain later.
I thank the hon. Member for making such an important point, which is actually a running theme of my words here today.
I know people who tell me that there are things they can say in their mother language that they cannot say in English, and that there are things they can say in English that they cannot say in their parents’ language. And there is no doubt that we are richer for the range of people who call Britain home but carry in their hearts the language of another land. So, Language Martyrs Day and International Mother Language Day emphasise the significance of protecting, nurturing and embracing different cultures, languages and ways of life.
My hon. Friend is making a very important speech. I am proud to be a Member of Parliament in England, for Stockport. At home, my parents speak Hindi, which is one of the languages of India; indeed, it is the main language. I believe that Hindi is the fourth most spoken language in the world—over 341 million people speak it as their native language—and I am proud to be able to speak it, read it and write it in addition to English.
The point I am trying to make is the point that my hon. Friend made about protecting and respecting other cultures and languages. On this point, does she agree that the persecution in China of people who teach or want to speak Tibetan, which is the native language of Tibet, has to stop, because freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of religion are fundamental rights?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point and I hope that the Minister can address it in her remarks.
As I was saying, Language Martyrs Day and International Mother Language Day emphasise the significance of protecting, nurturing and embracing different cultures, languages and ways of life, accepting ourselves and accepting each other, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) has just said.
As the MP for a diverse and dynamic constituency, for me every day highlights the benefits of celebrating our various cultural heritages and linguistic diversity, learning from different traditions of living together and interacting with each other, and—importantly—nurturing the language and culture that grow out of those experiences. In short, multiculturalism is a privilege, not a problem, and diversity of language makes the collective fabric of our society stronger.
Yet the last few years have seen a growing trend whereby there are some attempts to engage in the so-called “culture wars”, with anti-immigration rhetoric being used as a smokescreen to hide society’s wider failings, legitimising racist attitudes and exacerbating social marginalisation.
Unfortunately, language can be used as a tool to construct certain people as “the other” and to force them to assimilate. All around the world, states have often restricted official use of minority languages, because of the idea that it is necessary to use only specified languages. The pandemic exposed the fact that many minority language speakers continue to be excluded from learning and accessing crucial information, which has had significant implications, for example for the roll-out of the vaccine and the fact that people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds have faced greater risks and endured greater hardships.
Language diversity plays a key role in people’s identity and it plays a similarly key role in our wellbeing and mental health. That is why it is vital that local and public provision of community language services is free at the point of use and that digital technology is made widely available for multi-lingual learning. At a time when many people are worried about knife crime, radicalisation and many young people’s lack of a sense of belonging, it is devastating that these sorts of services are being cut and privatised. Indeed, local community language services, which were a huge part of my life growing up and of the lives of so many people around me, have now been outsourced and cut, making them another casualty of the programme of public sector cuts that has been disastrous for everyone. I find that particularly sad because it was through such services that I myself learned to speak, read and write Bangla, and it is my constant wish that my Bangla and Sylheti skills were better than they actually are.
The opportunity to use one’s own language and the language of one’s family can be of crucial importance for individual and collective identity and culture, as well as participation in public life. Language services help to provide people with an understanding of their first language and culture, raise educational attainment and promote inclusion, because when people understand their community language, they understand their community and their elders better. Of course, during the covid crisis, language barriers and challenges regarding intergenerational communication were part of putting certain segments of our communities at greater risk. Multilingual education based on people’s mother tongues is therefore a key component of inclusion in education.
The United Nations and others have long argued that education based on the first language or mother tongue must begin from the early years of every child’s life. The theme of this year’s International Mother Language Day is “Using technology for multilingual learning: challenges and opportunities”, which speaks to the role of technology in advancing multilingual education. School closures have been a prominent feature of the covid-19 crisis, and while communities around the world had to use technology-based solutions to maintain continuity of learning, too many lacked the necessary equipment means such as laptops and other items, internet access and accessible materials. As such, many of us campaigned for everyone to have access to the internet and to the technology needed. In today’s world, fast, reliable broadband is not a desirable extra but a fundamental requirement for a decent life, and it is most certainly vital for education and linguistic development. That is why the Labour party’s 2019 manifesto pledged to offer free and fast broadband to every household in the country by 2030—a pledge, and a manifesto, that I was very proud to stand on.
It is also crucial to recognise the role of specialist language media outlets in providing high-quality journalism and addressing the issues that different communities face. In the face of an increasingly politically and culturally homogenous media landscape, media diversity is key to empowering everyone, and it plays a key role in reaching out to, informing, including and representing ethnic minority communities in particular. There is a great need for the histories, cultures and languages of those communities to feature much more across the whole educational curriculum, local services and the cultural sector.
Language Martyrs Day and International Mother Language Day emerge from a history of jostling powers and political struggles. I think about how the Black Lives Matter protests all over the world recognised the importance of the inclusion of diverse cultural storytelling through their demand to ensure that school curriculums include educating young people about racism and imperialism. There is a need to rebalance historical and social narratives that currently exclude certain experiences and perspectives. We all have a duty to make sure that the next generation, at least, has a better understanding of the historical injustices that contribute to the institutional racism that persists in the UK and elsewhere today.
Ultimately, Language Martyrs Day and International Mother Language Day is an opportunity to see the rich tapestry of our linguistic diversity as something to be cherished—a joyful kaleidoscope of possibilities and potential to be revelled in. People, with all our diversity and rich traditions, have much more to gain by standing together than being divided. We do not have to be alike to have the same interests and shared sense of solidarity.
As ever, it is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and I take the opportunity to wish everybody in Westminster Hall a dydd Gŵyl Dewi hapus iawn—a very happy St David’s day, very appropriate for today’s debate.
I join colleagues in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum) on having secured this important debate. She made some incredibly important points about the real benefits of second, third and even fourth languages in keeping our country’s cultural diversity at the very forefront. As a very proud Welsh MP, it would feel remiss not to use this opportunity to highlight the incredible work of the Labour Government in Wales and how they are doing their bit to keep the brilliant Welsh language alive and kicking.
Earlier today, my wonderful friend and colleague, the Minister for Education in Welsh Government, announced major new projects to grow the Welsh language that include bold plans to open new Welsh-medium schools, creating more opportunities for adult learners and supporting the Urdd, Wales’s largest national youth organisation, with an extra £1.2 million. That is just a small insight into what incredible work a Labour Government can do for our cultural heritage, and I am especially proud today to see those amazing policy commitments in action.
Indeed, colleagues may be surprised to learn that Welsh is actually undergoing a resurgence of its own, with Welsh being the fastest-growing language, according to research by popular language app, Duolingo. The number of people learning Welsh rose particularly during lockdown; it saw a whopping 44% increase in 2020, with Welsh beating Hindi, Japanese, French and Turkish. I would like to declare my own interest as a keen Welsh learner trying to improve my fluency in the language.
As is the case with so many other languages, the Welsh language is at the very heart of Welsh culture and identity, from phrases used to cheer on our sports teams, “Cymru am byth” to “iechyd da”, a personal favourite of mine, and my favourite word in any language, “cwtch”. We cannot forget our proud national anthem, “Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau”, which translates as “The Land of my Fathers”, proudly written by two of Pontypridd’s residents, Evan and James. It just goes to show how beautiful, vibrant, and full of variety our Welsh language truly is.
In Wales, we are very lucky to see the Welsh-medium channel S4C continue to thrive, although given the Government’s lack of awareness when it comes to the future funding of the BBC, perhaps the less said on that the better. That aside, I am particularly proud that Welsh is undergoing an overdue resurgence, but of course, none of that could happen without a bold commitment by the Welsh Labour Government to invest in our heritage. The Welsh Language Minister and the Senedd have set an incredible goal to reach 1 million Welsh speakers by 2050, which is around a third of Wales’s current population. It is only with that type of commitment that languages like Welsh can continue to flourish and reach new households, and I am very proud to say that I have seen my own Welsh skills recently develop thanks to the campaign to get us all learning.
The ambition and commitment do not stop there. A few weeks ago, the Welsh Labour Government announced that free Welsh lessons would be made available to anyone aged 16 to 25 and to all education practitioners. That is an incredible effort, and only possible thanks to the Labour Government and to the National Centre for Learning Welsh, which launched an incredibly successful online taster course for teachers and leaders back in February 2020.
Not everyone has the chance to learn Welsh from a young age, and many of us decide to give it a go later in life after building up an understanding of the value of being able to use Welsh in daily conversations. I would urge anyone who is tempted to join the 1.5 million people who have, to date, started learning Welsh on Duolingo to just give it a go. You absolutely never know where a second language—especially Welsh—may take you. Diolch.
I fell into today’s debate just like I fell into languages upon becoming an adult, and I thank the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum) for bringing this debate to the Chamber today. It is a very fun debate, and I am most interested to hear and learn what everyone has to say.
The hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) referred to pride, and I was wondering, what am I proud of? I am proud of being a sometimes English-speaking MP from Northern Ireland, representing the constituency of Bolton North East, who in any given week probably spends about 20% of his time speaking Mandarin Chinese because that is what I speak with my daughter at home. It is probably more standard than my English.
From a very personal perspective, I absolutely understand the sheer importance of learning languages. On leaving university, I spent roughly 14,000 hours trying to learn Mandarin Chinese; I read and write about 4,000 Chinese characters, and read the newspaper or whatever else, and I have gained a huge amount from the capacity to improve cognitive ability.
The Minister will understand what I am about to say. As someone who was born and grew up in Northern Ireland, I know that language and culture can often be politicised, unfortunately. In my own case, I come from an Ulster Scots or a Protestant Unionist background in the town of Ballymena in County Antrim, and when I was growing up we did not learn Gaelic at school. We never came across the Irish language. Therefore, when we met people from the other community if they had what, to us, looked like a nuanced sort of name, we did not know how to pronounce it half the time.
Three years ago, I took it upon myself to spend a week in Glencolumbkille in Donegal, on the west coast of Ireland, trying to learn Irish Gaelic. Do you know what, Sir Edward? It is more difficult than Mandarin Chinese. Perhaps it is just because I am getting old, but I was humbled by the experience. At least Chinese characters look different from the word go, so there an expectation; Gaelic has what look like English-language letters, but when I tried to read them my teacher told me I was getting them completely wrong.
The personal dimension is very important, and my first message to my fellow countrymen in Northern Ireland is to be open to different languages and cultures. When people as their native tongue have English, which is the hegemonic language of the world and spoken more than any other language as a second language, they have nothing to be worried or scared about. The British Council, among others, does a fantastic job at projecting soft power across the world.
My constituency of Bolton North East has one of the largest and most flourishing Indian Gujarati Muslim communities in the United Kingdom, bar a very few of the 650 constituencies out there. The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse said that sometimes people are sceptical about diversity or have a fear of it, but I am the complete opposite. I see nothing but opportunity. I think of my Gujarati community, along with a significant Pakistani community, as a massive opportunity for us, especially at a time when south Asia and its distinctive economies have such a promising future in what is already shaping up to be the Asian-Eurasian century in front of us.
My own shortcoming on this is that I have had on my desk here in Westminster, for the last year and a half, a book about learning Urdu. When I asked people if I should learn Hindi or Gujarati, they said, “They are all beautiful languages, but Urdu is slightly more beautiful.” I am not sure if the hon. Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) would agree with that.
I would like to share the fact that Hindi and Urdu are very similar when spoken, but they are written differently. Hindi is written left to right, but Urdu is based on the Arabic script and it is right to left. I would encourage the hon. Gentleman to learn either, then he will be able to speak both, but he will have to do a lot more work when it comes to writing.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, who also represents a Greater Manchester constituency. If I am ever in the market for a teacher, I will know who to look to. My constituency has a huge advantage when it comes to linguistic diversity.
Finally, in thinking of the world, the environment in which we live and the announcements made by the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary today about opening our arms even further to the Ukrainian people, in my constituency I have one of the most established Ukrainian diasporas in the United Kingdom outside of London. I attended a rally on Saturday with the Bolton Ukrainian Social Club and Cultural Centre, headed up by Yaroslaw Tymchyshyn. As the number of people coming from Ukraine to the United Kingdom inevitably increases, there is an opportunity, in the words of the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse, to add to that “rich tapestry” of the United Kingdom. We have always to be open to change, because change is the only constant. Linguistic diversity has added so much not just to the culture of the United Kingdom, but to our economics and future prosperity. I again thank the hon. Lady for securing the debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum) on securing this important debate.
Languages and multilingualism can advance inclusion and cohesion. The diversity of languages spoken in towns such as Luton, where I come from, acts as an avenue to strengthening and enhancing community cohesion. We are very proud of our town’s diversity and global outlook. In Luton, over 100 languages are spoken and our diversity is our strength.
I was introduced to the celebration of International Mother Language Day by friends in the Bangladeshi community in Luton. Only this weekend, the Purbachal—The Eastern Sky cultural group and the United Nations Association—Luton held an International Mother Language Day celebration event. The theme for the event was “valuing identity, culture, diversity and peace”, which was very appropriate for this time, although the association was using technology, because it was over Zoom. The opportunity to learn about the other languages and cultures that contribute to an area’s identity helps to create shared understanding and respect. In my short contribution to the event, I reflected on the fact that my own mother language, English, is derived from many other languages, including the old Germanic languages, Norse, Latin, French and some ancient Greek, and the point about words evolving is really important.
On the need to develop understanding of languages, we have many local groups in Luton that are key to this endeavour. The Centre for Youth Community and Development is a community group that provides enormous benefits to our diverse communities in Luton. It delivers many services, including educational programmes, English language lessons and activities for our young people. However, one of the most important things that it has done recently is social and heritage history projects, particularly around oral history. People learn about the social development of different generations, which is spoken—it is not possible to write it down. The important thing is being able to speak in the mother language of the elders from the community. If we do not retain those links and the ability to speak the languages of the generations above us, we will lose them.
Very pertinently, I visited the Luton branch of the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain on Sunday to express my solidarity with the community and support their donation drive as they came together. I listened to accounts of the invasion by Putin and the fear that some people’s family members had back in Ukraine, but one of conversations I had with some of the people there was about their pride in the importance of retaining their Ukrainian language with their children to ensure that their children can communicate with their grandparents back in Ukraine. That is prevalent in many different languages, particularly in Luton, where we have many supplementary schools to facilitate learning a language, whether Bangla, Ukrainian, Turkish, Polish, Greek or Tamil. For young children to learn the language of their parents and grandparents so that they are fluent, as we have heard Members say, is really important for remembering these connections. However, it is absolutely right that I make the point that more than 10 years of Tory austerity, with 60p in every £1 being cut from local authorities, have had a detrimental impact on language learning, because the discretionary grants that local authorities were able to make have been taken away, which has been damaging for many of our young children.
On that basis, I would like to hear what the Minister has to say about the impact of 10 years of Tory austerity, and of the cuts to local authorities, on community language schools and supplementary schools, particularly the impact on intergenerational communication and cohesion. Similarly, if we talk about learning and remembering one’s mother language, we have to reflect on the fact that funding across England for providers of English for speakers of other languages, or ESOL, was slashed from £202 million in 2008 to only £105 million in 2018—a real-terms cut of almost 60%. Ensuring that English language lessons are accessible should be a priority for the Government. Either way, it is critical for people to engage in society and fulfil their potential, so I hope that the Minister will outline what steps the Government are taking to ensure that nobody is left behind due to language barriers.
Hon. Members have talked about the languages they have learned. I studied French as a younger person, but the most important thing I learned on Sunday was how to say hello in Ukrainian, so I will leave you with “pryvit”.
I thank you, Sir Edward, and congratulate the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum) on securing this interesting and important debate. It is interesting and important because language is so intimately tied up with identity. I congratulate the hon. Members who have taken part so far on the positive tone of the debate. I come from a country where language has been a contentious issue for many years—something that has now largely passed, I am glad to say.
I am glad that we are debating mother tongues, or what are sometimes called minority languages, lesser used languages in the European Union term, and autochthonous languages, which I use as a former academic. It is a lovely term, which means arising from the land it comes from. In that respect, Welsh and English in Wales are both autochthonous languages, as are other languages that have been mentioned.
I am also glad that we are discussing this on Dydd Gŵyl Dewi, our national saint’s day, St David’s day. In Wales, we have a wealth of understanding of the nature of bilingualism, or rather multilingualism. Bilingualism is just a special case of multilingualism. We also know a lot about translation, machine translation, the technology of simultaneous translation, bilingualism, IT and education, through two languages or one at a time.
We also have experience of devising new terms and growing new meanings on old terms. It is one of the abiding joys of my life that I occasionally see terms that I devised a long time ago, going past on paper from Government publications on social matters. It is humbling to know that I have added one or two to the million entries in the University of Wales dictionary of Welsh, which comes in four volumes and is available upstairs in the Members’ Library, if anybody is interested. I think they bought it especially for me.
It is multilingualism, for many languages are spoken in Wales and the UK, although in Wales only two have legal status, while others are extensively catered for. My argument is that if two are conceded rather than one, why not concede three? Why not make provision in particular circumstances for three or more? The important point is that multilingualism is the normal condition throughout the world. It is the UK’s sometimes suffocating monolingualism that is the exception. There is monolingualism in a large number of other countries as well, although they are a minority.
I have already suggested, in the moments that I have been on my feet, a number of directions that this debate could take. To refer to legal status and its complexities, if we wish to discuss real change we have to think about changing the law, to give rights. It is only through rights that one can secure provision. Welsh language legislation has always been confined to Wales and to the Welsh language. That is how this place has historically treated the language issue. If we are to have proper provision for people who speak the wealth of languages spoken in the UK, we have to think about changing the law. As an old hand in these matters, I suggest that to the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse.
Other languages at present do not count in the same way, although there are variations. In Canada, bilingualism exists broadly throughout the country in a limited sense, but much more intensively in Quebec, but Welsh is confined to Wales. I will refer briefly, as an example, to the Welsh Language Act 1967, which provided equal validity to Welsh, so that if something was done in Welsh, it was as if it was done in English. It was equally valid, though not equal. A provision in that very short Act also said that, in the case of a divergence between the two texts,
“the English text shall prevail”.
That was how the question of equality was dealt with. It could lead to the ridiculous situation that the English says “two and two is five” and the Welsh “dau a dau yn bedwar”, and the answer would be five rather than four, because in the case of a divergence between the two texts, the English shall prevail. That is a hard case, and it is a bad law in that respect. The Welsh Language Act 1993 brought in the principle of
“treated on a basis of equality”.
That is not equality, but “on a basis of”. That is essentially how it stands. It is something that one can work with.
I want to refer the Minister to a couple of private Members’ Bills that I have brought in. Perhaps at least one of them might be revisited at some point, either by me or by the Ministry of Justice, if it is interested. It is a reform of the Juries Act 1974. The Act provides that juries must be able to understand English: that is, the language-understanding principle has been conceded. There is a qualification—that jurors must be able to understand English. Judges can disqualify jurors if they do not understand English. The principle of having to understand the language has been conceded.
The question therefore is, how many languages? I would say, in Wales, two at least—and possibly more. Some years ago, I therefore proposed the Bilingual Juries (Wales) Bill, which would in some cases mean that all members of a jury should be bilingual on the basis of the 1974 Act. The principle is that the jury should understand the evidence as directly as possible in the language in which it is presented, not through the medium of a translator, however good translators are. The law on the Welsh language has been reviewed recently by Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, who provided a substantial report to the Welsh Government. He did not suggest bilingual juries, by the way, but I think he went quite far in that direction. It is worth having a quick look at that again.
One thing that strikes me regularly is that whenever the use of more than one language is discussed—particularly, I would say, on the BBC—the participants seem to feel the need to find interesting but very distanced examples of languages in New Guinea, Australia or China, and the wealth that we have in the UK, and in Wales in particular, is usually ignored. We have a variety of languages in Wales, and not exclusively in urban areas. I represent a rural area, and there are people who speak a variety of languages. They include people who were born in Wales whose home language is another one.
Indeed, as an interested Welsh speaker, I have occasionally said in this place—sometimes to the surprise of the other side—that English is a Welsh language. If hon. Members ponder that for a moment, they will see the reasoning behind it. In that sense, I would also say that Polish, Urdu, Kurdish, Italian, Sylheti and all the others are also Welsh languages. Language is a social construction; it is something that we all agree on that we can use. In that respect, all languages require and deserve respect, and the ability for people to use them.
I have talked much too long already, and I could go on for a very long time. However, I draw hon. Members’ attention to something that some might not have noticed. This House operates bilingually as well—at times, at least. It is a bit under the radar. The Welsh Grand Committee operates in Welsh and English. My last speech to the Committee was entirely in Welsh, and the majority of Members who contributed did so fully or partly in Welsh as well. The Welsh Affairs Committee also regularly enables the use of two languages. The House’s education department has taken great strides in providing education material bilingually, although when the education centre was built around the back of the House of Lords, I suggested that simultaneous translation facilities should be incorporated—they were on demand in one of the lecture rooms—but to no avail. When Welsh is used in the Palace, we build a temporary shed in the corner of the Committee room, complete with snaking wires across the floor to trip anybody who is unwary.
There are alternatives. In Wales, I am used to having bilingual committee meetings of four or five people, and the fifth—or the fourth, even—is a translator who sits in the corner whispering into a microphone, so that people have translation through discreet wireless headphones. It is possible to do without a shed in the corner and wires all over the place.
We need to look at normalising that sort of provision, not just for Welsh but for any language, to enable anyone to contribute. Translation is a boon. It is useful and, in the end, it is a concession for those who do not speak the other language. I can manage well enough in Welsh, and fairly well in English, but translation is a boon for the people who cannot manage. If we bear that principle in mind, the changes to practice become obvious.
Diolch yn fawr, Cadeirydd; thank you very much, Chair. I am delighted to join this debate celebrating International Mother Language Day. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum) on securing the debate, giving her the opportunity to emphasise the importance of the Sylheti language to so many of her constituents. Diolch yn fawr.
UNESCO, which, along with the UN, adopted International Mother Language Day following the initiative by Bangladesh, states that it
“believes in the importance of cultural and linguistic diversity for sustainable societies”
“Linguistic diversity is increasingly threatened as more and more languages disappear.”
That is why I wish to take this opportunity, particularly on St David’s day—dydd Gŵyl Dewi—to talk about the importance of our Welsh language. We cannot underestimate the importance of language to human relationships.
I will give an example of my own experience. My own grandparents—my Mam-gu and Tad-cu—spoke only Welsh in the house. For my mother, it was the language of the home. The bond and nature of the relationship between them is closely linked to their use of the Welsh language. That relationship changed when they spoke English, which was very rare. It was unnatural to them and very uncomfortable. The Welsh language, with its richness of culture, was a vital part of their identity.
The Welsh language story is one of survival, as it is for so many other languages—survival against oppression and prejudice. An example of that is the Welsh not, which was used in schools in the 19th century. Throughout the week, schoolchildren who were caught speaking Welsh had to wear the Welsh not around their neck, and the one who was wearing it at end of the week received a punishment. I am really glad that that is not in existence any more.
The language survived the emigration of Welsh-speaking people to find work after the first world war, and it has survived the inward migration to small rural communities, where Welsh has often remained a first language. The buying up of second homes and the break-up of communities make it impossible for younger people to afford to live in their own communities. The Welsh Government are introducing legislation to try to address that issue. The Welsh language has survived the prejudice of a lack of financial support over decades, as colleagues have mentioned, particularly in the last decade or so of austerity cuts.
On a positive note, thanks to Welsh Government initiatives and campaigning by individuals and organisations such as Cymdeithas yr Iaith, the Welsh language lives on—mae’r iaith yn cadw’n fyw. Welsh is Britain’s oldest language, but it is a living language in daily use. Just under 30% of the population of Wales are able to speak Welsh, and around half a million people use the language daily.
Although my mother received Welsh-medium education at primary school, that was not an option at secondary school. I am very pleased to say that over the last 60 years there has been vast progress. I and my children have received Welsh-medium education. Moreover, since 2017, the Welsh Government have developed their Welsh language strategy, “Cymraeg 2050”. The first four-year phase has the goal of 1 million Welsh speakers by 2050.
I also welcome today’s announcement of the significant additional funding to promote Welsh-medium education support for the work of the Urdd, which is the youth organisation for Wales, by the Minister for Education and Welsh Language.
The use of technology for multilingual learning is the focus of International Mother Language Day 2022, so it is worth noting the increasing spread of Welsh in online learning apps and language podcasts. As I have already mentioned, we have our own Welsh language TV channel, S4C, and the passing of the Welsh Language Act 1993 gave Welsh and English almost equal status, shall we say? That has since been strengthened and updated. In 2011, the Welsh Government established the role of the Welsh Language Commissioner. I would wish, here, to express my sadness at the sudden death on 14 February this year of Aled Roberts, who was the Commissioner since 2019, and had such a depth of love and passion for the Welsh language.
Briefly, our National Eisteddfod epitomises our love of our language. Its poetry and music, and the Llangollen International Eisteddfod, is a mark of Wales’ internationalist tradition. In fact, the first of the reincarnations of the National Eisteddfod actually took place in my constituency in Aberdare in 1861.
I will indulge myself, so let me take this opportunity to share my love and joy of the Welsh language. Wales is sometimes called the land of song—Gwlad y Gân—or, as the Welsh national anthem states, “Gwlad beirdd a chantorion”, the land of poets and singers. The language really does sing to me, particularly through its poetry. That is not only because it sounds so beautiful but because the messages from many of the Welsh poets are also beautiful.
I will read an extract from a poem by Jacob Davies, who was a Unitarian minister and, like so many Welsh poets, had a strong desire to see a more equal and just world, where peace and compassion for our fellow human beings ruled supreme. He said:
“A phan ddaw plant y byd yn grwn
I ganu can o hedd,
Anghofir am y rhannu blin
O achos lliw a gwedd.
O dewch blant o liwiau’r haul
A holl deuluoedd dyn,
I ganu can ein gobaith cu
Fod plant y byd yn un.”
It speaks of children, of all parts of the world, from all families of humankind coming together as one, forgetting our divisions, and singing a song of peace. Diolch yn fawr.
O seun, Sir Edward, and o seun fun ore mi, Apsana. That was “Thank you, Sir Edward” and “thank you to my friend”—to my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum), who called this debate—in Yoruba, my late mother’s native tongue. I note that the Minister has recently returned from Ghana and Nigeria, so I say to her, “kaabo” and “akwaaba” which mean “welcome” in both Yoruba and Twi.
My constituency of Vauxhall is a community made whole by a multitude of multilingual people. Nobody living in Stockwell during the finals of Euro 2016 could have failed to notice the vibrant Portuguese community that calls my constituency home. Vauxhall is also home to large Jamaican, Nigerian, Ghanaian, Italian, Ecuadorian, Somalian, Ethiopian and Eritrean communities.
Our schools are home to over 50 languages, spoken by the children of migrants from right across the world. As a result, no one can fail to be exposed to a number of different languages spoken by native speakers walking through the streets of Brixton, Stockwell, Kennington, Clapham, or even just across the river from here, in Waterloo, in my constituency.
Far from the predictions of the doomsayers on multiculturalism, my constituency thrives from that diversity of language and culture. Rather than create a division, the multilingual nature of Vauxhall has harboured tolerance and respect among my constituents. It has allowed diverse businesses to thrive, and exposed all of us to cultures from around the world without even leaving our neighbourhoods. Most importantly, it means that, wherever someone comes from, they will find a home in Vauxhall, whatever language they speak. Whether it is Portuguese, Italian, Somalian, or my late mother’s native tongue of Yoruba, our mother tongues should be celebrated. However, around the world, we are seeing mother tongues marginalised and discriminated against, often with disastrous consequences.
The theme of this year’s International Mother Language Day 2022 is technology and multilingual learning. That is so important after we have seen much learning activity move online due to measures taken to combat covid-19. Lambeth is home to one of the largest Portuguese-speaking populations in the UK. However, some of those Portuguese-speaking pupils are also the lowest-attaining pupil group in Lambeth. Last October, at Vauxhall Primary School, I attended the launch of Lambeth Schools Partnership’s Somos Lambeth, which celebrates and fosters the rise in the achievement and profile of Portuguese-speaking pupils in Lambeth, and supports family and community collaboration.
Unfortunately, reports from UNESCO found that children in education who did not speak a major or national language in their country did not have the same vital access to education as their peers. It is unacceptable for young people to miss out simply for not speaking their mother tongue in the country that they are in. I have one ask for the Minister this afternoon. Will she work with the Government and our international partners to improve access to education for speakers of all languages? E seun, Sir Edward.
I am not sure how long I have to wind up for the SNP, but I will assume it is about five minutes and be gentle and kind to Labour and the Conservatives—as is always my way. It was a very interesting debate and I congratulate the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum)—it is absolutely fantastic that she secured it. It was inspiring to hear that Tower Hamlets has 90 languages; I am not sure that it is a competition with Vauxhall, but Tower Hamlets is winning 90 to 50. I gently say to the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) that she has another 40 to go in order to hold her head up with Poplar and Limehouse.
The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse also talked about the expressing of ideas in various languages; those of us who are multilingual or bilingual understand that intuitively. She said very wisely that one language is never enough. I will help: chan eil aon chànan a-riamh gu leòr, as it is in Scottish Gaelic; ní leor teanga amháin riamh, in Irish Gaelic, which my mother spoke; and, einn tungumál er aldrei nóg, in Icelandic, which I have been trying to learn in Parliament with the help of the Foreign Office. Lessons are available to Members of Parliament, incidentally, in any language. There are ups and downs of doing that. I got hammered in the Daily Express for it—but that is the sort of thing the Daily Express does anyway. However, on the upside, when people in Iceland read the Daily Express, I became a national hero there for 24 hours. I have to thank the Daily Express for pointing out—and it might want to print the article again—that I learnt Icelandic in Parliament with the Foreign Office’s help. I would encourage other Members to take that up; it is a fantastic opportunity.
The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse also said that culture wars were a mistake. That is absolutely right; they cut people off, as was mentioned by the hon. Member for Bolton North East (Mark Logan). I was fascinated to hear about his use of Mandarin at home—I think he has told me before. It was amazing to hear what he had to say on language. He also said that he was in Donegal to learn some Irish. I have also been to Donegal; although my mother was Irish, she was not really from a Gaeltacht area. I would say to him that he should persevere, because the spelling systems of both Scottish and Irish Gaelic are logical. The only time that English had such a system was when the monks of Iona went to Lindisfarne and sorted out the spelling for English—which the English language has gone about messing up ever since. I am sure that the monks of Donegal, or Iona, if they were still there, might be willing to come back and help.
The hon. Member for Bolton North East also mentioned the hegemonic place of English in the world. That is an advantage but it is also a disadvantage. We cannot see into other societies as clearly as they can see into our society. We do not know the granular arguments that are going on in Oslo, Stockholm or Helsinki like they know the arguments that are going on in the UK or Washington DC. Too often, the monolingual English world loses a lot of insight as to what other people are doing. I think that is a big mistake.
The hon. Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) emphasised that languages borrow from each other. That was no idle slogan—if I can throw in a Gaelic word. Languages do borrow from each other, and that is something very natural. People often ask me, “What is the Scottish Gaelic for helicopter?” I say to them, “What is the English for helicopter? It is a Greek word, for goodness sake.” Similarly, “television”—
Very good; yes, I remember the great gift to modern democracy and politics that was that certain individual.
The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse was also right to make the point about funding and how the Government have to provide it. We are having a nice, celebratory debate about International Mother Language Day; maybe that phrase is benignly sexist in a way, because Scottish Gaelic was my father’s language. However, the hon. Member made the serious point about cuts of 60p in the pound. On a day of good will to the Government, perhaps the point can be made gently to them that they should ensure that languages are not left as barriers to people but rightly become the conduits to a greater understanding that they should be.
The hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) gave us a scholarly account of Welsh and multilingualism in Wales; I thought his speech was a tour de force. In fact, he devises new terms himself; he is a wordsmith. We have a wordsmith in our midst; we are very lucky. In fact, he was so scholarly that he encouraged us all to go to the library and learn some Welsh. He also emphasised that monolingualism is the exception and that most people in the world are bilingual.
I myself used to be a bilingual teacher, teaching Scottish Gaelic on the island of Mull to young children coming from English-speaking households. They could pick up Gaelic very quickly and very easily. Typically, 800 hours was the amount required for a breakthrough in Gaelic; after 2,000 hours, they were generally quite fluent. They had no problems at all and I would say that their lives were enhanced. Research from Canada and other countries shows the benefits of a bilingual education. One is improved problem-solving in maths and another is that although children study their own first language less in school, they end up being better at it; that is one of the benefits of expanding and stretching the brain, with the gymnastics—perhaps—of learning a second language.
Then there is the Juries Act 1974. I want to check this one, because the hon. Gentleman wants to change it. However, given people’s willingness to serve on juries, perhaps it might work as a perverse incentive to bilingualism; people might claim not to be bilingual to get off serving on juries. That would be my only word of caution there.
The hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) mentioned language death, family relationships and people having different ways of expressing themselves and knowing each other, due to the language they choose to use. I can remember quite vividly that, when my late parents were alive, there was an occasion when speaking around the table were myself, my mother and my father; my two sisters were not there. I was speaking Gaelic to my father and English to my mother; my parents spoke English together; and all three of us understood each other. It felt alien to me to speak English to my father. It felt a bit of work to talk to my mother in Gaelic, because I knew she had learned Gaelic; she used to envy me as a child, because I had gone from being a baby to vaulting past her in linguistic ability by the time I was four or five.
The hon. Member’s comments really brought back to me how people are comfortable in some languages and uncomfortable in others. I know that some of my own neighbours would prefer by far to use Gaelic all the time. I asked one neighbour to do an interview for radio; it was just about agriculture in the area. He asked me if the interview was in Gaelic or English. I said it was in English and he refused point blank to do it, saying he was not comfortable enough in English to do it. He said, “I dinnae want to be doing it”.
The hon. Member also mentioned how Welsh has survived the economic forces of people coming in and buying houses, which happens in many places. We see it perhaps particularly with Cornish; now it is a dead language, but we have to remember it in this debate, because it is one of the older languages of the British isles. I would put Manx in there, too; we have mentioned Irish Gaelic and Scottish Gaelic. And today, of course, we are conversing in one of the Johnny-come-lately languages to these islands, if I can gently say that, which is English; of course, it is also a very welcome language.
The hon. Member also mentioned the focus on technology. I should say that 500,000 people have started to learn Scottish Gaelic on Duolingo. It is also important if there can be spellcheckers in various programmes, to help people in their various languages. It helps and increases the use of those languages, and makes it seen that the languages are about. I say that because I know myself that if somebody joins the company and we are speaking in Gaelic, we will move to English, but that gives people an impression that there is no Gaelic about. The Welsh are renowned for not doing that; whether that is true or not, I do not know. It is possibly detrimental to the Gaelic language that we do that.
There was also mention of poetry and music. I should also put an advert in for BBC Radio nan Gàidheal, available on BBC Sounds. From 10 to 12 every weekday morning, people can listen to “A’ Mire ri Mòir”—a fantastic programme, where the best of traditional Gaelic songs can be heard. On Friday nights, if people want to chill between 6 pm and 9 pm, they can listen to “Na Dùrachdan”—that is a great programme as well. I think I am making a good case for Gaelic there.
Everybody has emphasised that there are many languages about and we are very fortunate to have them, whether that is Mandarin, Irish Gaelic, Yoruba or Bangla, or any of the number that have been mentioned. In Scotland, we have seen a resurgence in Gaelic, which has been low. We have about 87,000 speakers. The Gaelic school in Glasgow is doing particularly well, having gone from 450 pupils to 1,300 in the last 10 years. A second school is on the way. In the Highlands, almost 2,000 pupils are in Gaelic medium education. My own constituency, the smallest by population in this Parliament, has 1,400 students in Gaelic medium education. The Scottish Government are planning to bring forward a new Scottish languages Bill, which will support not only Gaelic, but also the Scots language.
The hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) had some fantastic boasts about what Labour were doing in Wales. That is fantastic—every political party should have boasts on what they are doing for second languages. Languages do not belong to anybody. The hon. Member for Bolton North East, who is originally from Northern Ireland, made that point. I pay tribute to Linda Ervine in Northern Ireland who does an awful lot, from the Unionist loyalist community, for the promotion, in a sensible and mature way, of enhancing her life and the lives of those around her through the use of the old language of Ireland, while not in any way diminishing any other language—a point we all should be making.
I have often heard the opinion that it would be great if we all spoke the one language. On reflection, when we think about that, it is not true, although the language of heaven might be a separate point—the Welsh have claimed it is Welsh, actually. It would be great to see an eternal life, not where we have one language, but where we have the capacity to understand and to speak the thousands of languages that are about and to get the insights, the views and the jokes. Bilingual jokes rely on two languages; our sense of fun would certainly grow. I have never heard anybody who can speak however many languages say that they wish they could speak fewer languages. We always hear them say, “I wish I could speak more.”
As politicians, we have to look at the resource in communities across the United Kingdom of Yoruba, Bangla and so on—those 50 or 90 languages—and maintain them, and keep them. In years to come, those might be the languages of trade and commerce. They are a direct route into another community; there is a fantastic dividend for everybody, not just through the joy of knowing that language, but through the access to and communication with other people. That is essentially what language is—a communication with other people, and that communication is very special when people can use idiosyncratic and family terms together.
I thank you for chairing today’s important debate, Sir Edward. Let me start by saying that the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) is still a legend in Iceland, as I know from personal experience.
On this day of all days, I start by saying, salaam alaikum, shalom, sat sri akaal, namaste, dobry den—and, most importantly, because it is the only other language I speak, bienvenue à notre débat d’aujourd’hui.
I was privileged to grow up in a French-speaking household. My father’s first language—his mother tongue— was French. My grandmother, who was born in Switzerland, spoke French. She also spoke eight other languages, including a language that I doubt many people have heard of, called Ladino. That was the language of the Sephardic Jewish community that left southern Spain in the 15th century and emigrated across to the Netherlands, then a Spanish colony, and to the Ottoman empire, where Jews were given sanctuary for many centuries, until the Nazis destroyed that community—among them, my own grandparents.
Today’s debate comes at a very important time. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum) for securing the debate. It is right that we should be debating something as fundamental as language, which is so critical to the avoidance of conflict and the keeping of peace. As we have heard this afternoon, Britain rightly prides herself on the diversity of our communities up and down the country. It is what makes our towns and cities strong and unified, and it keeps our economy going. Many Members have made that point. We are privileged in this country to have an education system that is available to all who need it and in the language that they need it. Sadly, though, 40% of the world’s population does not have access to an education in a language they speak or understand. That has a severe impact on millions of children across the world, and it is especially damaging during their formative years.
We should also realise that this issue mainly affects people living in poverty. In Côte d’Ivoire, 55% of grade 5 students who spoke the test language at home—French—learned the basics of reading in 2010, compared with only 25% of those who spoke another language. As UNESCO put it,
“If you don’t understand, how can you learn?”
We must work with our international partners and allies to empower multilingual education and ensure that no child is ever left behind. This is especially important in communities where significant ethnic minorities are present—here in the UK, for example. The domination of an official language in countries can lead to severe social and economic disparities between those who speak the official language and those who do not.
Most disturbingly, as has already been mentioned, we have seen Governments actively repress linguistic freedom in some parts of the world. In China, the people of Tibet, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra), and Mongolia and, most recently, the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang have had their languages banned or severely restricted as part of the Chinese Government’s twisted obsession with cultural policy.
The United Nations defines
“Any deliberate act committed with intent to destroy the language”
as a clear breach of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Before this repression began, 80% of those who lived in Tibet could speak the Tibetan language. I have been there and experienced it myself, and I have heard it myself from Tibetan colleagues and friends here in the United Kingdom. Today, nine out of 10 Tibetans do not know how to write their own language. How tragic is that? Repression like that is completely unacceptable. I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us what action the Government are taking to try to co-ordinate an international response to those affected by appalling attacks on their culture and language.
The diversity of language is not only important in keeping our societies sustainable, but it is vital for our culture and our diplomacy. It is how we put forward the case for Britain abroad. We have some brilliant and truly amazing institutions with the ability to galvanise our country’s soft power, and we must start using them again. I ask the Minister: how are the Government working with our institutions abroad, the British Council, for example, to empower multilingualism?
The pandemic has shown us just how effective distance learning can be during a crisis. It kept schools going across the world. Given that this year’s theme of International Mother Language Day is
“Using technology for multilingual learning”,
I ask the Minister what economic and technological support is being given by the UK Government to countries that are struggling to provide remote learning for their children.
I am proud to represent Leeds North East, where over 20 languages are spoken and where some schools have more than 100 languages spoken—Carr Manor Community School, for example. It is good for our communities and our children’s education and cultural prosperity. However, there is still work to do at home. As we have heard this afternoon, there are hundreds of thousands of people in our United Kingdom who have been left behind because they cannot speak English. That is severely detrimental to their physical and mental health, as well as their societal and economic wellbeing.
In London alone, as my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) mentioned in her speech, almost 350,000 people are unable to speak English, and, worryingly, around 60% of them are women. It is vital that we look to empower the over 7,000 different languages both in our country and across the world, and the Opposition stands ready to work with colleagues from right across the House to achieve this. Let me conclude by using some of the few words I have in Russian—net voyny, which means “no war”.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum) and all the hon. Members for speaking. I also wish a particularly happy St David’s day to all our Welsh colleagues.
It has been wonderful to hear everyone speak in so many languages. I am not going to speak in another language, but I was deeply grateful to the headteacher of the Royal School for the Deaf Derby for teaching me how to introduce myself. My name is Vicky. [In British Sign Language: “My name is Vicky.”] Also, to the children who come each year to Chelmsford for our annual carol concert for the deaf and hearing impaired, who taught me how to say “Happy Christmas”. [In British Sign Language: “Happy Christmas.”] That is “happy”, with a big smile, and then a reindeer, stroking the snow and then putting their foot down. I hope hon. Members remember that.
As the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse pointed out, International Mother Language Day was established by UNESCO in 1999. It is an annual global celebration of cultural and linguistic diversity. It was a Bangladeshi initiative inspired by Bengali students, who sacrificed their lives for the right to speak in their mother tongue in what was then East Pakistan. Those students have been honoured annually in Bangladesh since 1952 on Language Martyrs’ Day, which also marks the significance of the movement as a cornerstone of Bangladeshi independence.
Successive UK Governments have a proud history of standing up for minority groups, including linguistic minorities. International Mother Language Day promotes linguistic and cultural diversity across the world. It encourages the preservation of more than 6,000 languages and promotes the need for multilingual education to aid learning and preserve cultures. This year’s event focuses on the challenges and opportunities of using technology for multilingual learning. That is timely following the pandemic and the way the world has had to reimagine the way we use technology to teach and learn.
The Department for Education has invested significantly in devices to support disadvantaged students and platforms and connectivity for schools and colleges, particularly those in rural and hard to reach areas. Across the world, however, we know that many lack the equipment and internet access needed for home learning during the pandemic and more must be done to ensure quality education for all. The UK is committed to ensuring that everyone can access education and learn. Last year, despite covid, under our presidency of the G7, we committed to two important global targets to get 40 million more girls in school and 20 million more girls learning by 2026.
The impact of school closures during the pandemic means that the initiative to get girls learning is more urgent than ever. We recently launched the prestigious Global Education Evidence Advisory Panel report with the World Bank and UNICEF to provide practical, evidence-based recommendations to drive learning recovery globally. Following on from the global launch of the report, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will be hosting in-country launch events, starting with Bangladesh on 12 March, which—the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) will like this—will be followed by events in Ghana, Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa and India.
We remain committed to our call for 12 years of quality education for all children, especially girls. Last year, the Foreign Secretary publicly committed to restoring gender equality funding to pre-cut official development assistance levels, as part of her vision to put women and girls at the heart of our international development strategy. We are delivering on this commitment to girls’ education all around the world. For example, in Bangladesh, we recently announced a £54 million programme supporting access to improved education for all.
The Government recognise the many benefits of multilingualism, and International Mother Language Day is one of myriad events in which we celebrate the cultural and linguistic diversity of the UK. Doing so builds tolerance, understanding and solidarity between us. Linguistic diversity is one of the defining aspects of our country.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton North East (Mark Logan) spoke of his valiant efforts to learn Irish. I, too, have spent many a summer in Donegal, but have never tried to learn Irish—it is an incredibly challenging subject, but I encourage him to keep going. We remain committed to linguistic diversity and protecting minority languages across the UK, including Cornish, Manx Gaelic, Scots Gaelic, Scots, Ulster Scots, Irish and Welsh. Today, there are over 300 languages spoken in our schools.
As it is St David’s day, I remind colleagues that Welsh is the oldest indigenous language of these British Isles. It is also one of the oldest in Europe, and since 2011 it has been a language protected by law and has had equal status to English in Wales. The UK Government are supporting the Welsh language, including the aim of achieving 1 million Welsh speakers by 2050, and the Government have also increased the use of that language in public debate—including in the House of Commons, as was seen most recently in the Welsh Grand Committee debate held on 18 January 2022. The hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) spoke about the many people who turned to learning the Welsh language via the Duolingo app during lockdown; my own husband contributed to that great effort.
Our country is blessed by the dynamism and contributions of our many diaspora communities, and I again thank the 600,000 British people of Bangladeshi origin who live in the UK. Our diversity makes it easier for us to forge meaningful and productive partnerships with countries across the world—again, I return to Bangladesh, because over recent months we have celebrated the golden jubilee of Bangladesh’s independence and of UK-Bangladesh relations. For the past five decades, the UK and Bangladesh have worked together as friends and partners to overcome challenges and help our countries to become more secure and prosperous.
Bangladesh has made remarkable progress. It has lifted millions of people out of poverty and made giant leaps forward in life expectancy. It has built a dynamic economy that is among the fastest growing in the world. It has supported international peace and stability, being the largest contributor to UN peacekeepers. Over recent years, Bangladesh has showed incredible generosity by hosting nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, and we have stood with Bangladesh, contributing £320 million to its refugee programme. We have worked particularly closely with Bangladesh over the past year in response to the covid pandemic and to tackle climate change, and the UK is proud to partner with Bangladesh on so many fronts.
The hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) spoke about the situation in Tibet. We have very serious concerns about that situation, including about reports of the erosion of the Tibetan language and culture. We continue to urge China to respect fundamental rights across China, in line with its own constitution and international frameworks. The hon. Gentleman specifically asked what the Government are doing to co-ordinate international efforts: maybe he is in two countries at once, because earlier today, the Foreign Secretary expressed her concern about human rights violations in Tibet at the Human Rights Council taking place in Geneva today.
At this time, all across the UK, we are thinking about the really brave people in Ukraine. Ukraine is a multilingual nation, with both Ukrainian and Russian spoken widely in many households. Ukraine does not restrict Russian as a language used by citizens; Russian is spoken frequently in the street and freely in people’s homes. Millions of Ukrainians across the country speak Russian as their first language and face no problems. Let me use my language very clearly: we call on Putin to remove his troops and stop the violence. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] We in the UK stand firmly with the people of Ukraine, and are proud to be stepping up our role and playing our part in responding to the terrible situation on the ground. Yesterday, the UK announced the first phase of bespoke humanitarian routes for the people of Ukraine, responding directly to the needs and asks of the Ukrainian Government. We will continue to do so.
At this dark hour in human history, with conflict raging on the European continent, we should welcome all initiatives that build understanding and tolerance. International Mother Language Day is one such initiative, and I thank our friends and partners from Bangladesh and UNESCO for it.
I thank everyone who has contributed today to what has been a very positive debate. It is clear that valuing linguistic diversity helps people with their understanding of language and culture, raises educational attainment—as the Minister has mentioned—and celebrates the plurality and richness of our multicultural communities. It is important for us all to continue to stand with and celebrate all of our communities: diverse, dynamic, multicultural and multiracial, with people of all different faiths and none from everywhere around the world, including Ukraine.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered International Mother Language Day 2022.