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Great Britain and its language

Where can I find information about English courses?

A list of private language schools which have been recognised by the British Council is available from the British Council office in Berlin or in Britain. The British Council also publishes English Studies Information Service (ESIS) sheets on English language learning.

The British Council
Hackescher Markt 1
10178 Berlin
Tel: (030) 311 0990
Fax: (030) 311 09920


The British Council Information Centre,
Bridgewater House, 58 Whitworth Street,
Manchester M1 6BB, UK
Tel: +44 161 957 7000
Fax: +44 161 957 7111
Education Information Service,
The British Council,
10 Spring Gardens,
London SW1A 2BN, UK
Tel: +44 207 930 8466
Fax: +44 207 839 6347

How many people speak English worldwide?

English is one of the most widely used languages in the world. Recent estimates suggest that over 337 million people speak English as their first language, with possibly some 350 million speaking it as a second language. America has the largest number of English speakers - over 226 million speak the language as a mother tongue. Some 3,000 English newspapers are published throughout India where English is an official language alongside Hindi.

English is also the favoured language of international commerce. Over 80 per cent of the world's electronically stored information is in English and two-thirds of the world's scientists read in English. English is an official language, or has a special status, in over 75 of the world's territories.

If the rest of the world is not talking English, they are borrowing English words to add to their own language: the Japanese go on a "pikunikku" (picnic), Italians programme their computers with "il software", Germans talk about "ein Image-Problem" and "das Cashflow" and Czechs say "ahoy!" for "hello" - a greeting traditionally used by English sailors, which is interesting as the Czech Republic has no sea coast.

Why are many English words pronounced differently from the way they are spelt?

Beware of heard, a dreadful word,
That looks like beard and sounds like bird,
And dead: its said like bed, not bead,
For Goodness sake, dont call it deed!
Watch out for meat and great and threat,
They rhyme with suite and straight and debt.

English spelling is unpredictable at the best of times, and occasionally totally chaotic - an opinion no doubt shared by British schoolchildren and those studying English around the world alike. However, studies of the language claim that there are only about 400 words in English whose spelling is wholly irregular. Unfortunately many of them are among the most frequently used in the language. The problems with the English spelling system came about as the language developed over a period of 1,000 years. Some complications arose early on, when the Romans tried to write down Old English using the 23 letter Latin alphabet. Old English contained nearly 40 vowels and consonants.

The influence of French after the Norman Conquest also made an impact on English spelling. French scribes introduced qu where Old English had used “cw e.g. queen and “gh instead of “h e.g. night, amongst other changes.

The introduction of the printing press in 1476 meant that the standard spelling system began to emerge. The system reflected the speech of the London area. The pronunciation of vowel underwent further changes during the 15th century, but because of the advent of the printing press, spelling never caught up.

Previously, scribes would have simply written down a new spelling to reflect the new pronunciation. Thus modern spelling in many ways reflects outmoded pronunciations of words dating back to the Middle Ages.

Despite many attempts to reform the English spelling system, so far no changes have been made since the 16th century - mainly because nobody can agree on what the best alternative may be!

Do Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own languages?

At the start of the 20th century half of the population of Wales were able to speak Welsh, a language belonging to the Celtic family. However, the numbers of Welsh-speaking people have steadily declined, and today only about a fifth of the population of Wales speak the language.

Both the government and voluntary groups have taken steps to revive the use of Welsh. Bilingual education in school is encouraged, and there has been an extended use of Welsh for radio and television programmes.

Gaelic, also a language of Celtic origin, is still spoken by some 70,000 people in Scotland, with the greatest concentration of Gaelic speakers in the islands of the Hebrides. The word “whisky, the famous Scottish alcoholic drink, is derived from Gaelic uisce beatha or “water of live!

People in the Lowlands of Scotland have for centuries spoken Scots, a dialect derived from the Northumbrian branch of Old English and a completely separate language from Gaelic. This has its own recognised literary tradition as in the poetry of Robert Burns and has seen a revival in poetry in the 20th century.

Gaelic is also the language of the Irish people. It is still taught in both Northern Ireland an the Republic of Ireland. In Northern Ireland at the time of the 1991 census there were 142,000 speakers of Irish Gaelic.

Why is English spoken with different accents?

Most British people can recognise where someone was brought up by their accent. Every region has its own way of pronouncing the words and sentences of English that identifies the speaker with that particular geographical area. Differences arose from the time when English was spoken in a variety of different forms during the Middle Ages - Northern (developed from Northumbrian Old English), West and East Midlands (diverging from Mercian Old English), South Western (West Saxon) and South Eastern (Kentish).

After 1500 the language of London gradually emerged as the most dominant form, and today the London or Southern accent is usually accepted as Standard English. This is sometimes referred to as “BBC English since at one time all announcers on BBC radio and TV were required to speak it.

Regional accents have persisted and diversified over the centuries. Today the identification of an accent can place the speaker in a general area of Britain - such as West Country or South Wales, or be quite specific, referring to individual counties or cities; e.g. Liverpool, Yorkshire or Glasgow accents.

Although Standard English was once the accepted form of English for public speaking or broadcasting, today regional accents are widely used on television and radio.

What is cockney rhyming slang?

True cockneys traditionally come from a very small part of London. In fact, only those born within the sound of Bow Bells, which ring out from the church of St Mary-le-Bow, Cheapside in the City of London, could by tradition consider themselves “cockneys. In reality the cockney heartland lies in the East End of London.

Like many other small communities, cockneys had a large number of words and phrases which had special meanings for them, but they took this to extremes by inventing a whole new dialect - “rhyming slang - which has been in use since the mid of 19th century. Rhyming slang uses a phrase that rhymes with a word, instead of the word itself - thus “stairs becomes “dicky bird! To add to the confusion for the uninitiated, the rhyming part of the word is often dropped: thus “daisies are “boots (for “daisy roots).

Some people complain that rhyming slang is simply spoken to give the cockney an unfair advantage over strangers - the wily cockney spots an attentive or enquiring stranger and lapses into rhyming slang so that he or she cant be understood!

However numerous colloquial expressions derive from rhyming slang, and have even heard in use in the House of Commons, such as “lets get down to brass tacks means “lets talk facts!

What are the main ethnic minority languages?

Britains Afro-Caribbean population does not have its own language, although many second and even third-generation West Indians speak a dialect of Standard English described as Creole, or Jamaican Creole (patois).

Britains Asian population speak a variety of languages, often using different languages for writing and speaking. The national languages of India and Pakistan are Hindi and Urdu. Northern Indian languages are also widely used in Britain - Punjabi, Gujarati and Bengali. These three languages have a common derivation in Sanskrit, the classical language of ancient India, but are not necessarily mutually intelligible. There are more Asian speakers of Punjabi in Britain than any other languages, followed by speakers of Urdu, Bengali and Gujarati.

Two of the main Chinese dialects spoken by the Chinese in Britain are Cantonese, the language of urban Hong Kong and Guangdong province, and Mandarin, spoken by those from mainland China.


The texts presented here have been placed with friendly approval of the British embassy on non-commercial basis. You find further information about Great Britain and the UK on the web pages of the British embassy named below.
Contact: British Embassy, Wilhelmstr. 70-71,
10117 Berlin, Germany Tel +49 (0)30 20457-0