The futuristic shell of Selfridge, Birmingham. Brum hosts the Commonwealth Games 2022. Image by Rob Grace, FreeImages.com

A Commonwealth of Languages : The Hidden Wealth of Brum 2022

International events are a touch-point for different languages coming into contact. No surprise, then, that I’m bursting with excitement and pride that my home city, Birmingham, will be hosting the Commonwealth Games this Summer!

It only seems like the life cycle of a midge ago that Brum was selected to host the next games. That, of course, was in the before… and so many things have happened since then. We’ve had a missed Eurovision, a year-shifted Olympics and Euros, and countless other disappointments as countries battled Covid.

But, touch wood, it seems like the Commonwealth Games are on track to bring that cosmopolitan magic to the city this July and August.

And what better way to welcome and respect our guests, than by learning about their many languages?

A Commonwealth of Languages

The Commonwealth is, of course, a smaller club of countries than Olympics-competing nations. So what languages might be coming to the city’s sports venues?

The answer is: potentially hundreds. Naturally, these include the cross-national lingua francas like English, French and Swahili. But in the mix is a wealth of languages each spoken by far fewer people, many of them endangered. I can’t possibly do them all justice in a short blog post – this excellent 2011 episode from the Talk the Talk podcast describes that fragile richness of tongues much more eloquently.

The Beauty That Hides

But the lesson for languages learners in all of this is simply to avoid generalisations when it comes to national languages. The fact is that supraregional, often transplanted tongues, like English in Australia, and French in Canada, obscure a picture of extreme linguistic diversity stretching back long before the introduction of those global comms conduits. And it’s a diversity that otherwise goes unnoticed on the international stage.

English and French are certainly not the only culprits; the spread of standard Swahili is impinging on smaller, local varieties too. Loss seems to be an inevitable outcome of globalising, commercialising languages, a topic covered in fascinating detail in Nicholas Evans’ Dying Words (well worth a read).

Doing Our Bit

So what part can we play in redressing the balance?

Well, just as the Commonwealth continues to modernise and deal with its own legacy, we can start by simply acknowledging that hidden wealth. When looking forward to a Brum of languages, deep dive. Peer behind the curtain of official languages, and shine a light on what is so rarely spotlit. What else is hiding behind those big languages of the competing countries?

In Tanzania, for example, there are over a hundred languages that coexist with Swahili. While there may be few resources to learn them (yet), just to know about them is a start in acknowledging the people that speak them.

It’s a small step towards welcoming Brum’s international guests with even more respect than ever.

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