The (International) Cocktail Party Effect in London

If someone were to kidnap and drop you blindfolded into the streets of London, you’d almost certainly have no idea where the hell you’d been smuggled away to. Perhaps you’ll hear a few instances of that same aristocratic British accent that every single wise old mentor or otherwise super intelligent person in American TV or movies seems to have and think that you’re safely in the company of Gandalf and Giles and Stewie Griffin. But your ears are just as likely to tell you that you’ve been abducted by Russian spies or landed on the set of a Bollywood film or the middle of any given Chinatown.

In London, the linguistic variety is absolutely dizzying. English is of course the de facto language of daily life and inter-group lingua franca, but the ‘English’ spoken in London is far from one monolithic entity. Aside from the thousands of accents and dialects of Global English that keep London moving every day, there are over 100 different languages spoken in each borough of the city. 

I counted seven times that I noticed Dutch being spoken in my eight days walking around London’s streets, and around every corner were bald eagles flying proudly out of the mouths of a group of twenty-somethings, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there is any higher concentration of Dutch or Americans in London than there is anywhere else. In fact, especially in a global city like London, no two people will have the same experience of the linguistic variety to be found there.


Global cities and their (many, many) languages
Somehow in all my travels in the last three years I’ve managed to miss most of the big names. I’m American but I’ve never been to New York or San Francisco. I’ve lived for two years in Europe without seeing Paris or Rome. This month when I went to London for the last stop on my way out of Europe, it was the largest, most populous, and most cosmopolitan city I’ve been to yet. Runners up include Chicago, Toronto, Berlin, and Barcelona, but even these bustling metropolises didn’t prepare me for the sheer internationalness of London. It’s a melting pot of cultures, which makes it also a melting pot of languages.

It’s a city built for foreigners (mostly tourists): given the UK’s insistence on driving on the left side of the road, every crosswalk has enormous eye-catching directions painted on the pavement alerting potentially confused pedestrians which side to watch for cars.

One of the great things about these big famous cosmopolitan cities is that they really are global cities in a fantastic sense of the phrase. They’re more a part of the wider world than they are a part of the country or even continent they belong to. London is about as cosmopolitan as it gets: according to the Global Cities index, New York is its only equal in terms of ‘globalness’. A city built for newcomers from the whole world, tourists or immigrants or the foreign family of London-based internationals, it’s fitting of the former capital of the world’s largest empire. Nowadays many citizens of that former empire are trekking from Nigeria, Kenya, India, Malaysia, and Jamaica to find work and life in the UK’s capital. But it’s not just developing countries that are sending laborers to London: 66 thousand French, 64 thousand Americans, and 54 thousand Australians also make up some of the larger tiles in London’s international mosaic.

Thirty-seven percent of Londoners are foreign-born and only forty-five percent are white Brits, meaning that between immigrants and descendants of immigrants half-this half-that born-here-but-grew-up-there international types, London is one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse cities in the world. And all of these cultures bring their languages with them: over 300 languages are currently spoken in London schools. Some of the major ingredients in London’s linguistic cocktail include Bengali, Polish, Portuguese, French, and Turkish, and these and the other top non-indigenous languages correspond more or less to the immigrant populations that speak them. But that doesn’t mean that Indians and Brazilians and Turks in London aren’t speaking English.

“Welcome to _____, now speak _____!”
Immigration is a hot-button issue in a lot of places right now. Amnesty for undocumented immigrants and the power struggle between President Obama and Congress is the latest political drama in the States at the moment, but the topic is particularly heated in European Union countries, and most especially in the UK. It’s a huge discussion with plenty of rational points to be made on both sides, but it’s far too often that cries for stricter immigration policies are conflated with the fallacy that immigrants don’t speak ‘our language’.

"In Rotterdam we speak more than 100 languages"

“In Rotterdam we speak more than 100 languages”

In the midst of a parliamentary election in the Netherlands earlier this year, the majority VVD party posted a controversial campaign poster in Rotterdam that read In Rotterdam spreken we Nederlands (“In Rotterdam we speak Dutch”). Rotterdam is one of the most immigrant-heavy cities in the Netherlands, and while it’s true that Nederlands is the language of the city, it’s also true that it’s not the only one. Local party NIDA came out with the response here on the right (“In Rotterdam we speak more than 100 languages”), and D66 Rotterdam tweeted this savvy response with a listing of some of the many languages spoken in the city, using the hashtag #wereldstad (“world city”) to close it off.

The rhetoric is similar in the UK. In the last week, UKIP (the United Kingdom Independence Party) has jumped into the headlines again with its EU-skeptical and anti-immigration positions, and it seems that many Brits like what they’re saying (especially in rural areas where there are very few immigrants). Just yesterday, the UK Work and Pension secretary claimed that “non-English-speaking children are changing the character of British schools” and that the massive numbers of foreign kids who don’t know English are essentially screwing up the school system.

Common variant on the "Welcome to America, NOW SPEAK ENGLISH!" t-shirt

Common variant on the “Welcome to America, NOW SPEAK ENGLISH!” t-shirt

This is all built on a couple key suppositions that are either lacking important context, highly exaggerated, or quite often just completely inaccurate. The most ubiquitous and mentally lazy of all these assumptions goes something like “I hear you speaking some crazy language that’s not English, therefore you do not speak English.”

In London (and virtually anywhere else), this really is not the case: only 3.5% of the population can’t speak English “well”, and only 0.6% of the population speaks no English at all.1 But global cities like London actually cover up the multilingual abilities of their individual citizens even more than other places, simply by virtue of the large immigrant communities. When walking through a predominantly Polish neighborhood in London, it’s easy to have the initial feeling that no one speaks English here. If you walk into a Moroccan-run grocery store in Rotterdam, you will almost certainly hear people speaking Arabic to one another. And this is really kind of duh.

Expats and most people who have ever regularly dealt with multilingual crowds will know enough to call bullshit on this at once: if an Australian and his also native English-speaking Australian friend move to Germany together and both learn perfect German (or pretty good German, or okay German, or whatever), will they suddenly start speaking German to each other and all the other German-speaking Australian expats they meet in Germany? Nein.

People do in fact speak English in London – well, okay, only 99.4% do, to be fair – and if you listen, you’ll hear it, just like Polish speakers will hear Polish and I heard Dutch. Actually though, you don’t have to listen: you’ll hear it anyways.


Street where I stayed with my English friend in London. The neighborhood is predominantly Eastern European, and his housemates were Spanish, French, Lithuanian, and Venzuelan. A typical London street.


The cocktail party effect
Your brain is programmed to handle all different kinds of linguistic information and is ready to rapidly snap its focus onto whatever seems most important at any given moment. Have you ever noticed that you often hear your own name when someone says it at a party, even if they don’t say it any louder than all the other conversations going on around you? Or that you recognize a familiar voice in a crowd or from a distance? While the first one could just mean that you’re paranoid, this phenomenon is generally called the cocktail party effect, and if you’re living in unfamiliar linguistic territory or if you’re multilingual, or especially if both, it’s working overtime.

I’ve noticed in my time living abroad and traveling that an American English accent can grab my ear from across the bar even when it’s only a drunken whisper. It’s a jarring sensation when I hear this: everything else stops for a fraction of a second in which there’s a rapid progression of confusion (“Huh? This sounds familiar but…”), familiarity (“Oh hey, I’m home!”), revulsion (“Eeewwwww Americans, I’m way too cool and international and cultured and pretentious for them”), and finally apathy (“Meh, we’ll probably find each other later when we realize we’re the loudest ones in this bar”).

I think any expat or frequent traveler has an experience like this at some point under the influence of the cocktail party effect. The first time it happens, if you’re 20 or 22 and lost in this big scary world where no one speaks English no matter how slowly and loudly you talk at them, it’s probably exciting, maybe a relief, to hear someone who sounds like you. But then over the space of just a couple years it’s something more approaching distaste and active avoidance of your wide-eyed, usually vaguely offensive compatriots. Still, no matter where you fall on that spectrum, your linguistically-gifted brain will never stop giving you the heads up.

De Hems

London even has its own Dutch pub (though with suspiciously few Dutch people)

Similarly, since leaving the Netherlands, I’ve not only begun to notice with a little jolt of joy every instance of spoken Dutch (which, outside cities like London, is not many), but also even to take pleasure in the abrupt realizations like that ‘Keurig’ is a Dutch brand name and that an aardvark is obviously an ‘earth pig’ à la Dutch duh how did I never notice that before.

In the midst of all my immediate post-Leiden homesickness, every little shred of Dutch I could get my ears or eyes on gave me a burst of the warm-and-fuzzies. My first day in London I was walking down Oxford Street and within five minutes I overheard two different Dutch conversations. The first was between two youngish guys who were walking behind me for a minute or so, and as soon as I heard it I began to eavesdrop, excitedly awaiting any glimmer of a chance to call out hoi jongens! and join their discussion. As they turned down another street, I realized how odd it would have been to start a conversation with a couple of Dutch guys just because I happen to speak the language and may or may not have anything at all to talk to them about. (For perspective, imagine: “Hey, you speak English! Wanna be friends????”)

The second time, just a few minutes later and still on Oxford Street, it was two girls a bit younger than me walking further off ahead. This time they were far enough that I couldn’t hear what they were saying – in fact, it was a minute before I clearly heard any single word, and I mostly only got tiny prepositions and conjunctions, nothing substantial.

Even from the distance and through the noise of the crowd, I could clearly identify the language the girls were speaking as Dutch more or less as soon as I heard it. The cocktail party effect uses your brain’s ability to sort out what kinds of sounds are important to you, so when you hear a language you speak among a sea of what’s otherwise acoustic nonsense, even if you don’t hear individual words, the prosody or rhythm of the sentences or certain sounds or clusters of sounds tell you that it’s that language.

And when you do hear something familiar in the midst of unfamiliar territory, it’s really nice. This must be what London’s millions of immigrants experience when they get there, a sense of having found a mini-home abroad.

The London cocktail
This might not seem like a big deal to a lot of people: I can imagine that if many of my Dutch friends were to read this they could only react with a “pfft, whatever, doesn’t matter, I speak ALL THE LANGUAGES perfectly”. Some Americans probably share my aversion to being audibly reminded that you’re not special here and that we’re walking around in neon-colored sneakers all over the world, whereas the Frenchies would probably carve a path through the street with their baguette-swords to reach the group of francophones they just heard passing by.

National stereotypes aside, we all respond differently to the cocktail party effect, but it serves an important purpose of identification in global cities like London, or really anywhere. Whether you’re a young immigrant from a developing country where you haven’t had access to English language education, an EU tourist exhausted by several days of speaking a second language, or a long-term anglophone expat who gets a bit nostalgic at the sound of an accent that sounds like home, you’re gonna notice and have some kind of reaction when you plop into another droplet of the same ingredient in the big international cocktail.

London felt like one big international cocktail party the whole time I was there. It reminded me of similar mixers I’ve been to at Couchsurfing events in different cities where twenty or so nationalities and at least as many languages are crammed into one room. I constantly had the beautiful feeling that there was no ‘normal’ in this city – when I had a conversation with someone with a thick Spanish accent, it hardly caught my attention, but by the same token I don’t recall ever thinking “ah-hah, there’s a real Londoner” when talking to a white guy with a posh RP accent. They both seem equally normal in London, neither one out of place.

To me, this is where cities like London are realizing some of the greatest benefits of globalization: if the whole world were all mixed together, speaking each other’s languages and living on streets with twenty-seven other nationalities and no real majority, who are we gonna go bomb when we’re pissed off about oil prices? If you live next door to the ‘foreigners’ – especially if you’re a ‘foreigner’ yourself – they eventually don’t seem so foreign anymore.

And even better, when you’re walking around the streets of London or New York or Singapore or Dubai, eventually that sweet home accent or the language of your first home abroad catches your ear. Even at the normless international cocktail party, you’ll hear it when you meet others whose normal looks (or sounds) a bit like your own.


‘Poppies at the Tower’, in commemoration of fallen soldiers in the First World War, at the Tower of London

In a couple of months I’ll be moving to Bogotá, Colombia, another huge cosmopolitan city, though I expect nothing like London. My main reason for moving there is to improve my Spanish, and this week I’m starting a daily trilingual routine designed to keep my second language strong while building up my third. Next week I’ll share my plan for learning the local language in a cosmopolitan city where hundreds of languages are spoken, and I’ll talk about some of the things I’ve learned over the last few years about language learning in general and some of my thoughts on best practices.

1For the sake of pragmatism, it is worthwhile to note that those small percentages in a city as massive as London equate to about 48,000 people who speak no English and just over 300,000 who speak ‘bad’ English. That’s a considerable number. A portion of that, however, is going to be fresh new arrivals who haven’t yet had the time or resources to invest in learning English, and many others will be aged grandmothers brought along with immigrant families, children with learning or speaking and hearing disabilities, etc. And still yet, some percentage of that population is going to be made up of folks who, for whatever reason, have not and will not make an attempt to learn the local language. And to them I think we ought to say “shame on you” without conflating them with the vast majority of their English-speaking peers.