A Portrait Of London’s Diversity, Drawn From Languages Spoken Near Tube Stops

Tube tongues!

London, like any big city, is a melting pot of languages and cultures. Oliver O’Brien, a researcher in University College London’s geography department with a zeal for visualizing information about the London Underground, has extended his already data-rich interactive map of the Tube to show where exactly residents speak languages other than English primarily, based on subway stops. (Earlier this year, a similar project attempted to visualize the languages spoken around New York City, though it wasn’t nearly as easy to read.)


To create Tube Tongues, O’Brien used 2011 census data to map the most commonly spoken language after English within a 200-meter (656-foot) radius of each London Underground station. The most common language spoken by local residents is visualized through circles, proportional in size to the percentage of residents who speak that language primarily. (So a Tube stop where 26.6% of residents nearby speak Bengali is represented by a bigger circle than a stop a few miles away where Bengali is still the top primary language after English, but only 4% of residents speak it.)

The map highlights the close-knit geography of most of London’s ethnic enclaves. Almost all of the city’s majority Bengali-speaking population lives in a few conjoining neighborhoods along the Thames in East London neighborhoods like Stepney, while Soho is surrounded by French speakers. Tamil, a language spoken in south India and Sri Lanka, dominates the Tramlink, the lightrail system that runs through south London. Polish speakers, however, seem to be largely scattered across the city.

It’s also a reminder of how big London’s Indian population is. Almost a quarter million London residents were born in India as of the 2011 census, and that’s reflected in the top languages spoken around the city: Bengali, Tamil, Gujarati, Urdu, and Panjabi are all widely represented.

However, it can misleading to assume that just because a language is represented on the map, a lot of people in the neighborhood speak it. The map visualizes the top languages spoken after English. Though O’Brien only included languages spoken by at least 1% of the population, some of the primary languages after English only represent a tiny fraction of what the population speaks. So while it looks like the Holland Park stop on the Central Line would be filled with French speakers, it’s actually only spoken by 3.8% of the population. More than 77% of residents speak English as their primary language.

Read O’Brien’s explanation of the Tube Tongues project here, and check out one of his previous projects, an interactive map of bike sharing around the world.


[h/t CityLab]

About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut.