"They don't speak English": language, migration and cohesion

Transforming the mechanisms and means to enable an acquisition of English is urgently required. Language is the life blood of everyone and should not be relegated to the sidelines
Vaughan Jones
21 June 2010

One of the most serious accusations posed against newcomers to the UK is that “they don’t speak English”.  The English themselves are considerably advantaged in that theirs is the language of commerce, international politics and academia.  The disadvantage of the English is that they don’t speak Spanish or Cantonese or Hindi or German and even their French is “a bit rusty these days”.

Our “mother” tongue is given to us, unsurprisingly by our mothers and is part of the process of bonding and developing that is essential for our learning, it is integral to our being and always will be.  Even when we speak another language with some degree of fluency, our mother tongue remains an anchor. 

Living in a country other than that of your birth, offers excitement and challenge. For some, but by no means all, learning a new language is not only a challenge in its own right, but the key perhaps to solving many of the other issues with which they have to contend.  It is, of course, very straightforward to say “they should learn English” but not so simple in practice.  Learning another language is not easy.   If someone says to you, “they should just learn English” ask them how many languages they speak.  It might be revealing.  The truth is that most of us give up on learning another language once we have “enough to get by”.  We are all in some way linguistically challenged because there are complexities and diversities within as well as between languages.

The fact that more than 300 languages are spoken in London is a reflection of the richness of culture which is seen by many to have hugely positive effects on our economy, politics, social and cultural life. However, language is generally located in the problem folder.  It is widely perceived that if communities are unable to speak to each other cohesion is directly threatened.  Suspicion, alienation and anomie caused by our lack of speech will undermine any goodwill which may exist toward the stranger and make the stranger feel an outsider.  It would be foolish not to understand this logic and to see the inherent danger in failing to address language issues.

A mother tongue defines a belonging to a family, a community.  To move to another country is very rarely a rejection of the birthright culture.  To migrate is to go on an adventure in which there will be new learning and a new language. But to learn something new is not to lose what you already know.  It is to add to it. 

English is a  Germanic language which began in England and south-eastern Scotland with the Anglo-Saxons and was later strongly influenced by Norman French.  English is not our native language, but the real indigenous languages have to fight for survival.  The Celts are indigenous - and some of us still speak Welsh - the original language and the other official language of the UK. Only Welsh has held its own and is indeed undergoing something of an exciting revival.  Its resilience is testimony to the failure of the top down management of language.  Urdu, Punjabi, Somali, Spanish, French, Portuguese will all have a place as British tongues for generations to come.  Only a positive approach to language acquisition and preservation will work. Diversity of faith, culture and speech are essential components of mutual respect.  To tread upon another’s language is to tread upon their very being. 

So what do we require of newcomers to this country so that there is good rather than adequate communications enabling them to be part of the heritage?.  Too much of the rhetoric around migration and language is ill-conceived.  Different migrants will need different levels of English.  Elderly parents of established migrants have very different needs from a PhD student at a stellar university.

Cohesion is not actually dependent upon a sensitive appreciation of identity, linguistic utility and our capacity to enjoy and value language.  We all function within a spectrum of language use within a diversity of spaces – domestic life, administration and bureaucratic systems, health and emotional well-being, commerce, academia, politics and world affairs, humour, entertainment, art, poetry, prayer and ritual.  Each of these areas has its own richness and variety of language use.  Every individual will need to develop their own linguistic skill in order to function within the different spaces which they occupy. 

This discourse boils down to some very practical and regrettably all too politicised questions.  Is it right to provide interpreters for public services and if so when?  Is it right to require applicants for citizenship to speak English and if so to what level?  What English do we need to teach, formal or conversational, practical or poetic? Above all, in these straightened times, does an investment in language drain resources or add value?  These are strategic political and economic questions and they are also moral issues.  They have implications for the kind of society we are building, monolingual or multilingual, monochrome or technicolour.

A positive approach to the facilitation of settlement for new migrants will ensure that there is spectrum of communication support available.  This net of provision should never foster dependency, but enable every individual and each distinctive community to be self-reliant and empowered to participate as fully as they are able and desire.  Communication support is about removing barriers rather than creating new ones.  It is a spectrum from ongoing practical and accessible support for the most vulnerable, to the provision of resources for self-directed learning.

Let us begin with interpreting, which is an easy target for the public expenditure cuts.  Interpreting is not an alternative to English language acquisition.  It offers a guarantee of comprehension in circumstances which matter for the health, legality, fair treatment of someone who is either too new in the country to have a reasonable command of English or too vulnerable to communicate outside of their mother tongue. Interpreting should always be seen as a limited but vital resource. 

Interpreting is a highly skilled profession. It is not advocacy.  Direct speech interpreting enables two people, on the one side a professional and on the other a patient, client, asylum applicant, victim of crime or accused, to complete a formal transaction with the full appreciation of rights and needs.  Interpreters enable direct communication.  Advocates speak on behalf of those who cannot speak adequately for themselves.  There should never be confusion between these two roles.  For too long health services in particular have employed advocates for people for whom the only problem they have is language.  They should be allowed to speak for themselves, which is why professional, high quality interpreting is more likely to ensure a positive outcome, empowered patients and professionals and speedier (and therefore cheaper) resolution of the issue at hand. Investment is only worthwhile if it is in quality provision, which is not more expensive, but will be delivered locally and more effectively for all concerned.

There is urgency in re-thinking how we ensure that newcomers are empowered to acquire English language. There has been a recent debate as to the role of ESOL recognising the need for a balance between English as an economic and as a social tool.  English teaching needs to enable people to communicate with neighbours and to progress into and within the labour market.

English language provision is problematic.  It is expensive and patchy.  It continues to be delivered for the most part in conventional classroom situations, often in short courses and at times which do not easily cohere with the complicated lives of most new migrants.  Those who juggle long hours, low pay, family duties and the bureaucracies attached to being migrant find it hard to manage the commitment needed for a course leading to high drop-out rates or limited achievement.  Language is acquired in context and sitting in a class is not the most natural way to learn language.  There is a need for a radical reassessment of how English is delivered and how we support the organic acquisition of English.

Policy in a range of areas should assist the improvement of language skills.  Vocational training, further and higher education courses (for whatever subject), in-house training provision all need a language component.  It should assist the underemployed and those who are held back in their careers. This is not purely a migration issue but one of overall effectiveness at work, whether English is the mother or an acquired tongue.  

In a time of stringency, we should be prepared to experiment with flexible and dynamic forms of delivery.  There is the possibility of harnessing new technologies, enabling greater self-help and self-directed learning.  We should also be prepared to analyse more carefully where and how English is used, when accuracy is important, when clarity really matters and when fumbling along is neither a problem nor a danger to anyone.

The immigration debate has focused for quite some time on the concept of citizenship.  Newcomers must exercise the responsibilities and duties which arise from the stamp which the government has placed in their passports.  When the individual accepts the UK as their home state then they should demonstrate their commitment not only to the laws of the UK, but also to its lingua franca verified through a test.  This is not wrong in principle, but politicians should not imply that the test is needed because migrants are not playing their part. 

Citizenship ceremonies have been more successful that the cynical might have imagined.  They are an important rite of passage for many who have struggled against impossible odds and fearsome bureaucracy to reach that day.  Making the process of becoming a UK citizen and providing welcoming rather than alienating processes would go a long way to helping the integration process be smoother and more helpful.  Communication is the sine qua non of a cohesive society, and belonging comes from neighbourliness and active participation. New citizens could be asked for a portfolio which demonstrates their contribution and endeavours rather than answer strange questions on a computer for which the only real profit is that made by the test provider. 

At the heart of the debate surrounding integration is the fact that the UK has said 'yes' to an individual migrant’s application for entry either for economic reasons or to fulfil its obligations under international treaty.   Whilst some migrants are motivated to move for selfish gain, many do so for safety, for love, to contribute to family, to expand knowledge and acquire skill. Being able to speak English is a vital tool in making the experience of migration positive for both sides but it is not the primary reason for the contract between state and migrant.

The new Home Secretary in announcing the new English requirement for spouses said 'It is a privilege to come to the UK, and that is why I am committed to raising the bar for migrants.”  It is also our privilege to receive people who are willing to come and work and contribute to the UK. 

Language is the life blood of everyone and should not be relegated to the sidelines.  It is part of our DNA as individuals, families, communities and societies.  We should never underestimate the role it plays in creating cohesion. We should not turn it into a weapon for populist banter.  It is too precious for that.  There is nothing wrong in promoting English as the lingua franca as widely and to as high a level as possible.  Equally it needs to be said that, when managed respectfully, multi-lingual communities offer enrichment rather than alienation.  Investment in interpreting is a means to protect the vulnerable, and therefore a totally decent and sensible thing to do.  Transforming the mechanisms and means to enable an acquisition of English is urgently required.  We need to value our new citizens and potential new citizens as people rather than commodities and as people in relationships rather than automatons who have ticked the boxes for the strange interrogation known as the Citizenship Test.

Above all, we need humility in the face of the construction of language which is the product of human ingenuity and experience for generations upon generations and which is still brimming with vitality today.  We must protect the endangered language and love the languages which enable communication across cultural divides.  To employ brutalism and crude, simplistic understandings to the issues of language, migration and cohesion is not only counter-productive, it undermines the cultural soul of the whole community.





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