The debate on migrant integration and English language acquisition resurfaced during Prime Minister’s Questions last Wednesday. The Conservative MP Kris Hopkins said that in his constituency “sadly [...] too many children start school and don’t speak English”. He then asked if the Prime Minister agreed that the parents had a responsibility to ensure that their children could speak English. David Cameron “completely agreed”.
The seeds of this long-running debate were sown in 2002 by David Blunkett’s emphasis on the importance of migrants speaking English in order to integrate. In 2007, Ruth Kelly brought the subject into the spotlight by claiming that translation services removed the incentive of foreigners to learn English, and consequently inhibited their integration. Such arguments, presented within a framework that saw British national identity as under threat from immigration, were criticised for xenophobia and for their implication that immigrants should assimilate rather than integrate.
Meanwhile, a great deal of research has been conducted on the English language not as a marker of identity but as a facilitator of social capital. Such papers as the ‘Our Shared Future’ report of 2007 and the Home Office Green Paper ‘The Path to Citizenship’ of 2008 presented language abilities as crucial in enabling individuals to build relationships and interpersonal networks in order to publicly voice their opinions, socially integrate on a local level, and find employment. They also proposed funding to widen the opportunities for learning the English language.
In the light of this debate, the comments made by Cameron and Hopkins are a cause for concern and risk alienating rather than integrating non-English speakers. Firstly, there is no qualification of how many are ‘too many children’ who do not speak English. Secondly, whereas previously there was a concern for facilitating English acquisition among speakers of other languages, these latest comments suggest this is to be replaced by a blaming of foreigners for not learning. We are on dangerous ground here. There are many cultural, economic and physical barriers affecting the ability of some to learn a foreign language. Signalling those who do not learn as unwilling to integrate illustrates a lack of understanding of their social situation and risks fuelling social exclusion by emphasising and stigmatizing their differences from the rest of society.
A common language is intended to assist different cultural groups to communicate and better understand each other. Yet, as noted by Vaughan Jones in June 2010, this is only possible where the channels and opportunities for learning are opened up and made available to all. To achieve this, the political classes would do well to develop greater understanding of the situation of migrant communities in Britain.