Immigration and the English language

MPs have suggested that all immigrants coming to the UK should have to learn English. (Source: Dave Catchpole via flickr)

By Harry Heath

When Theresa May quipped that “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere”, she merely added her name to the already sizeable list of Prime Ministers who have sought to define themselves as embodying national identity.

Her predecessor David Cameron had declared that multiculturalism had failed and adherence to sacred British values was the paramount ingredient to the creation of a truly cohesive society. The Casey Review into opportunity and integration found that the levels of social segregation in some areas of Britain are worrying and suggested an increase in English classes for socially isolated groups.

In typically reactionary fashion, a cross-bench group of MPs decided that newcomers to Britain should either learn English prior to their arrival or attend compulsory classes once they are here, concluding that speaking English proved “the key to full participation in our society and economy”. Such calls are not unfounded: migrants who are unable to speak the national language make up some of the lowest paid workers in Britain. When Labour MP Chuka Umunna describes integration as a “two-way street” he is also correct: foreign nationals benefit from state education, infrastructure and public services and in turn gain employment, start businesses and make a net contribution to the exchequer.

The objection that one has to demand that migrants take more language lessons is not whether or not this is a justifiable expectation but rather that they already do. The latest census figures show that of the eight percent of those in Britain that do not speak English or Welsh as their first language, over ninety percent can speak English. The actual figure is that 138,000 people in Britain do not speak English. Of that number, a considerable amount will be children as the census considers people over the age of three. The evidence also suggests that a majority of the remainder are currently in the process of learning the language, something that those of us who studied foreign languages will accept is no easy task. For most migrants to Britain, learning English is a primary means to their social mobility, and is realised to be so mostly by the migrants themselves.

The demands made by public figures is an impressively tenuous attempt to ride the wave of public opinion on immigration as a whole. Successive governments have overseen rises in net migration to Britain because of the economic benefits, something the British public never consented to. Mass immigration for many is considered something that happened to them; the topic consistently leads as the highest concern in opinion polls and of course played a vital role in the Brexit vote. The masses want their country back, their sovereignty back, the need to ‘control’ immigration back – control immigration in the sense that control is synonymous with ‘stop’.

If they were honest, the Little Englanders would admit that if their desperate pleas of ‘wanting their country back’ were to be implemented as policy, migrants without grasp of perfect English would be on the first boat home. Engaging in idle talk about our expectations of newcomers is to have the debate on the terms of the isolationist right who are certain that immigration has caused nothing but misery to British nationals. In his disdain for Johnny Foreigner, the Little Englander suffers from doublethink, a contradiction in his own mind. This contradiction is that immigrants are both not integrated sufficiently and must have language tests imposed on them, yet also be too integrated so that they are stealing jobs and lengthening queues for services.

An increase in state-funded language classes will by no means worsen social cohesion, but to suddenly shift focus to language is to side-step the actual issue, which is public concern over immigration numbers. Speaking the national language of the country you live in will of course improve opportunities to form social relationships and find employment in an already competitive labour market, although after uprooting themselves and moving to Britain to better their lives and those of their families, migrants will be more than aware of this without the advice of MPs. What increasing state-funded language classes will not do however is change the way that many angry Brexiteers and Ukippers perceive the citizens of the world who would be forced to take them.

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