Notes From the Margins…

Broken English

  • March 01, 2020
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So the government has released its post-Brexit ‘points-based’ immigration system, and no one will be surprised to hear that  ‘All applicants, both EU and non-EU citizens, will need to demonstrate that they have a job offer from an approved sponsor, that the job offer is at the required skill level, and that they speak English.’

That’s telling them.  You can almost see John Bull sticking out his jaw.  The ability to speak English ‘to the required level’ will earn any prospective immigrants to the UK 10 points.   This provision, as it was no doubt intended to, has generated a lot of publicity in our toxic press, in addition to exactly the kind of pronouncements you would expect to hear from government ministers.

Announcing the new policy, the insufferably smug Priti Patel declared ‘ it is right that people should speak English before they come to our country, that they should have a sponsored route, whether it’s through employment or a sponsored route through an academic institution.’

It’s not clear whether Patel defines this ‘rightness’ in moral or ethical terms, but one thing is glaringly clear, both from the policy and from the way it has been promoted and received: the demand that migrants must speak English has nothing to do with facilitating what should be the entirely practical and common sense goal of any immigrant to any country.

On the contrary the government is sending out a dog whistle message to Tory and UKIP voters who believe that immigrants deliberately don’t speak English and don’t want to learn it, to the point when their presence is actively destabilising British (English) culture and identity.

This sleazy anti-foreigner narrative is deeply embedded in the Brexit process, and it’s been going on for a long time, whether it is Nigel Farage complaining that too many people are speaking English on the underground, or David Cameron suggesting that the inability or unwillingness to speak English might lead to extremism, because ‘if you’re not able to speak English, not able to integrate, you may find therefore you have challenges understanding what your identity is and therefore you could be more susceptible to the extremist message coming from Daesh.’

Yeah maybe, but it’s worth noting that Cameron made these observation in January 2016, when he was gearing up for the EU referendum and looking to steal a few votes from the Farage gang.  That is is why he warned that immigrants already in the country might not be able to stay ‘if you are not improving your language.’

Lord Snooty did not say how immigrants might do this, apart from a promise of £20 million to fund ESOL classes for women, which was even then a tiny fraction of the  £160 million cuts in ESOL funding  overall since 2008.  But once again, Cameron’s warnings were not intended to facilitate the integration of migrants into the country: they were political statements aimed at the lowest common denominator voter, who have been led to believe for years now, that immigrants who don’t speak English in public are ‘refusing to integrate’ or even taking us over.

Similar ‘Speak English’ narratives have been coursing through the United States, fueled by America’s evolution into a bilingual country.  In both countries, such demands, casually recycled again and again by politicians and newspapers, have been partly responsible for the ‘taking our country back’ hate crimes we have seen these last four years, in which immigrants have been verbally or physically attacked for speaking their own languages in public or even for having an accent.

This is the constituency that the new 10 points for speaking English provision is intended to please.  At this point, allow me to get personal.  During the 1980s I taught ESOL in Willesden.  I had some great classes there, including a wonderful class of mostly Japanese and Bengali women who really enjoyed each other’s company and really enjoyed learning English.

But I also had students who struggled to make any headway, partly because they weren’t natural language learners and also because their working hours didn’t give them enough time to learn it. I remember one Sri Lankan student who worked fifteen hours in a grocer’s shop and could barely stay awake in my lessons.

Of course that may be a tribute to my teaching skills, but there is also another interpretation: learning a language is not the same for everybody.  Some people may pick up languages easily and naturally.  Others will have to work at it.  I definitely belong to the latter category.

In 1988 I moved to Spain to teach English in Barcelona.  At the time I spoke a little Spanish – hardly enough to pass any kind of test, had I been obliged to take one. Over the next nine years I learned to speak it by going to classes, self-study, language exchanges, reading books, working as a journalist, and just daily life in the country where my target language was spoken.  In the end I spoke it pretty well – not as well as I would have liked – but certainly to the point when at least four of the books I’ve written would not have been possible had I not been able to speak and read it.

I’m not trying to boast here.  It’s just that unlike many of the knuckledragging nativists who break out into an angry sweat when they see a new Polish deli has opened up in their neighborhood, or the politicians who feed and pander to their prejudices, I know what it’s like to learn a language and also to teach it.

I understand how language is acquired, and how long that process can take.  I know what it’s like to ‘balbucear’ (babble or gibber) Spanish, to go through the embarrassment of feeling tongue-tied, of people not understanding me, before I was able to express myself.

I also know that I would not have learned Spanish had I not lived there.

Had I been obliged to speak the language on entry to gain ‘points’ or admittance, I would never have had these experiences.  The same can be said of many of the English ‘ex pats’, as they like to define themselves, who have lived in Spain for years without ever bothering to learn Spanish.

God help them if the Spanish ever decide to ‘take their country back’ by telling them to ‘speak Spanish or go home.’

Personally, I think that anyone living for a long time in another country should learn the language of that country.  If you don’t do that, you deny yourself a great deal, and you really narrow the scope of what you can do or experience in whatever country you settle in.  But ‘should’ is not the same as ‘must’ – and nothing in my experience suggests that language learning is made any easier through threats and coercion.

The best thing the ‘host country’ can do to facilitate the process of language acquisition is by funding language classes that are flexible and accessible to the many different kinds of immigrant who come to them, publicising such classes, and explaining their benefits.

That said, I really don’t see the problem with people speaking their own languages in public.  I rather enjoyed Spain’s transformation into an ‘immigrant-receiving’ country in the 1990s, when you could walk round the old town of Barcelona and hear a babel of languages echoing through the streets.  Unlike Farage, I don’t give a monkey’s if I hear people speaking their own languages to each other on the underground.  I don’t feel my ‘identity’ is under threat, or that immigrants are taking me over.

So yes, why not encourage immigrants to learn English?  But it shouldn’t be a problem if they come here speaking broken English, anymore than it was a problem when I turned up in Barcelona speaking broken Spanish.

And we absolutely do not need the aggressive, chauvinistic, and small-minded tone of our politicians and press whenever the subject comes up, and the brazen pandering to the worst instincts of the public that their pronouncements and policies are intended to please.  These ‘debates’ shame and disgrace us all.

They make the country look petty, mean-spirited, and frightened.  The legitimise the thugs and bigots who think they have the right to tell people what language they should be speaking in the streets, supermarkets and public places.

So the government might give 10 points to immigrants, but it’s nil points from me.



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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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