The Government is planning to introduce stricter rules for immigrants coming from outside the UK, who will be forced to learn English if they want to stay in this country. A heated debate has arisen on whether this is in the genuine interest of society or is just a means to curb immigration. In particular, the fact that EU residents in the UK are not affected despite facing the same language barriers may mean that the rule is used as an immigration stick excluding certain communities in favour of others.
Another problem with this new strict policy is that ESOL provision has been cut considerably in the past few years, resulting on long waiting lists for migrants willing to attend English courses. If a rule is to be introduced to make English learning compulsory, then the government has to review its spending policy and allocate more money towards ESOL classes.
However, it would be unfair to blame the number of non-English speaking residents in the UK purely on government cuts. Even when free classes were more easily available many simply chose not to take advantage of them. This is slowly changing as speaking the language has become a necessary requirement to have access to benefits. But while more people are taking up English classes, they often view it as a burden, something they are forced to do, rather than the opportunity it really is.
There can be various reasons for this. In some cases they live in communities where everybody speaks their language. They can shop, go to the doctor and the post-office and everybody will understand them so they do not feel the need to learn English Still, their life is only semi-functional. There are many services they do not have access to without an interpreter, not to mention the infinite opportunities for professional and personal growth they are missing out on by restricting themselves to their small non-English-speaking community.
In other cases people are aware of the crippling consequences of not speaking English but are simply too ashamed to try to learn. They fear that they will feel embarrassed for making mistakes and will be laughed at. This is a common worry among people who are learning any new language but it is something that can and must be overcome. Language teachers are specifically trained to address this issue and help their students get over it.
Another common fear is that of losing one’s identity. By fully integrating into British society through language, they may feel they are somehow betraying their roots. While there is nothing wrong in wanting to maintain the values and traditions of one’s county of origin, this should not go as far as rejecting the means for basic communication in the host country. Some of us at Sharan are migrants and we know that it is possible to embrace a new culture without giving up your own.
Finally – and this is the issue that concerns us the most – there are instances where women arriving in the UK from certain communities are discouraged – or even banned from learning the language. This is common when the family is controlling and does not want women to be empowered. And it is in these very situations that a command of the English language is needed the most because with speaking the language come opportunities, especially the opportunity to get out of an oppressive or abusive situation. Women who speak English become more aware of their rights and they have access to services that can help them. Most importantly they can become financially independent and live their lives on their own terms.
This is why, regardless of whether it becomes compulsory of not, we urge everyone, and women in particular, to learn basic English. Besides going to classes, there are many ways in which your fluency can be improved. Watch films in your native language with English subtitles, activate subtitles for the Hard of Hearing on your TV screen (easily done by pressing a couple of buttons on your remote), listen to the radio, read, get involved with your kids learning, go online and use ‘translate’ to find information, take control of your life!
A debate on language and immigration featuring our founder Polly Harrar has recently been broadcast on BBC Asian Network. You can listen to the podcast here: