“If you come to this country, you have to learn English.” That old adage. Somehow, it seems to unite bigots and those of a relatively progressive mindset, frequently appropriated as an endnote to what can often be explosive discussions over immigration.
If the phrase were a country, it would be Switzerland. In my experience, when a debate over foreign nationals turns bellicose, the assertion that one has to learn English if they’re going to live in the UK seems to corral everybody into neutral territory, garnering affirmative noises from all camps.
As a standalone statement, I don’t dispute it: if you live in another country, be it the UK or otherwise, attempting to learn the language will make life far easier, from both a work and social perspective. Indeed, you as the language learner should have the final say over exactly what you need to learn in order to get by.
What I take issue with is this: people seldom debate the details that get overlooked when they insist that foreign nationals learn English. And perhaps more importantly still, because it’s a point that is difficult to dispute, as well as one that can bring closure to an argument, we often miss the opportunity to challenge those who may use it to mask viperous anti-immigration sentiments.
The details that the assertion misses pertain to two main ideas. First, it doesn’t quantify how much English one must learn in order to be acceptable in the eyes of those making the demands. For me, it sets the same admonitory precedent as the phrase “I’m not racist, but …” The statement “I’m not anti-immigration, but they should learn English”, if left unchallenged, can become a dangerous criterion by which some people decide which foreign nationals they’ll tolerate, and which they won’t.
Therein also lies the possibility that those heard speaking their own language are assumed not to be able to speak English, or to have failed to learn it. Following the recent vote to leave the EU, I’ve had friends from France, Bahrain and Poland tell me they’ve been ordered to speak English by people who’ve overheard them speaking their mother tongue. They can all speak English exceptionally well but are now worried about being heard speaking anything else in case they’re met with abuse.
Even if they could not speak English, it is utterly deplorable to intimidate and scorn somebody on the basis of their language. But worse, it demonstrates how the goalposts are constantly shifting for the non-native speaker; not only do they have to meet an arbitrary standard of English set by the listener, woe betide them if they ever slip into their own language for a few moments.
Not only this, but the demand that people who live here learn English also fails to take account of people’s financial situation, ability and motivation. Even learning the basics of a language takes dedication, focus, incentive, access to resources, time and some sort of financial commitment, be it funding a course or saying no to a shift in order to attend a class. A lot of people coming to the UK – either for work or to flee war or persecution – could only dream of enrolling on a five-day-a-week private English course, and have to make do with learning through interaction, on the job, free Esol classes and/or by using applications and books, all while juggling the demands of work and life.
While many people do attain a high level of English by these means, some are never really afforded the opportunity to grasp the intricacies (particularly grammatical) that English contains. A friend of mine from Iraq came to the UK to seek asylum six years ago, and in spite of his efforts and hard work, people still assume he has never bothered to learn English properly as he still struggles with his speaking. Because he’s had to rely on sporadic, volunteer-run classes, self-study and simply picking things up, he feels he can only get so far, yet any progress he has made is promptly negated whenever anyone deems his English to be below par.
This underlines the danger in having – at best – fluid criteria by which to judge how much English foreign nationals ought to learn, and – at worst – no criteria at all. My Iraqi friend can get by very well and could certainly get along in a work environment, but this didn’t stop a woman in the post office telling him that he should improve his English if he is going to live in the UK.
In the current climate, it is more important than ever that we meet foreign nationals with support and solidarity, rather than unquantifiable expectations and oversimplified demands. We can’t judge people’s efforts to engage in the process of picking up English, nor their dedication to learn, by what we hear in fleeting conversations. Nor can we shirk our duty to challenge any anti-immigration sentiment we suspect is being expressed, just because it’s embedded in seemingly harmless terms.
This content was originally published here.