There is a wonderful irony in the country with possibly the worst record in the world for learning languages insisting that migrants to its shores learn English, preferably before they land here (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-38510628). On the other hand, it’s a no-brainer to point out that people planning to settle in a foreign country will find life easier if they learn the language, so who could object to this advice?
I do not disagree with the observation that residents in the UK who have difficulty communicating in English* will suffer disadvantage. But I do have some concerns about the way the ‘language issue’ is expressed, in the above news item itself, and to some extent in the report on which it is based (The Casey Report, published December 2016). And in turn I have my own recommendations.
Firstly, I have seen no evidence that any group in the UK regards learning English as a bad idea. My own experience as a former ESOL teacher, and anecdotes from other teachers, suggest that people coming to this country are willing, keen and even desperate to learn as much English as they possibly can. Yet the wording of reports often implies that migrants are reluctant language learners. Migrants ‘should have to learn English’ or ‘should be expected to learn English’ (BBC news report), as though coercion was needed. We are told that speaking English is ‘the key to full participation in our society and economy’, as though this would come as a surprise to those affected. The Casey Report itself gives a large number of statistics reinforcing its message that low proficiency in English is disproportionately spread among the population, leading to inequality between ethnic, religious and gender groups. Nowhere does it point out that the lack of proficiency is not voluntary; indeed it is possible to read the report as blaming some ethnic and religious groups for the situation. RECOMMENDATION: Advice about the need to learn English should be expressed in terms of supporting people’s natural desire to learn the language, rather than as an injunction to do so.
Secondly, growing up as a multilingual individual, learning and using English alongside one or more other languages, is often framed as a problem and a contributing factor to low proficiency in English. The Casey Report’s section on English Language (especially paragraph 6.52) blurs the distinction between having a first language other than English and being unable to speak English well. Let’s be clear – there are huge advantages to being able to speak more than one language. These are practical (you can communicate with more people), cultural (you understand the range of human experience better) and intellectual (learning languages strengthens mental abilities). Most importantly, our capacity for language is not finite. Speaking more than one language does not prevent one from being an expert user of either of them. Conflating multilingualism with ‘not speaking English well’ is dishonest and potentially discriminatory. RECOMMENDATION: The advantages of multilingualism should be celebrated; speaking more than one language should not be confused with needing to speak a language better.
Thirdly, it is absolutely right that inequalities in access to resources for learning English should be challenged and redressed. Both the Casey Report and MP Chuka Umunna (chair of the Parliamentary Group on Social Integration) recognise the importance of free English Language tuition and regret previous cuts in this provision. One example of such cuts came as a result of the (ironically titled) ‘Raising our Game’ report by the Learning and Skills Council (October 2006). In response to this document, the British Association for Applied Linguistics argued that cuts in free language classes would lead to the disadvantaging of women and to poorer community cohesion and integration (letter to the LSC, January 2007). These are precisely the consequences that The Casey Report acknowledges. RECOMMENDATION: Free classes in English should be available to all those needing them.
Finally, lurking behind many reports on low proficiency in English is the threat of inexpert or punitive language testing. There is nothing wrong with requiring people coming to the UK to take up particular jobs, or to study in universities, to demonstrate an appropriate level of ability in English. But language testing is a difficult and technical field and cannot be left to amateurs. RECOMMENDATION: Language tests should facilitate, not exclude.
*I hope speakers of Welsh and users of BSL will excuse this over-generalisation for the purposes of this blog.