Immigrants not voting for UKIP is hardly headline news but this comment is the latest in a string of right wing commentary, which claims that migrants in the UK make too little effort to learn the lingua franca, resulting in poor integration. Figures from the 2011 census demonstrate that around 785,000 people living in the UK have a ‘non-proficient’ level of English. That accounts for just under 2% of the total population.
Politicians across the right, including Boris Johnson, have voiced their concern that migrants who fail to learn sufficient English impede social cohesion. The London mayor believes that local authorities waste resources by translating official documents into foreign languages. Another frequent problem cited is that of the large number of foreign-born doctors and nurses in the NHS and the communication obstacles they create for patients.
Based on the figures it would appear that these problems may well exist but on a smaller scale than that implied by politicians. When talking about the prevalence of foreign language speakers in the UK however, it is easy to slip into emotional arguments which play into the xenophobic fears of a small minority.
Prior to the general election, Nigel Farage came under fire for his comments on language. Speaking about a train journey from London to Kent, where he could not hear “English being audibly spoken in the carriage,” he claimed, “I don’t feel comfortable in that situation, I don’t think the majority of British people do.”
There is of course a huge distinction between public sector workers who ‘cannot’ speak a sufficient level of English and people living in the UK who choose to communicate in their first language. Why do foreign languages make some people feel uncomfortable? Is there a hierarchy of language? When probed on his comments Farage admitted that yes his wife and children speak German, but claimed this to be “different”. He spoke yet again about the “quality” of immigrants.
What he means is that to your average Brit Western European languages are “safe” in a way that Polish, Urdu or Arabic might not be. Is there a difference between a couple of tourists chatting in Chinese on a London street and a shop sign in Ukrainian?
By categorising languages in this way we play into tired stereotypes and further hinder integration. Rather than painting English as a beleaguered minority in its own land, shouldn’t we rather discuss what resources are available to those who actually want to learn the language? The politicians who bemoan the quality of spoken English seem to be under the impression that fluency can be achieved by pure will power alone.
More could also be done to demystify foreign languages, because being surrounded by the foreign can of course be isolating, even intimidating. But it can also be fascinating, making our country a more vibrant place to live.