In which I get quite cross about language and funding. And swear, sorry.

I did a silly quiz on the Guardian website this week, and embarrassingly got one answer wrong. I posted this on FB as well as certain comments about question 4 being wrong (which, incidentally, it still is). Needless to say my fellow geek ESOL teachers joined in with some teasing comments, but at the same time, another non-ESOL teacher friend also joined in, pointing out that as a nurse, dealing with caring, saving lives, and so on, while balancing this with being a single mum, was, in the grand scheme of things, an awful lot more important than whether or not you get all the answers right in a daft online quiz.

She was, of course, completely right.

And also wrong.

Because actually language needs can be the difference between good health and ill health (read the back of a medicine bottle…) and even between life and death – misunderstanding “if you don’t take these you will die” as “take these and you will die” to take an extreme example. Not being able to use the main language of the society in which you live is quite astonishingly important. Things like, for example, giving your children a fair chance at life, supporting yourself, feeding yourself, keeping yourself warm, visiting the doctor, and so on, not to mention the mental health benefits of being able to communicate, socialise, chat, tell stories, share anecdotes, laugh. Language is everywhere.

Yes, people have stupid ideas about language (really, who does give a fuck about an Oxford comma? What is the big deal with apostrophes? And anyone with idiotic ideas about split infinitives, not ending sentences with prepositions, and all those other myths about language should be lined up against a a wall and shot for being stupidly middle class. Well, maybe not shot, but severely told off, at least.) And yes, daft newspaper language quizzes will excite and amuse people: that, after all, is the job of a newspaper.

It’s about here I get serious. What ESOL teachers do, or at least try to do, is enable all those things I mentioned above which are so important for mental, physical, and social well-being. We might make jokes about language, we might be unnecessarily geeky about whether something is conditional or not, but that is because we know how vital language is for our learners. We don’t take language for granted, like so many people in society, we don’t assume that worrying about language use is for the lazy middle classes, because we know how important it is. Worrying about the language we use is not just a game, a mild Sunday supplement chuckle, but rather it is necessary for us as ESOL teachers to make the best decisions to enable our learners to participate, engage and live.

So we come to the thing that has really been eating at me this week: the assumption by the Skills Funding Agency, in effect, that you can progress, linguistically, from Entry 1 (“My son poorly”) to Entry 2 (“my son has a fever and isn’t eating”) in something like 50 hours of tuition.

Perspective here: 50 hours is two evening classes a week for 10 weeks. Nobody with any knowledge of learning would ever assume you can progress that far in that time. Don’t believe me? go try and learn Farsi, then and let me know how it goes. But then what do you expect from an agency run by accountants under a Coalition centred on cutting expenditure, and which is presumably proud of the fact that their initialism is the same as Sweet F*ck All.

My friend is both passionate and brilliant, and would top any list of “most compassionate, lovely people” every time. But it was, for me, a salient reminder of the importance of language, of the way in which native speakers take it so much for granted, and of the potential catastrophe of cutting and fragmenting ESOL provision.



  1. Obviously it is really important to be able to speak the language as it will help communication and settlement in the country. Especially when it comes to getting a job and being treated equally and with respect. But this post (and my recent experiences!) has made me really question the importance of accuracy over fluency. Is it important to get the accuracy right if the meaning is conveyed? Does it matter, really? And if that meaning can be conveyed via gestures rather than language, is that still ok? I think it’s the opinion of society that often says no, as people judge mistakes and poor language skills. But “my son poorly” still gets the meaning across, so why is not acceptable?

    1. It’s not so much unacceptable, but simply limiting: you kind of answered your own question, I thought. “My son poorly” is enough up to a point, and for some learners this remains enough: in the UK especially you can do a lot with very limited language. English is also very forgiving: if you get the word order right you can usually get away with a lot. And anyway, I’m not sure I use language much when I go to the supermarket.

      However, for other learners this isn’t enough. At risk of sounding like a politician, this is about potential. There is the obvious economic potential of getting a (better) job, which is the easy one to wave at government officials and their agencies and quangos who care about little else. There is also the social potential: what individuals could achieve in supporting their families and communities: lots of research shows that children with support with school work at home, for example, succeed better than those who don’t. (Its worth mentioning that most research suggests that it is the home life and socio-economic of the children which has the biggest impact on the child’s learning: regardless of the “quality” of the school they go to).

      Learners also potentially engage with wider communities in a process of sharing and learning. Again, sorry for the politician-speak, but from this kind of sharing the wider society is culturally and ethically richer: and language is the key to that sharing.

      To take an example from a learner I once met, she received an awful lot of support when she first arrived in the UK and one of her motivations was becoming capable of working in a similar capacity to support other individuals in her community on a voluntary basis.

      And this is all still focussing on the largely functional role of language: there is also the personal role of language: stories, anecdotes, jokes, problems, worries, and how this is very limited if you are below a certain level of language.

      So yes, you can survive and if that is all you wanted to do then why would you ever want to improve accuracy? There’s usually someone around in communities who can deal with the tricky letters and phone calls. So why do learners bother? Because (as you are probably finding) life goes beyond just hand to mouth survival skills, and therefore language accuracy (and fluency) also needs to develop beyond purely functional survival language.

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