Language learning is in the news again. ESOL is making (admittedly small) headlines, thanks to a double whammy of pronouncements by “ex-integration tsar” Dame Louise Casey and Sajid Javid, the Communities Secretary, highlighting the role of language learning, in particular learning English, as the answer to all the issues around integration. Not only is the musty “language learning = miracle integration cure” argument getting it’s biannual airing, but there should be a deadline and a level, according to Casey, by which time everyone should have learned English.
Oh boy. Where do we start with this?
For one, the Communities Secretary is basically presenting a fairly soft and woolly enhancement to the dubious British Values training which we have all dutifully completed, and of which I can only ever remember 3 at a time without googling it. There will be social measures like supporting women from minority backgrounds into work, which is nicely noble sounding, and getting young people from different backgrounds to interact more, which is so going to fall flat because it’s the government, the very definition of “out of touch old farts”, trying to tell young people, who are often, I hope, rebellious and questioning, how to behave. Even your dear author, who was, in his time, a fairly compliant and well behaved young person, would have sneered this out of the classroom just because of where it was from.
But what about language? On one level, as an ESOL teacher, who teaches English to migrants, and who likes being paid to do so, any notion of funding for ESOL ought to be a good thing, even if it is “conversation clubs” (really, that’s all you’ve got?) and funnelled through local government in especially chosen areas for temporary projects. Piecemeal projects that barely touch the need in any area. So yeah, money for ESOL learning, great.
The dangling carrot of funding obscures the actual issue here- the whole discourse around language as a tool for integration is at best simplistic and ignorant, at worst, simply toxic. The key quote that really sums up the whole problem is this, from Casey:
“I don’t care how we’ve got here, I don’t care who can’t speak English, I don’t care what’s going on but what I do know is that everybody of working age and of school age should be able to speak the language. And I think the public in particular would feel some relief. And I would be quite old-school about this and I would set a target that says ‘By x date we want everybody in the country to be able to speak a common language’.”
There are so many holes here. For one, adding the weight of the mighty “public” is highly questionable. A generous interpretation of this might be that she means that migrants themselves would also welcome the chance to learn English, but I rather doubt it. It would seem more likely she means narrow-minded middle Englanders who’ve never set foot into a multicultural community, and aggrieved, poverty stricken working classes whose years under swingeing austerity measures have removed both voice and power, and for whom a very visible and even more powerless group can conveniently act as scapegoat. That is the “public” she means, warpping their chips in the Daily Mail or the Sun.
Then there is “one language”. She hasn’t specified English, but the context is clear – everyone should speak English. However, this is not, and has never been, a monolingual country. Would it help if it was? Is there really a need for “one language”? Does language unify a country? In the whole of the history of any country, there have been migrant communities speaking languages which are not the first language of that country, and the factors which have led to unrest and division are not linguistic, nor even necessarily religious, but social and economic. Division doesn’t grow because people in the communities speak different languages, it grows because they are being discriminated against, because they are being savaged by austerity measures, and because they are feeling powerless and isolated. These are social and exconmic problems, and these exacerbate any latent discrimination.
Leaving aside the troublesome notion of one language, I find the notion of a “date” and a “target level” more than a little worrying. What level would you choose? Entry 3? Perhaps B1? And how would you assess this – more money in the coffers of specially selected language exam boards? And what happens if people don’t achieve that level by the date chosen? Immediate extradition? Such notions demonstrate an absolute lack of understanding of the language learning issues involved here, although this has never stopped a government from making arbitrary judgments about ESOL learning. 90 hours to achieve a level-up pass, anyone?
Integration is absolutely not the aligning of incoming principles with some notional mainstream flow of cultural norm. Rather integration is a two-way process, where those moving, and the society into which they are moving, must both make changes and allowances. A mature society would recognise this, perhaps, avoiding knee-jerk comments like these. Of course, language learning has a role to play in supporting this process, and it is certainly easier and cheaper to teach minority language speakers to learn the majority language, even if a two-way language learning process would make for a richer, more open and more interesting society. Language also has a primary role in helping people to access support and services, and with this aspect of integration, it does have a crucial role. Beyond this, however, and to suggest that language learning will magically make it go away is disingenuous, a straw man created by government to turn an absence of integration into the fault of those trying to integrate. They haven’t tried to learn, they say, so it’s their fault. It’s not: most ESOL students are hungry to learn, but it has been rendered almost impossible through successive government cuts by both main political parties. The fault lies squarely with government, and their decisions. Improving integration starts at Number 10.