In light of David Cameron’s push on English language fluency for Muslim women, with testing that could even lead to threat of deportation, researcher Dr Shirin Hirsch argues that a far more ‘inclusive’ approach to languages is needed within British society.
A front page for The Daily Express recently claimed that English was starting to ‘die out’ in British schools with 311 different languages spoken, according to a ‘special investigation’. The article reported that English speaking pupils were ‘becoming a minority in hundreds of classrooms’ and that in some schools English was ‘hardly heard at all’ as foreign languages had ‘overtaken English’. There was, of course, a clear explanation given for this malaise of the English language; a ‘decades-long open door policy on immigration’ was to blame.
It soon transpired, however, that the story was highly inaccurate. A complaint made to Ipso by Jonathan Portes, of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research argued the data used for the story actually showed the number of pupils whose first language was not English and did not record how many were unable to speak it at all. The complaint was upheld and an adjunction was duly published on The Daily Express front page on 16 December.
The inaccuracies within the story do not just tell us about poor journalistic practice but also illuminate a narrative which is embedded within a wider repertoire in British society. The focus on the foreign language and its equation with the demise of the English language serves as a symbolic battleground for deeper anxieties surrounding race and migration. This is not a new focus, but was central to colonial historical reproductions of difference through a conception of ‘linguistic races’. Since then, language has proven a tenacious signifier in the cultural work of racial ‘Othering’.
This ‘language panic’ has been expressed in a number of different ways in Britain in recent years. Tony Blair’s speech as Prime Minister in 2006 is one example of this. Immediately following the 7/7 London bombings, Blair talked about ‘integration’ with a specific focus on language and the ‘Muslim extremist’. He stated ‘…we should share a common language. Equal opportunity for all groups requires that they be conversant in that common language. It is a matter both of cohesion and of justice that we should set the use of English as a condition of citizenship.’ The image of the ‘outsider’ was constructed in association with a foreign language, Blair arguing that ‘British preachers’ should come out of the English speaking community rather than come in from abroad.
Blair’s points were part of an ongoing discourse which linked English language, race and control. In response to a report from the 2001 Census that revealed 30 percent of Asian families did not use English as their main language at home, Home Secretary David Blunkett led an attack on certain cultural norms. In an essay entitled ‘Reclaiming Britishness’ Blunkett wrote ‘Speaking English enables parents to converse with their children in English at home’, allowing them to participate in wider modern culture and helping them to ‘overcome the schizophrenia which bedevils generational relationships’.
The attacks on multilingualism have continued. Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP, stated his feelings of ‘awkwardness’ and ‘discomfort’ on hearing non-English languages on a train from London in 2015, linking this to the dangers of segregated communities and the refusal to learn English. Alongside this, new policy regulations have been reformulated and tightened around the nebulous notion of ‘British values’. To become and to be British now requires English language competence, imposing a new form of ‘linguistic gate-keeping’.
Despite these politicised responses, research on multilingualism in Britain shows a very different reality. The measurement of English proficiency was attempted for the first time in the 2011 Census, showing 92.3% of people in Britain, aged three and over, reported that English (or Welsh in Wales) was their main language. Around 1 in 13 people (7.7%, 4.2 million) in England and Wales had a main language other than English or Welsh with London having the highest proportion at 22.1%. Significantly the results showed that only 138,000 people of the population do not speak English at all, 0.3% of the total population. It is telling that political discussions focus on this tiny group of complete non-English speakers, rather than the far greater group who speak some English or are fluent, yet who also speak other languages.
Indeed, in recent British history English language proficiency is an inevitable progression through generations; the second and subsequent migrant generations have learned English rapidly. What is at risk in British society is not English, but the preservation of some fluency in the immigrants’ home languages.
In recent research undertaken by Professor Alice Bloch and I, funded by Swiss Network for International Studies, we have explored the intergenerational transmission of heritage languages in London as part of a wider project. We carried out 45 qualitative interviews with three groups of ‘second generation’ refugees in London. Our research found highly positive feelings expressed towards heritage languages, in terms of connections to family, country of origin and questions of identity, reflecting similar studies.
For the few interviewees who did not speak heritage languages, this was often expressed in terms of loss and feelings of not belonging. Despite the importance of these languages, our research also found that spaces and contexts where interviewees spoke their heritage languages were often domestic or non-public, confined to the home or sometimes refugee community centres. Very rarely were these languages spoken in public spaces such as classrooms and public spaces were often regarded as ‘English only’ sites. Only in a few cases was any state support mentioned in terms of encouraging heritage language competency and use.
Indeed, the perceived difference in the value of some ‘Modern languages’ in schools in comparison to ‘community languages’ is stark, with new attacks on the viability of ‘community language’ GCSEs. These threats, and the lack of public spaces in which these languages are encouraged, interact and shape the experiences of language practice. Multilingualism is publicly represented in negative ways, or is simply made ‘invisible’ and our research found this impacted on the ‘second generation’ and their language practices.
A far more ‘inclusive’ approach to languages is needed within British society, yet this will also necessarily involve a wider shift in our attitudes and policies towards migration and race.
- The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and not necessarily those of the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE).