Thursday Thoughts : Mind your language

This week Dame Louise Casey published her report into integration in modern Britain. It’s a hard hitting 200 page review that spares no one. Muslim groups in Britain feature strongly.

Predictably, before the ink was dry on the report, it was denounced as ‘racist’ by those who have a knee jerk reaction to anything which shines a light on the very real problems which beset ethnic minority groups. They simply cannot see that by over using and often misusing the word ‘racist’ they have rendered it meaningless. Worse, their stubborn refusal to accept that there are any issues of concern within ethnic minority communities that are not attributable to ‘racism’ does no community any favours.

Yesterday I checked out some of the articles I wrote for the Guardian and The Times back in 2003 onwards. I found was writing about the same issues back then, segregation, insular societies, the marginalisation of women and so on that Dame Casey highlighted in this 2016 report.

If you want to talk Britishness , here’s a phrase; call a spade a spade. Only then can you dig with it. If you can’t even speak of the existence of problems for fear of ‘offending’ then no way are you going to be able to tackle them.

Heres a starting point – a common language.  I wrote this back in 2007 for the Guardian:

“Not speaking English is the single biggest barrier to successful integration,” said Darra Singh, in 2007. As then Chair of the Commission on Integration and Cohesion he echoed the view of 60% of the 2,000 people surveyed by the commission.

He’s right.

Lack of English deprives those who seek a life in Britain not only of work opportunities but also social and cultural richness.

I no longer remember the name of the teacher who corrected me when I explained my grazed knees by informing her I had “falled down in the playground” but I am eternally grateful to her for not making me an outsider in two cultures.

By the very act of leaving my country of birth to settle in England I had become an outsider in that society. No matter how much I thought of it as “home” it no longer was for me. So, newly arrived in England I couldn’t afford to be an outsider here too. Everyone needs a base. It doesn’t matter that some people don’t want you here. Or that an unkind minority might call you names. It’s the sense of belonging you feel inside which no-one can take away and language can help give you that.

My teacher saw me, a four year old floundering in a new environment and decided I had to be able to hold my own if I was to be part of it. So she gave up her lunch breaks to make sure I knew my tenses and alphabet. Had she been more concerned with ensuring I didn’t forget my culture of origin and mother-tongue than adapting to the reality of my new home I would have been left straddling two countries 6,000 miles apart.

Thankfully, she did the practical, most logical thing. She integrated me into British life while my parents kept alive my heritage. It wasn’t a competition to see which came out top. There wasn’t a better half of me. There was simply a recognition of an immigrant’s life being a game of two halves that make up the whole.

By improving my broken English my teachers ensured that apart from being white there is little about English/British culture that I have not been able to identify with over the years. I haven’t embraced every aspect but my likes and dislikes are to do with me as an individual not as a “foreigner.”

English is for me not just the language of my career in that most traditional of professions the English Bar. It is the language through which I understand the nuances of British comedy, the language of the music I love, the films I watch and the books I read. Most of all, it is the language of communication that ensures I never feel disadvantaged in my professional aspirations or social life.

Yet a common language is one of the things that has recently been devalued most in schools and public institutions. Newly arrived immigrant children now are often found lumped together in “non English speaking” classes while their parents have everything translated for them.

There seems little need to go to the trouble of learning a new language when you are offered everything in your own. “Culturally appropriate” services have increased not just to help those who genuinely need them (and as temporary measures) but to avoid anyone ever having to work outside their comfort zone. Interpreters and translated documents fill the courts, schools, hospitals – even when it’s not necessary.

This myopic attitude (on both sides) does a great disservice to an individual and society. When you no longer have to communicate with people you no longer have to know them and the differences between you are highlighted.

Children are still generally better off than adults, especially some immigrant women who may be culturally restrained from going out to attend classes. But language is more than just dry classes. New arrivals to Sweden and Switzerland for example, can undertake “integration courses” which involve bringing the country itself to life. Classes are combined with visits to public services and meetings with neighbours.

The media, too, is an underused tool for language skills. Perhaps it’s time for the plethora of Asian TV channels to provide some genuine public service broadcasting just as the BBC once did on Sunday mornings with the ground breaking New Way, New Life and could again.

Of-course ultimately, learning English is the responsibility of the individual but if the government wants to assist, then it has to think imaginatively. Feeling at home in a new country isn’t an overnight thing. It’s a process and you can only begin to undergo any process if you both understand it and are able to be understood.

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