Speaking Up: English language, immigrants and integration

by Eli Davies

English language ability is increasingly used as a measure of how 'deserving' immigrants are, but new approaches to language are needed to challenge mainstream debates on immigration.

First published: 20 October, 2014 | Category: 

If you are an immigrant in the UK these days, increasingly you must prove that you deserve to be here. If you come here claiming asylum, you must provide proof of the horrific circumstances you have fled. If you are a non-EU citizen, you may well have entered the country on some kind of visa which allocates you ‘points’ according to your income, education, and work experience. (Some Tories would like to see this extended to EU migrants) And underpinning all this is the expectation that you will speak English. If you don’t you are told you must learn, show willing, integrate. Periodically, there will be some kind of initiative or report about migrants and their knowledge of the language. And immigrants’ English ability, or lack of it, might then form the basis of some kind of threat, as with George Osborne’s ‘learn English or lose your benefits’ proposals last year, which were rehashed by Ed Miliband in the wake of UKIP’s by-election win two weeks ago, when he outlined his ‘reforms to ensure those who come here speak English and earn the right to any benefit entitlements’.

All this means that teachers of ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages), most of whom spend their working lives in the unglamorous and underfunded further and adult education sector, may find their profession briefly in the spotlight. It’s a familiar cycle, but what are the implications of all this political footballing for ESOL as a subject and for the people who study it? And, on a more fundamental level, what does it to do our understanding of what language is really for? In mainstream debates, the migrant is rarely the protagonist and what gets lost, as with any discussion involving immigration, are the rights and agency of the individuals involved. Increasingly, when politicians talk about the English language, they are not really talking about what people want or need; rather they are using it in the service of particular agendas.

Both Osborne and Miliband’s proposals demonstrate the ways that the English language has become increasingly used to distinguish between the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’ immigrant. There are plenty more morsels like this, such as David Cameron’s speech in 2011 picking on immigrants for their failure to speak English and integrate, as well as the odd ill-informed comment by ministers like Eric Pickles, who complained last year that there were too many households in which English is not spoken as the main language. (Pickles overlooked the complexity of first and second language acquisition and the fairly well-established belief in the benefits of mother-tongue communication at home

Further, this is all based on the pernicious myth of a migrant population that has no desire to speak English, when there is much evidence, both anecdotal and otherwise, that tells us that the opposite is true. Courses are oversubscribed, there are long waiting lists and ESOL enrolment sessions at FE colleges are routinely mobbed. Migrants want to learn English; this has long been the state of affairs but governments’ responses in recent years has been to cut funding for the subject, beginning with New Labour when they ended universal free ESOL provision in 2007 and continuing up until now, with a situation that has seen funding go down 40% over the last five years. So the government’s rhetoric on the importance of learning English is really not matched by its policy. Given this discrepancy, it becomes easy to see all this fuss about speaking English as merely a proxy for an anti-immigration agenda.

As a subject area, then, ESOL has become strangely politicised, considering how few people even know what it is (something which any teacher of the subject who has had the ‘So what do you do?’ conversation will attest to). English language ability has been sewn into the legal immigration framework and certain visas have a minimum standard of English tied to them, which require that a UK Border Agency-approved level is reached before a person is allowed to come here. Those living here and wanting settlement or citizenship, must prove that they have achieved a certain level of English, as well as passing the Life in the UK test. All this means that the Home Office and UK Border Agency have growing links to ESOL departments, teachers and colleges are frequently asked to provide documentation in support of citizenship applications and funding streams for ESOL are increasingly linked to outcomes around citizenship and integration. 

ESOL provision has gone through many phases of organisation and funding since it has existed in this country, during which it has arguably always been politicised to some extent. The early models are of migrant communities organising their own classes, as with the Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe in the late nineteenth century.1  ESOL became folded into the wider adult education movement of that period, when opportunities for municipal classes increased, but throughout much of the twentieth century there was no coherent strategy for the subject. This changed under New Labour, when ESOL became part of their adult skills strategy, along with adult numeracy and literacy, and it got its own standardised curriculum and national qualifications, as well as increased professionalisation through teacher training and funding. The current links between ESOL and citizenship can be traced back to this period, when under the Labour government there was a growing emphasis on social cohesion through learning English 2 (sometimes expressed in rather unpleasant terms).

At this time classes were still free for everyone, but Labour ended this in 2007, when the government brought in a means-tested system and when asylum seekers also had their absolute right to any educational provision removed. Since then government funding for ESOL has gone down year-on-year, with many students, including low paid workers and people on some benefits, now having to pay for their classes. ESOL - and further and adult education more widely - is increasingly being incorporated into the government employability and Welfare to Work agendas, with an increasing number of FE colleges, faced with ever-dwindling mainstream ESOL funding, taking on contracts to deliver Job Centre Plus courses which can be very short and sometimes have unhelpful targets attached to them that aren't always condusive to language learning. This can also mean teachers becoming pressurised to participate in the cruel JCP sanctions regime and there has been some excellent work done by Boycott Workfare and Action for ESOL on resisting this and raising awareness among teachers. 

This squeeze on funding obviously has worrying implications. In a climate not only of austerity but of growing public anti-immigration attitudes, some people will ask why taxpayers should pay for migrants to learn English. In this discussion the immigrant is always cast as the undeserving Other, who has sole responsibility for integration and social cohesion and who must stoically ignore the hostility and racism stoked up by the media and politicians towards them.

But there are already other ways of talking about language learning and teaching. Some attempt at a more nuanced discussion was made by the recent Demos report on the subject, though it fell short of what a lot of teachers would like and included some problematic recommendations. A more radical and inspiring vision is put forward in the ESOL Manifesto, devised by ESOL practitioners and students in 2013, and which unapologetically demands fully-funded ESOL and argues for a curriculum that reflects students’ diverse range of needs and goals. Many ESOL teachers already use more participatory and explicitly political approaches, such as the Friere-inspired Reflect ESOL tools, which, like the Manifesto, put social justice and social change at the heart of language learning and there is a strong desire to keep these approaches alive. 

We have seen how successive government’s instrumentalised views of language can too easily be used in the service of anti-immigration arguments. Resistance to this approach becomes ever-more pressing in the current political landscape, in which UKIP has been allowed to set the agenda for the mainstream political parties, who are now all clambering over each other to appear toughest on this issue. The demand for proper funding can be used to open up a space for a debate about about what language teaching - and by extension language itself - is actually for. We cannot allow it to be used as just another stick to beat the migrant population with and must instead talk about ways that it be used to feed into our communities and make them more supportive, tolerant and empowered.  

This article is part of NLP's Immigration series

 Eli Davies is a co-editor of NLP. She is a teacher and writer and has worked in community education for ten years.


1 See Chapter 1 in Rosenberg, S. K., A critical history of ESOL in the UK, 1870-2006, NIACE, Leicester, 2007

2 Rosenberg, p.2

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