‘I can’t speak properly. I am different’: do you need to speak English to be a good citizen?

Aug 8, 2015 by


Abdul came to the UK six years ago, a refugee from Afghanistan, at the age of 15 and without a word of English. It took him three months just to learn the alphabet. “It was very hard. Now I’m better but I can’t get a job.” He has worked as a mechanic since October, first on an apprenticeship and now part-time, but he isn’t allowed to speak to the customers, “because my English is not very good”.

He has been learning English on an Esol (English for speakers of other languages) course at a local college. “When I went for a job, they asked me for qualifications, which I haven’t got. One of my friends did a mechanic [course] in college and he gets paid more than me.” He can’t apply until his English is better. “I’m a good mechanic now, but my English is not enough, and they pay me less.”

What else would he get from learning English? “I could make friends, get a good job, have a good life. When I go to the hospital I won’t need an interpreter.” He can get by in shops and cafes, “but I have an accent, and I can’t speak properly. I am different.”

Whether or not migrants can speak English has become a kind of code for whether or not migrants actively want to integrate and be a “proper” citizen. In 2013, the chancellor George Osborne said “if you are not prepared to learn English, your benefits will be cut”, as if immigrants just wanted to come to the UK and wring the system dry. In reality, many Esol courses had hundreds, or sometimes thousands, of people on their waiting lists. At the same time as Osborne’s speech, Esol funding was being cut.

The same thing is happening again. Last week, cabinet minister Matthew Hancock announced that immigrants working in customer-facing jobs in the public sector – including police officers, teaching assistants and council workers – will need to speak fluent English up to a GCSE grade C level. This wasn’t only a Conservative policy – Labour’s manifesto promised the same. But the government has now withdrawn Esol funding to some of the most vulnerable groups (unlike Scotland and Wales, England doesn’t have a national strategy on Esol provision).

Source: ‘I can’t speak properly. I am different’: do you need to speak English to be a good citizen? | Education | The Guardian

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