English-language classes for immigrants are not simply fodder for opponents of Boris Johnson, says Maheen Behrana.
After yet another hustings event showcasing the Tory leadership candidates, Boris Johnson has been reported as pledging to make all immigrants learn English.
Predictably, outrage ensued. While Johnson did not actually propose mandatory English lessons, he said in a Guardian article that there are “too many parts of our country … where English is not spoken by some people as their first language and that needs to be changed”.
It’s worth adding that the day before he made those comments, Parliament debated the issue of English-language funding cuts, including the effect on Syrian refugees trying to build a new life here yet struggling to access learning support.
However, once again Boris has got it wrong. If people in the UK speak a language other than English as their first language, then so be it, especially considering that the UK actually has one of the lowest rates of multilingualism in Europe.
Someone’s first language has no bearing on their ability to learn a second. But the Guardian has got it wrong too: portraying Boris as someone who would make immigrants learn English (thereby implying force) simply serves to distract us from a very important issue.
Yes, Boris Johnson may well be an intolerant nationalist, as suggested in the Guardian article. But believing we should help immigrants learn English should not be seen as representing a nationalist or even right-wing mindset.
Cameron’s reforms meant that many economically inactive migrants with a poor command of English (often people dependent on the income of other family members) would no longer qualify for free English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teaching.
Only those on jobseeker’s allowance were eligible for free lessons; women whose husbands were in work, for example, did not qualify.
While proclaiming what immigrants ought to do, David Cameron removed the very means by which immigrants might do those things. And when in 2016, he pledged £20 million to help immigrants, particularly Muslim women, learn English, he was simply doing a U-turn, and half-reversing the cuts he had made earlier.
In the last census, just 0.3% of the UK population indicated they spoke no English. A further 1.3% defined themselves as speaking English, but not well. The numbers are small, but this actually catalyses a sense of perceived and actual isolation from wider society for people in these groups. Many of those affected by cuts to free ESOL teaching are women from minority backgrounds.
Co-director of the Social Action and Research Foundation Amina Lone notes that many individuals are in an impossible situation: they are demonised for not being able to speak English but not facilitated to learn it in any way.
So if Boris genuinely believes in helping immigrants to learn English, we should not overlook the potential benefits to score a political point.
But I fear his words are much like Cameron’s: sweeping statements underpinned by a desire to see a more homogeneous England. There is no real wish to help immigrants become part of British society, as the severe cuts to ESOL funding show.
Yet the Guardian is not helping when it leads with headlines like that: the real issues become lost in a spat between political right and left. And it is the people on the front line who are left to deal with the fallout.
Maheen Behrana is a writer and is an editor at BackBench.co.uk
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