Wrong approach to language and integration

David Cameron has announced a fund to provide English lessons specifically for Muslim women to help them integrate better into British society. 

Questions of integration are typically questions of responsibility. In this case, is it up to the state to help migrants learn a language or is the onus on them alone? For decades the leading sentiment in the UK has leaned towards the latter, that people coming here should at the very least make the effort themselves. This is a completely reasonable rationale. However, as with all issues of this nature, it is a mindset that often puts forward solutions that are too simplistic for the complicated problems at hand. The government has fallen foul of this in wanting to appear to be doing something.

Not only is Cameron’s proposition poorly presented, already causing anger with those in the Muslim community who believe the initiative will stigmatise and isolate people, it is a complete non sequitur – the current government has cut English learning provisions more than he is planning to increase them. What the Prime Minister is putting forward will do nothing to fix anything. He is merely putting on a hard hat and pretending to look busy.

Is our emphasis on language learning too simplistic? Does it detract from the goals of integration rather than solve them? Most people would probably not begrudge some government money spent on English language classes and other forms of support, but it is to what extent this support is and how targeted the measures implemented are. In the nuance lies the difficulty.

So what is to be done? There are no straightforward answers but there may be some examples to take from an unlikely source: the United States.

Vote for Pedro

Over here we tend to look on at the political jostling of our American counterparts with a look of bewilderment. Their attitudes towards language will probably incite no different a sentiment, although for quite different reasons.

Like the UK the US has no de jure tongue, with English the language of federal government as well as the majority language. Unlike the UK, you do not need to prove any English language proficiency to acquire permanent residency, or green card; you are even allowed to bring an interpreter to help fill out your application.

Okay, so this doesn’t sound too far-fetched. But the US goes much further than this to accomodate non-Anglophones. Once usage of any language (or a so-called ‘language community’) reaches a certain size, all states and counties are obliged to provide ballot papers and electoral-related documents in that language. For most counties that have such communities, the cheapest option is typically to print all languages on one ballot which is then given to everyone. Except for Native American languages like Cherokee (where the threshold is lower) a language community is defined as one that comprises at least 5% of the county or state, or 10,000 or more individuals, regardless of percentage.

This is all covered by the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965, a law originally passed to support the voting rights of Black Americans in the southern United States. In 1975 an amendment to the VRA called Section 203 was introduced to encourage other language minority communities who were historically discouraged from voting, including the likes of Asians, Hispanics and Native Americans. Since then Section 203 has been renewed and enhanced by other acts and remains in place to this day.

Each time the legislation has come to be reviewed, it has only ever been strengthened, never revoked or weakened. In 2006, when Section 203 was last up for review, Republican representative for Iowa Steven King put forward a challenge to make ballots monolingual nationwide. But this motion was quickly settled – despite being put forward to a Republican dominated committee, it was rejected by 26 votes to 9. The renewal of VRA went on to pass through Congress without issue (gaining unanimous support from the Senate) ensuring that multilingual services will continue to be provided until at least 2031.

Multilingual ballots are considered a key part of increasing and incentivising minority communities to vote in the US and there appears to be little appetite for that to change any time soon. To implicate any kind of similar measure in the UK, which could mean ballot papers printed in the likes of Punjabi or Polish, would seem not only unthinkable, but would cause enormous outcry.

welcome2

Loose ends

Of course there is a lot of complex history and treaties that inform the language policy of the US, indeed even to regard Spanish as a language any more foreign than English is telling enough in itself of the ‘anglobubble’ lens we often look through. Not everyone is happy with the bend-over-backwards approach to foreign languages the federal government takes, and work opportunities for non-Anglophones generally remain limited to low-paid, menial labour.

But recent trends in America continue to point towards a very different approach to that of the UK, at least in regards to language. More and more legal and medical settings in the United States must provide licensed interpreters for LEP (Limited English Proficiency) residents, mostly provided by organisations and commissions like the CCHI (Certification for Healthcare Interpreters) and the JBCC (Judicial Branch Certification Commission). To us, these measures appear counter-productive, because it is not a direction based on the belief that language alone is a springboard for integration, as it is often presented as being in the UK.

Mass immigration is the symptom of a problem meaning we cannot blame the issue on individual migrants, in the same way we cannot blame the planet for climate change caused by heavy industry. And when we see the behaviour of British people living abroad  in, say, the Costa del Sol and Dubai, with dedicated English radio stations and British pubs, there can be some sympathy for the bubbles migrants often fall into. France, which has set proficiency in French as a prerequisite for citizenship, is threatening to strip away the right to dual nationality in some instances; Germany requires language proficiency AND passing an integration test.

Integration is a balancing act between support, education and inducement, but ultimately the solutions we choose come down to our own attitudes. Isolation is very easy to fall into, even for those who already live here. When immigrants are demonised and the questions of immigration turn from those of economics and policy to personal attacks and bigotry, no amount of government support will help people integrate. In a climate like that, they will have a much steeper hill to climb than simply learning the lingo.

Main image: David McAllister; Welcome: courtesy of www.etusd.org

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