When Sajid Javid, the first Asian Secretary of State, talks about assimilation and immigrants learning to speak English, I do not naturally object to anything he is saying. His assertion that respecting a British way of life means “things like trying to learn English” seems sound, if a bit vague. My family, for the large part, did just that and expected their children to do the same. Conceptually, it’s a great idea.
My parents, East African Asian and first generation immigrants, spoke English pretty well as they came from former British colonies. My grandparents, older, more set in their ways, found it more challenging. Assimilation was an idea, a process that I absorbed without really thinking about what it meant politically. I grew up in a predominantly Asian community, choosing to speak English all the time, refusing to go to Gujerati school because my uncle was the teacher and I was too embarrassed to attend, having my friends call me a ‘coconut’ (brown on the outside and white on the inside) – these were all part of my every day experience. I became an English teacher. About as assimilated as you can be, I suppose.
I wonder though, and I may be wearing something of a cynical hat, how much of Sajid Javid’s statements are really about the value of language learning to families who arrive on our shores. In a political climate in which UKIP’s Nigel Farage openly scaremongers about Romanian families coming to live next door and possibly stealing from you, you can almost imagine the conversation at Tory headquarters. How does a mainstream political party join in the populist rhetoric on immigration and yet not be seen as a group of fascists or loons? I know, let’s send an Asian man to say it and then it won’t be seen as such a bad thing, because if the Asians are saying it, it’s okay right? Right? Dave, are you still listening?
So forgive me if I’m not seeing this for what it is – apparently an attempt by the Conservative Party to protect Britishness. It reads a little bit like pre-election UKIP neutralisation, a little bit like ‘easy for me, therefore easy for you’ lazy politicking and also a little bit like internalised oppression.
I teach English to London’s melting pot. I know the value of learning to speak the language of the country you are in. Not because speaking a different language is somehow an insult to the country you have chosen to live in, but because it is useful to be able to communicate with education and medical professionals, especially if you have children.
Recently, I set up English classes for parents of a particular ethnic group at my school as I identified that many parents from this group, and in particular, mothers were finding it difficult to communicate with teachers. Parents’ evenings were hard work and came with much embarrassment for all involved, children included. I found a member of support staff who was TEFL trained and finally found some money for her to teach English, after school was finished for the day, to a group of parents. The take up was fantastic and parents were enormously grateful for the opportunity. It proved to me what I already knew, that immigrant families are keen for the opportunity to learn and will take it when offered. My school made a small step in encouraging participation in society by doing something practical, by providing a solution. You see, Mr Javid, as someone who also believes that speaking English is important in England, I put my money where my mouth is.
What occurs to me is that in all the rhetoric, Sajid Javid has forgotten something very simple. Where is the government funding and access for keen families and individuals to learn English if they should wish it? While the will may be there from immigrant families, the financial ability to attend classes may not be. Schools could be, like mine, a hub for community learning, but there are staffing and funding implications for this. As a qualified English teacher, who knows how important it is to the parents of my students to speak English, I do not have the funding or the power to offer them a way to communicate. None of this has been addressed in Sajid Javid’s’s speech. What is worse is that his speech somewhat relies on the fact that people may not remember the Conservative government cut funding to ESOL classes in 2011, meaning fewer immigrants could access these classes for free. There will be people who ask why newcomers should have access to English classes for free. Well, people, you can’t have it both ways. I imagine, when it comes down to a choice between using limited family income on food, clothing and essentials, or English classes so no one around you feels uncomfortable when you speak your own language instead, it doesn’t take a genius to work out which route newcomers take.
There is a real opportunity here to do something extremely positive for new communities in the UK. I guess this is not just a Conservative issue; I am yet to hear any politician, mainstream or otherwise, provide a real solution to this age-old problem. Instead of just telling us from what seems like a fairly privileged position what you think about speaking English in England, you could use your influence to provide funding, possibly to schools that already have the premises and in many cases, the staff, for ESOL classes for the immigrant parents of the children. You could support the work of schools who already provide language classes for parents and the local community. If you are going to send an Asian man to deliver this message, you could have him explain how his family did it – and what resources they used to access the English language.
It would certainly take the fear and scaremongering out of the politics and serve to identify the political wheat from the chaff – parties that want to affect real change, not just pontificate on it.