In Defence of Language Diversity

“Speak English! You’re in England now”, sadly a phrase many of our students have had directed at them. Yesterday on BBC Radio 5, EFA’s teacher and co-founder, Dermot Bryers was invited to oppose this view and give the perspective of people often on the receiving end of this abuse.

Nihal Arthanayake, host of Radio 5’s Afternoon Edition, asked whether it’s because of racism that many people feel uncomfortable hearing other languages in public places. Nihal interviewed Barry and asked him why he felt uncomfortable with people speaking ‘foreign’ languages in the UK. Barry said that speaking other languages invited and caused racism and that people should speak English when they move to the UK, in the same way that when a footballer moves from Arsenal to Chelsea, they should switch a red shirt for a blue one. Barry said that he had never been abroad: “why would I? I’m British.” Nihal then invited Dermot to respond to Barry’s comments. 

You can listen to the interview here

At EFA we believe that everyone has the right to learn English AND everyone has the right to speak their other languages in public. Learning English is really important and it can help people to demand their rights, feel more at home in their local community, find work, support their families and make friends. But so can speaking other languages. The UK, and particularly London, is a multi-lingual place. This is just a reality, whether you think it’s good or bad. So sometimes you need to speak Spanish to demand your rights at work, speak Polish to feel at home, speak Bangla to find work, speak Somali to support your children’s education and speak Arabic to make friends. We want to support migrants to thrive here in London and to do so they generally need to speak English alongside their other language(s). 

Sadly the aggressive demand that people “speak English” in the street has it’s echoes in the corridors of power. When politicians, from across the political spectrum, talk about multilingualism as a problem and connect people speaking other languages with some perceived reluctance to learn English, this emboldens the street racist, screaming “speak English” at a family on the bus. Politicians and influential people in the media need to speak about multi-lingualism as a great benefit to society and learning English as a right rather than an obligation. In our experience the overwhelming majority of people who have low levels of English are desparate to improve. Policy-makers need to provide the opportunities and reduce the barriers to learning. When the government has cut ESOL funding by 60% in ten years their demands that migrants “speak English” smacks of racist scapegoating rather than a genuine desire to change society for the better.