Recently, I had a coffee with a Syrian man now living in London, who was forced to seek asylum after he was almost arrested in Damascus on account of his name. The man, who studied in the UK but always intended to return to Syria, told me how he had worked his way up again, from a labourer in a warehouse to a marketing department. All through his story, the man had one refrain: “I want to improve my English.”
I pointed out that we were having this conversation in English. That wasn’t enough, he insisted. He wanted to speak better marketing jargon. He wanted to understand regional accents. As we finished our drinks, he said: “If you know of any good language courses, please tell me.”
If you read the coverage of the report produced by the All-Parliamentary Group on Social Integration, you might believe immigrants have been skiving English lessons left, right and centre (Syrians, as refugees, are not strictly included in the report but the same challenges apply). The report recommends “compulsory English classes”, as if previously the great halls of learning were empty. “All immigrants must be forced to take language classes,” declared The Sun.
Coming shortly after the Casey Review into integration, this latest report is being held up as another damning indictment of the failures of immigration. In fact, some good news buried in the Casey Review was the fact that 98.2 per cent of adults in England and Wales could speak English (the foreign-born population is 13 per cent). This may be partly explained by the fact that since 2008-2009, most non-European migrants coming to the UK have to already meet English requirements as part of the immigration process.
So given that just a tiny percentage of the population needs English lessons, it shouldn’t be too hard to fix, right?
There was a programme designed to do exactly that. Government funding allowed those on low incomes to take free English language classes. It was a service primarily used by Asian women. One teacher told the government the classes were “a lifeline” for otherwise isolated Pakistani housewives, who used their new skills to speak directly to doctors, teachers and their neighbours.
Unfortunately, back in 2011, the Tory-led Coalition government cut funding for English lessons in England. Many students who benefited from the funding were housewives, reliant on their husband’s income, and now they were expected to come up with hundreds of extra pounds a year. Teacher representatives at the time estimated half of students in some cities would drop out.
At the time, it seemed, the government put short-term savings over the idea of English lessons, however important to integration they might be.
My Syrian friend is not alone in wanting to improve his English – when I worked in a sandwich shop I still remember the Polish co-worker who painstakingly noted down the names of all the fillings so she could pronounce them right. Any attempt to reintroduce English lessons will no doubt be welcomed by the vast majority of immigrants. But let’s not forget who was responsible for removing them in the first place.