Much Ado About English


by Deborah Cameron

Last week, the Labour leader Ed Miliband made a much-hyped speech about ‘cultural integration’. He faced the usual problem: how to placate that section of Labour’s traditional, white working class constituency which opposes immigration, without at the same time alienating minorities and the anti-racist Left. And he reached for what has recently become the usual solution: restating that least contentious of propositions about ‘integration’, that everyone in Britain should speak English.

The speech was billed as a U-turn for Labour: ‘sorry, we got it wrong when we were in power, we’ll take the integration thing more seriously next time around’. But what Miliband said about English was just the latest move in a cross-party pissing contest that has been going on for over a decade; and if anyone started it, it was the last Labour administration.

In 2001, following outbreaks of street-fighting between white and Asian youths in depressed northern towns like Oldham, the Sheffield-born Home Secretary David Blunkett urged Asian parents to help their children integrate by speaking only English at home. Evidently he hadn’t noticed that the Asian kids who were interviewed on TV spoke English with accents very similar to his own. In 2005, the Labour government brought in a new test of both language and cultural knowledge which citizenship applicants had to pass. Then, in 2006, they created the Department for Communities and Local Government to oversee policy on ‘social cohesion’. Successive Communities Secretaries have made it their mission to bang on about English at every opportunity, and to demonize the mythical figure of the migrant who can’t or won’t learn it.

Hazel Blears was a tireless promoter of the message: in 2008 she made a speech accusing local councils of pandering to the shirkers by translating material into community languages. Earlier this year, her Tory successor Eric Pickles ticked schools off for letting any child leave without being able to ‘speak English like a native’. In between, the Department found time to have a go at shops where the Polish-language signs allegedly make English people feel ‘excluded’. And now Ed Miliband is singing from the same hymn sheet. The next Labour government, he told us, will get even tougher on translation; it will make parental responsibility for English language-learning part of a formal ‘home-school agreement’; and it will introduce new English proficiency standards for any public sector worker whose job involves talking to the public.

By now you might be thinking: this is all very well, but does anyone seriously dispute that it’s important for people who live in Britain to speak English? Actually, no: I wasn’t being sarcastic when I called that proposition uncontentious. What I do dispute, though, is the existence of thousands of immigrants who don’t know any English, can’t be bothered to learn it and don’t care if their children acquire it. All serious research on the subject finds that minority ethnic groups are well aware of the importance of English, especially for the next generation—they don’t need a home-school agreement to tell them how much it matters. The research also finds that migrants’ children do learn English—from peers and older siblings as well as teachers—and often act as ‘language brokers’ for their less proficient parents.

As for the Eastern Europeans who are accused of flocking here without knowing a word of English, the fact is that many choose the UK precisely because they do know the language: as we Brits are fond of remarking in other contexts, English is the world’s most widely-taught foreign language, with more non-native than native speakers. Its global currency also makes it a language people actively want to learn if they do not already know it. Of course there are some people in Britain whose English is poor or non-existent, but the idea that our lax multiculturalism has removed any incentive for migrants to learn and use it is a myth of politicians’ own invention.

What’s remarkable about this myth is how recently it was invented, and how alien it is to our historical traditions. English is not the official language of the UK, and any attempt to give it that status would meet with stiff opposition from the speakers of Celtic languages, which have a much longer history than English in these islands. Until the 20th Century, English was not the majority language in all parts of the British Isles, and even in England it did not until recently have much resonance as a national symbol. Before 2005, when the current test was introduced, there was no language requirement for British citizenship at all: the view was fairly widespread that what languages you spoke was not the business of the state. As recently as the 1990s, a judge who told a defendant of Pakistani origin that he had to take English lessons as part of his sentence provoked controversy on the grounds that he had no right to impose such conditions. Even in 2001 some Conservatives criticized David Blunkett’s ‘speak English at home’ message to Asians as a breach of the principle that an Englishman’s home is his castle. Some things, we used to think, were more fundamental to the British way of life than speaking English.

But in little more than ten years we have swapped this traditional laissez faire attitude (if you’ll pardon my French) for a degree of linguistic chauvinism that would not disgrace a post-Soviet state trying to reassert its cultural sovereignty after years of Russian domination. Since English is the world’s least threatened language, it does make you wonder what the hell is going on.

Partly, what’s going on is political pandering to racism and xenophobia—imposing more stringent language requirements is one way to reduce the number of immigrants Britain lets in, at least from outside the EU—but I don’t think that’s the whole story. The pious statements made about English by the likes of Ed Miliband (and Hazel Blears and Eric Pickles) never fail to remind me of the old Alexei Sayle ditty that goes: ‘It’s not class or ideology/ colour, creed or roots/ the only thing that unites us/ is Doctor Marten’s boots’.

In the age of globalization, our increasingly impotent political leaders are obsessed with defining British national identity, but also increasingly uncertain about what, if anything, does define it. Clearly, it can no longer be defined by ‘colour, creed and roots’. And attempts to codify some set of ‘British values’ have been notably unconvincing, caught between the overly generic (democracy and the rule of law) and the risibly trivial (queuing and drinking tea). Speaking English is what we’re left with. We may not be the only or even the most important English-speaking country in the world, but we can at least claim to have been the first.

There’s another advantage to politicians in making English the centrepiece of their ‘cultural integration’ policy. While they are uttering such trite observations as Ed Miliband’s ‘we can only converse if we can speak the same language’, they can avoid talking directly about the things on Alexei Sayle’s list, the economic and cultural and religious divisions which are really at the root of the most serious inter-group conflicts. The Asians who took to the streets of Oldham in 2001 spoke English like the natives they were (and like the white youths they competed with for jobs and housing); the 7/7 London suicide bombers left martyrdom videos in (Yorkshire-accented) English. Our leaders have taken a metaphor (‘we don’t speak the same language’ meaning ‘we don’t share the same beliefs, values and interests’) and interpreted it literally (‘we’ll be fine if we can just make everyone speak English’). Like the boots in the song, it’s a triumph of style over substance.

Cover image by Pierre-Louis Ferrer

About the Author:

Deborah Cameron teaches linguistics – including grammar – at Oxford University. Her book Verbal Hygiene is published by Routledge.