Learn Your Lines: Should all British citizens speak the English language?

In a country that does not offer foreign language lessons as early as other European countries, it seems rich that England is increasingly pressurising immigrants to learn the language. We question the motivation for this: is this another mask for xenophobia, or helping immigrants to integrate?

Assimilation and integration of cultures is well documented in modern society, with increasing exposure and a rich history. Research has been done into immigration and the creation, blending and loss of various cultural identities. But how does this translate into language?

Earlier this year, before he retired in a blaze of glory, David Cameron promised a new £20m fund to help Muslim women learn English. He suggested that those who were unable to speak the language were more likely to be linked to  extremism and ‘traditional submissiveness.’ Aside from all the outrageous terms used, the focus on learning English was linked inextricably to assimilation.

It is not only the former PM who wanted to encourage the fact that immigrants must learn English. A horde of government figures have asserted the importance of everyone learning and speaking the national language. In essence, it does make sense. To become a citizen of a country, you must be able to speak with the words they speak, talk the language that is spoken in the place you want to call home. In fact, with the multitude of airport books and language apps, learning a little bit of a new language is encouraged even for a holiday or a brief visit.


Speaking to the locals properly ensures an ease and a comfort not present when you’re trying to enunciate and gesture your way through a conversation nobody understands.

But forcing a language is not far off from encouraging a one-nationdom and homogenisation – everybody speaking one language only. Assimilation, in an Oxford English Dictionary translation, speaks more of conformity. Definitions using phrases such as ‘becoming like’ tell tales not of a unity but a frightening dissolution of uniqueness. The rhetoric of ‘shared values in Britain’ that we are now hearing so often does not suggest we must all be the same. The word we are looking for, when we talk of immigrants speaking English when they come to Britain, is integration.

Assimilation first came into  the public awareness with the mass migration movements of the 50s and 60s, but it has no doubt been around for a longer time period than that. When Channel 4 interviewed women about David Cameron’s language policy, one woman said, ‘how many languages did Britain learn from all the countries it invaded as an Empire?’ It is true that there is a double standard, for whatever reason. For example, what of expats in Spain? The pressure upon our own Brits to ascribe to the culture they’re entering into, seems to comparatively minimal. Other European countries start to learn English in primary school. Here it seems only the most privileged institutions offer this, leaving the rest to wait until high school.

Being able to speak the language of your country of residence is of course beneficial. A united language creates cohesiveness. But it should also not be a problem that some people do not. It should not be a problem that people choose not to speak English, despite the fact that Urdu on buses and Arabic on planes is met with fear and abuse. It should be contested when a lack of language skills leads to deportation.

To any child who has ever spoken first a language other than English, this will be a familiar tale. The erasure of mother tongues – in essence, the loss of language as immigrants become first and second and third generation – is a by-product of cultural assimilation. Language represents culture, and the lack of focus on multiculturalism, that is, accepting other cultures, means assimilation is starting to become a rather bitter word.

Rabeeah Moeen


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