Do we need a common tongue? Languages and integrationSaturday 22 October, 12.00 - 13.00 , Garden Room State of the Nation 2016
Announcing a new £20 million language fund earlier this year, David Cameron argued that English classes would help disenfranchised Muslim women and those ‘more susceptible’ to extremism in Britain’s divided communities. In response, he stood accused of playing ‘dog-whistle politics’ by political opponents and Muslim campaigners, who argued the figures of non-English speakers in the UK have been greatly exaggerated. After all, English’s dominant status as the language of international business provokes more anguish about national identity in the non-Anglophone world: although some suggest a hybrid ‘globish’, heavily influenced by Chinese and Indian speakers in emerging markets will become the norm. Critics, including Conservative Baroness Warsi, also point out the contradiction between highlighting language as a security issue while English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) budgets have been cut by successive governments, depriving migrants of key skills and the ability to access core services.
Yet with census data showing that over 100 languages are spoken in every London borough, there is increasing uncertainty about the relationship between national identity and language. Social commentators point towards the linguistic and cultural fragmentation of Belgium as a relevant factor in its struggles with Islamist extremism. Meanwhile, arguments over achieving co-official status for languages such as Welsh and Catalan in the European Union has opened controversial debates about nationhood and sovereignty. Others observe that France’s alienated banlieue youth curse Western society in defiant French, suggesting that radicalism goes deeper than traditional integration issues. Foreign language teachers in the UK have long lamented that native English speakers lack the educational and cultural motivation to learn other tongues – a trend which has grown worse since foreign languages were made non-compulsory. But research during the EU referendum indicated that millennials are more likely to view themselves as European than older generations who were taught European languages as standard.
Is multilingualism in the UK a cause for celebration, or does it raise concern about social cohesion? Why does the future of ESOL seem so politically volatile when there is little obvious cause for concern about English’s future? In a globalised age, does it become more or less important to insist on a collective, common language? Should schools encourage students from immigrant backgrounds to study their native tongue, or put more focus on the educational benefits of learning another foreign language entirely?
director, Institute of Modern Languages Research, School of Advanced Study, University of London
arts and books editor, Prospect Magazine
vice-principal, East London Science School
Chair, University Council of Modern Languages
The Need For Common Language In a Society, Gil Laroya, Huffington Post, July 2014
If we don’t have a common language we will all suffer, Stephen Pollard, Express, February 2013
Cameron 'stigmatising Muslim women' with English language policy, Rowena Mason and Harriett Sherwood, Guardian, January 2016
Muslim women's segregation in UK communities must end - Cameron, BBC News, January 2016
‘I can’t speak properly. I am different’: do you need to speak English to be a good citizen?, Emine Saner, Guardian, August 2015
If integration is going to work, everyone needs to speak the same language, Clare Foges, Telegraph, January 2016