UK: Policy on immigrants learning English doesn't make sense

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Wed Jun 13 13:54:10 UTC 2007

It doesn't make sense in any language

Ruth Kelly wants immigrants to the UK to learn English - so why do the
government's current proposals seek to restrict access to free

Ruth Kelly is this week talking about incentives for immigrants to the
UK to learn English, and suggesting that one such incentive might be
to cut the resources given over to providing translated materials in
the public services. Not only does she not take into account the
length of time it may take people to learn English and the need for
access to services and a sense of citizenship to be fostered during
this time, but she has failed to mention that government funding to
help immigrants learn English is also being cut.

In short, the government's current proposals seek to restrict access
to free English as a second language (Esol) courses, a policy that is
already having an impact at a local level according to community
activists I know in my London borough, Haringey, where more than 190
languages are spoken (most of which do not feature in the council's
translation unit).

This is an issue that many organisations have taken up, including the
University and College Union (UCU), the Refugee Council and the
Children's Society, and during Adult Learning Week in May a "save
Esol" petition with more than 15,000 signatures was handed in to
Downing Street.

Despite stories about immigrants who have spent decades in the UK
without learning English, most immigrants to the UK want to learn the
language in order to find work, integrate with the community,
understand the culture and access services. But if the provision to
learn English isn't widely available and affordable, then paying for
lessons, will inevitably be lower down the list of priorities than
covering food and housing costs. As the evidence that Kelly herself
quotes says that if someone does not try to learn English in their
first six months in the UK, they are unlikely ever to learn the
language, ensuring Esol provision is widespread and accessible has to
be a priority.

Oh, and one more thing Kelly has failed to mention: while it may be
advisable to encourage new arrivals to learn English as quickly as
possible, according to the UCU almost a quarter of asylum seekers
applying for language support do not have their applications processed
within six months. Seems it's not about incentive, but incompetence.
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