Updated: Oct 18, 2020
With the recent uproar at news outlets for boating out to the English channel to film migrants attempting to sail to England, social media feeds have been awash with criticism of these journalists and with support welcoming these desperate people to the country. One particular image that caught my attention on social media was this racist piece of graffiti (which originally simply read “Speak English”) in Walthamstow, London which a local artist photoshopped and circulated on the internet back in 2018.
“Speak English” is a common insult from those who oppose immigration and feel that speaking England’s official language, and only the official language, is synonymous with keeping Britain ‘British’. Research has found people in the UK have a negative attitude towards languages other than English but particularly with non-EU languages such as Arabic, which was rated the lowest. But it seems this negative attitude also extends closer to home and anything not English warrants this remark - back in 2016, on a bus from Cardiff to Newport a man told a Muslim woman she should speak English in the UK, to which she replied she was in Wales and was, in fact, speaking Welsh.
But as this modified graffito above wisely illustrated, the reality is that the majority of immigrants do “Speak English”. And as well as this, they also speak Punjabi, Arabic, Spanish, Polish, Mandarin, Romanian, Urdu and so on.
Source It is true that an immigrant’s English may not be perfect, due to it not being their first language; naturally they may have a foreign accent, make mistakes and/or misunderstand some slang. However, it needs reiterating again that they don’t speak English as their first language. Being multilingual is almost taken for granted in most parts of the world and is commonplace, particularly with individuals who move from their native country. Shamefully, the UK is one of the most monolingual countries in the world and especially Europe. Whilst 42% of European teenagers can speak a language other than English, this applies to only 9% of teens in the UK. It appears that bilingualism is largely only achieved by British-born citizens if they were brought up in a dual-language household or have spent significant money on language education. And if they have acquired this second language through education, it is viewed with such a positive bias compared to immigrants with the same skills; it is viewed as fantastic, beneficial, glamorous and impressive. So why is it not the same for immigrants? It is time that bilingualism in immigrants is respected, rather than ridiculed and used against them in racist propaganda, particular when there seems to be such a double standard when it comes to bilingual non-immigrants who live in the UK. The UK needs to change its attitude. Instead of tittering or feeling offended by hearing a language other than English spoken in the UK, we should be admiring it. It’s time to celebrate the diverse chorus that immigration allows us to sing.
If English is your second language, it should remain second.
As an English as a second language teacher, I often feel conflicted. On the one hand, my income is supported by attitudes such as that English is the best language to have if you want to live and work in English-speaking countries or work in global markets. I turn up to work every day and encourage my students to only speak English in the classroom, teach them all about the UK and drill the importance of learning illogical English spelling. However, my background before this career was linguistic research, particularly that of endangered language documentation. The sole aim of this field is to preserve and encourage indigenous languages to thrive, particularly in communities where younger generations are abandoning their mother tongue in order to practise languages which will be more “useful” in the wider world. There is no denying that English is an important and global language, and that isn’t going to change. A global language isn’t a bad thing either – it can allow communication and common ground between many nationalities. In my experience, those with English as a second language have told me they can understand and enjoy each other more than they can with native English speakers, due to the shared understanding and learning experience. However, it is important that native tongues are not abandoned in lieu of English, particularly in an immigrant setting. When I was training to be a teacher, I taught many asylum seekers who happened to be young parents. They were a real mix of people, from chartered accountants to bus drivers and from PhD students to mothers. Regardless of their profession, they all understood how their lack of proficiency in the English language brought them all to the same level: unable to work, study or live as confidently as they had back home. Because of this, the value of English to them was huge and many expressed their wish to speak English to their children as early as possible. One of my students even claimed they were going to avoid speaking their native Somali to their new-born child so they could adopt a perfect English accent. Whilst it is understandable, it is incredibly saddening. I urge other language teachers to try and remind their students, particularly those who may have recently arrived in the UK, that whilst English is important, they shouldn’t devalue their mother tongue in any way. Translation tasks or activities where they get to teach others about their home country can be particularly helpful in this regard. Teachers should also show an interest in their students’ background too and be careful not to turn English lessons into Anglicisation workshops. With steps like this we can hopefully let citizens, new and old, embrace the cultural and linguistic integration that immigration brings to the UK.  Tinsley, T., Board, K. (2014). Which languages the UK needs and why, Languages for the Future. British Council, London  Eurobarometer. (2012). Europeans and their languages. Special Eurobarometer 386, Luxembourg city, Luxembourg: European Commission. Emily Jacklin is an English as a second language teacher. Before this, she worked in linguistic research.