Today, David Cameron has received lots of (mostly bad) publicity for making this speech in which one of the things he talks about is the importance of immigrants integrating with indigenous communities and learning to speak English.
“That’s why, when there have been significant numbers of new people arriving in neighbourhoods … perhaps not able to speak the same language as those living there … on occasions not really wanting or even willing to integrate … that has created a kind of discomfort and disjointedness in some neighbourhoods.”
People like Cameron overstating the case of immigrants who don’t want to be a part of British society doesn’t help community cohesion. I run a children’s nursery and around 25% of our families have parents who speak English as an Additional Language. In my experience, such people do want to integrate; they sometimes find it difficult. I have lived here all my life; my parents were immigrants in the 60s. They made a conscious decision not to live near any extended family or other Asian community as they were desperate to integrate and look as if they were integrating. They both worked and paid taxes and my sister and I went to the local schools with all the English kids. Once I started school, they stopped speaking their home language at home, concerned that we would not learn English if they did. This resulted in me not being able to communicate with my grandparents. It still wasn’t easy to integrate; we looked different (we are Indian), were vegetarian and my Mum sometimes wore saris rather than Western clothes. I don’t think people should have to dump all vestiges of their culture to be integrated and welcomed as part of British society but I wonder if that’s what people like Cameron mean when they talk of integration.
One of the many unfortunate side effects of inflammatory speeches like today’s is on the success in learning English of very young children from immigrant families. Counter-intuitive though it may be, children whose parents speak to them in their home language go on to become much more proficient speakers of English. Focusing on the problem of immigrants not speaking English sends a message to EAL speakers that English is the most important language. I have many parents at my setting who do not want to carry on speaking their home language because they are desperate to be seen to be integrating and because they are desperate for their children to learn English so they can participate fully in British society. It is hard to persuade them to carry on speaking their home language at home and this can have a detrimental effect on their children’s education.
As well as maintaining their home language, immigrants do need access to English classes, ideally with crèches or vouchers to pay for childcare while they learn. But English classes are being cut .
Locally we have ‘one-o’clock clubs’ where parents with English as an Additional Language can meet and access support services in a welcoming environment and neutral venue. From what I can gather, these are funded out of the Early Intervention Grant which has been cut by 11% so whether they will continue is anyone’s guess.
Many immigrants already feel marginalised and the kind of talk we’ve hear from Cameron today makes this worse.