The British government should fix a date by which all residents in the UK should be able to speak English, says Louise Casey, who wrote a report for the government on integration in 2016. A common language, she argued, would help to “heal rifts across Britain”.
Casey first recommended that the government promote the English language in order to tackle isolation and segregation in her 2016 report. That recommendation received support even from people who otherwise attacked the report for its focus on the UK’s Muslim communities.
The recent call for action is part of her wider criticism of the government for delaying the improvement of community cohesion. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government only published its new integrated communities strategy green paper on March 14, more than a year after Casey’s review appeared. Boosting English language skills is one of its key aims.
Casey’s call for a target date by when “everybody in the country” should speak English is a piece of deliberately provocative rhetoric. It’s easy to see how trying to implement her idea would have many problems in practice. When would that deadline be? What would qualify as sufficient and acceptable knowledge of English? How would that be tested? Who would be subject to a test and how would they be identified? What would happen to someone who does not meet the requirement? Is it possible to force someone to speak a language they do not?
The 2011 census showed that, of the 4.2m people who have a main language other than English in England and Wales, only 1.3%, or 726,000, of the population reported that they could not speak English well. An even smaller percentage, 0.3% or 138,000, reported that they could not speak English at all.
Britain has always been a multilingual country
The current debate shows a blatant disregard for the facts about the UK’s languages and the people who speak them. It promotes the view that having many languages is a problem, and exposes speakers of other languages to potential discrimination and even abuse.
But there hasn’t been a single moment in history when Britain was monolingual. The 2011 census identified at least 104 languages other than English spoken in England and Wales by 4.2m people – 7.7% of the total population. Other sources put that number at 300.
These languages are spoken by both British and non-British people. Some, such as Lithuanian and Romanian, were brought over to the UK recently as part of the expansion of the EU. Others, such as Punjabi, Urdu and Bengali, were transplanted from parts of the former British Empire much earlier, in the 19th and 20th centuries. And there are also Britain’s indigenous languages (Angloromani, Cornish, Irish, Manx, Scots, Scottish Gaelic, Shelta, Welsh) that have been continuously spoken in the UK for many centuries, some of them since before the arrival of English. Multilingualism is part of this country’s past, its present and its future.
It has been repeatedly shown that speaking many languages has multiple benefits, not only for the personal well-being of multilingual speakers but also for the overall well-being of society in general.
The UK’s languages are of great significance to their speakers, who view them as symbols of their identity. Marios, a 51-year-old British-born Greek Cypriot, who I spoke to as part of my current research on Cypriot Greek as a heritage and community language in London, told me:
I like speaking my language. I do not want to lose the Greek language because I think that, if I lose the language, I will not be Cypriot anymore.
Languages are also important for the UK’s minority ethnic communities on a collective level. They are points of reference to their histories as migrant groups or as indigenous populations of Britain. We should strive to protect and respect the symbolic value of multilingualism like we do with all other aspects of people’s identities.
The notion that everyone in a given country must speak only one language is not only misguided, it is also potentially dangerous as it can motivate acts of discrimination and even abuse. It’s not uncommon to read news stories about people who have been singled out for speaking a language other than English in public or who have been told not to speak their native language at their workplace, especially after the Brexit referendum and the increase in racially-motivated hate crimes in the UK. It’s a matter of social justice and responsibility to make sure that these behaviours do not find any sort of ideological support in public discourse.
Of course, speaking English affords people the possibility to harness the opportunities that life in the UK offers in a more direct and easy way. But there is also value in other languages as resources, skills, expressions of individual and community identity. Associating multilingualism with a lack of English and painting that association as a problem, and especially a problem much bigger than it actually is, is ill-informed and has potentially damaging implications for society cohesion and intercommunal understanding.
Setting a deadline by which everyone in the UK should speak English is impossible and would send the wrong messages about who we are as a country to people in Britain, both those who speak other languages and those who do not, and to the rest of the world.