“If you come to England, you must speak English”! This saying has many implications and inherent undertones to it, many of which are often mis thought or simply xenophobic. However, the adage does often garner wide support from “liberals,” conservatives and, of course, the far-right vocalists. Sajid Javid, Home Secretary, said in 2014 – before the Brexit referendum – that “it’s perfectly reasonable for British people to say ‘look, if you’re going to settle in Britain and make it your home you should learn the language of the country and you should respects its laws and its culture”.
As an independent statement, I would to some extend agree: if you do want to settle in another country, learning the dominant language would make your life more practical, in both a work and social situation.
This statement, however, has more vociferousness underneath it than is originally betrayed. Those who would demand immigrants speak English are not thinking about how to make life easier for the new settlers, but instead, how to appease their own insecurities and fears. Look at Javid’s statement again, it’s not immigrants who are challenging the government to make English language courses available, it’s the English putting ill-reasoned demands on those would be settlers.
I’ve been in the presence of a man commanding a couple of women to speak English on public transport. This man seemed to believe he had an additional and egocentric right to demand those around him speak the same language as he did. He demands he knows the contents of every conversation happening around him and that the English language should be implored on its citizens through law. A demand of this sort, though, is inherently authoritarian and counter to the British and Human Rights law that says one is allowed freely express themselves, as long as no harm is inflicted upon another. I sincerely hope that someone taking offense and being fearful of another language being spoken does not get put in the same barrel as harm.
The UK commanding all newcomers learn and speak English also has a certain air of English exceptionalism and sheer arrogance about it. Why would immigrants be served in trading-off hours to learn English, to a probably out of reach standard set by those who are demanding it, when those hours could be spent working, or starting their own business? It would be demanding non-English speaking immigrants to make learning the language take precedent over everything else happening in one’s life.
It should be an immigrant’s choice on whether to learn the English language, to what level they would like to learn it to and how many practise hours they would like to clock in. Learning even the basics of a language requires focus, dedication, access to resources, time as well as access to adequate finances. Many people who come to the UK do so for work or to flee war; they do not come overly wealthy, with the finances to afford private English language tutors or even classes. Mostly, these people rely on learning through interaction, free volunteer led classes or books – all whilst simultaneously providing for a family.
Britain should not make it a policy to appease the fears of unreasonable and xenophobic English exceptionalists. Instead, it should seek to fund more widely accessible English language classes for those who, through their own volition, would choose to learn the language. It is not “reasonable,” as Sajid Javid would state, for English people to expect those around them to always speak English or acquire the language without years of study first. Underneath these demands is a simple fear of the “other” and the unknown. And we should not begin to assert unrealistic demands on others or to allow the denigration of rights because of a willingness to avert fear. Immigrants of this country have freedom of expression, too — which means a freedom to speak whatever sounds they like – regardless of offense taken by others.