I spy…Language barrier

In Metro, January 5, 2017

English is still being used as a gate keeper and border control in Britain.  Metro reports that the All Party Parliamentary Group claims integration should begin upon arrival in the UK and that it is ‘the key to full participation in our society and economy’. MPs say that immigrants should be expected to learn English before coming to Britain or be enrolled on compulsory classes.

Having good control of the language, however, does not necessarily entail cultural competence, and that is something  that can only be acquired through time.

As Ben Rampton  notes, when migrant ethnicities are made central to discussions about education, the discourse tends to focus on cultural differences and the social integration of new populations, on the effects of ethnically distinct family structures and parenting, on the need of mother-tongue or English language support. Ethnicity is seen as presenting a challenge  to the nation state, one that is solvable through an increase in cultural adjustment. (2010 in Coffin and O’Halloran, 2010 p. 246)

The MPs and peers published a report on social integration  that seems to suggest the country is becoming more divided ‘as it becomes more diverse’. Immigrants, forming communities, are often seen to be isolated from British people. Britain, not to mention the UK, is made up of 64.1 million individuals from many different cultures, religions and races. Britain, then, is seen as a homogeneous society into which immigrants, also described as one group, should integrate.

With a sigh of slight boredom we note yet again how negatively immigrants are framed:

It’s clear that immigration has impacted on different communities in different ways and the pace of change has alarmed many’, said Labour MP Chuka Umunna.

But we don’t know why or who thinks this. The discourse of ‘alarm’ takes us to the next paragraph where violence and hatred is in conjunction with immigration and is suggested to be as a direct result of immigrants not integrating:

‘The government has a duty to address the lack of integration of immigrants. Failing to do so has left a vacuum for extremists and peddlers of hate to exploit’.

Lexical chains are useful tool in linguistic analysis to examine the cohesion of a text. There is a strong synonymous relationship between these words that appear throughout the text: integration – participation – meaningful engagement – a meaningful integration program- integration oath.  What we can see here is not a consideration of difficulties migrants experience and potential ways of assisting them in their new lives their way, but a kind of reverse colonialism – instilling into ‘foreigners’ British values (whatever that is!) and language. Not to mention the fact that taking any English language test such as the IELTS, Cambridge FCE and the rest, are all promoting a Standard English dialect, ignoring the linguistic and cultural diversity of English.

The focal concern is not with immigrants but with the receiving population. Metro’s case example the follows directly underneath the main article exemplifies my point: it is concerned with a British citizen. It seems to portray that the language test is nothing more than a bureaucratic blunder when it cites one such (white British) individual who was required to take the language test in order to continue working as a cab driver because he has no qualifications from school. Clearly, this does not exemplify the matter at hand.

While speaking the local language is an advantage in employment and education opportunities for migrants, we should also consider that perhaps there are reasons why certain immigrant communities do not venture out to mingle with “the British”. Migrant communities are often close-knit, providing genuine financial and emotional support to immigrants and have inner and outer networks that newcomers can rely on, a kind of community I had not seen yet in British towns. The article does not quote any immigrants and how they feel about ‘integration’, but could we suspect they may not feel very welcome?

Difficulties of immigration

Metro‘s stance is that it is immigrants’ responsibility to integrate because, clearly, for them it is all fun and games:

A migrant found in a suitcase in Spain, in Metro January 4

This human tragedy was titled: Did you pack yourself? 

Even though the Linguini  was fortunate enough not to arrive into the UK in a suitcase, it felt like I had to cram my whole life into one. While I had the language down prior to arriving in the UK, difficulties understanding the culture and ‘how things work’ were not so straightforward. In fact, I’m not sure anyone can teach cultural competence and the emotional turmoil and professional upheavals that go with immigration should form the focal point of discussion. For many, immigration means going from being an active member of society in the home country, to an unemployed young person due to visa restrictions (up to 6 months). The financial burden on family members (if there are any) who can work makes the immigrant all that much more fragile.


Rampton, B. (2010) ‘Linguistic Ethnography’, in Coffin, C., O’Halloran, K., and Lillis, T. (eds.) Applied Linguistics Methods: A Reader. Abingdon: The Open University, pp. 234–249.
The author is willing to remove any content that may infringe on copyrights

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s