All around the UK are communities of people who originate from outside Britain and successfully manage most of their lives knowing very little English. Labour leader Ed Miliband has said that “too little” has been done to ensure that immigrant communities are integrated into wider society and is calling for more effort to make sure that those settling in Britain are able to speak English.
While there are large communities throughout Britain that count Welsh, Scottish Gaelic and other such languages as native, it is interesting to note how many immigrants are able to arrive and live their lives knowing little to no English at all. Take, for example, the growing Romanian community of north and east London, where the nature of these “standing communities” makes it quite possible to live without knowing English. Petru Clej, a Romanian interpreter working in London, says
"They settle here in groups. There are whole neighbourhoods filled with Romanians. They have their own shops, their own churches, all of them have Romanian satellite TV and they work together on construction sites.
"I have encountered Romanians who have been here 10 years and don't speak a word of English. By and by they get along, though it's not a brilliant living. If they have children, they go to school, learn English and act as interpreters for the parents. So there's not always an incentive to learn."
There are also many official fields where interpretation services are provided, such as the justice system, social and medical services. Some employers are even offering translators to their staff, for example to allow them to sit exams that they need to pass by law before they are able to do their jobs. Mr Clej adds that many schools which have big communities of eastern Europeans are hiring teaching assistants who speak other languages in order to help children who come from non-English-speaking households.
Sudarshan Abrol, a retired head teacher from Birmingham, now works as a volunteer at her local UK Asian Women’s Centre and says she encounters many people of Asian background who have been in the UK years but never learned any English.
“The younger generation tend to be able to speak English, which they have learned at school, but there is a generation of people now in their 50s and 60s who are still struggling to speak it. I have a lot of ladies coming to me now, their husbands are gone and they are on their own and they are finding it difficult to express themselves at the doctor's or if there is a problem at home. They don't know where to go. I always say, 'Why don't you just learn simple English?'
"Some of them have picked up a few words, like 'What is your name?' and 'Who is your doctor? Where do you live?' or they remember the numbers of buses, which is important in case they get lost, but that's all they know."
Mrs Abrol is unsympathetic to these women, adding
"I personally believe if you come to this country you should learn English. Them not speaking English is costing this country a lot of money, translation costs a bomb. And if you go to the doctor's and you can't express what is wrong with you, then what do you expect from them?"
Habib Rahman, of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, points out that most people usually want to learn English and become properly integrated into British society, and that while it can be hard for those who are poorly educated – or even illiterate – in their native language, it is not impossible.
"Integration is very important. When people come here we want then to integrate as quickly as possible and not speaking English is a barrier to that. It's in their own interests to learn it so they have access to improved employment chances and education opportunities for themselves and their children."
"You see some people who have come at a later time of their life and when they go to the Post Office, they speak English. Not fluently perhaps but they speak English. Out of necessity, people will learn."
Trying to learn English in England by being thrown in at the proverbial deep end is not always the best way to achieve fluency and confidence, as illustrated by the problems these immigrants face. Despite the tolerant and multicultural nature of British society there is still a very real need for full fluency in English in order to progress in a good career with long term prospects which many young people desperately wish to do in order to move on from whatever family business brought their families to England.
If you are looking to improve your English to boost your career prospects or just make everyday life a bit easier for you and your family, whether you are living in Britain at the moment or looking to gain opportunities in your native country, Concorde International’s range of English language courses can help.
Concorde offer everything from general adult English courses to junior English summer schoolsto English university access courses and more, so get in touch with them today on 0044 1227 451035 or send them a message on their website at www.concorde-int.com.