Luke Stanley is Policy Adviser to Lord Hague of Richmond and Parliamentary Researcher to Anthony Mangnall MP. He writes in a personal capacity.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, L. L. Zamenhof, a doctor in Warsaw, embarked upon an ambitious goal. To foster harmony between different nations, Zamenhof created a new common language, Esperanto, that he hoped the whole world would one day learn as a secondary language. Reflecting on his hometown in later life, he wrote:
“In Bialystok the inhabitants were divided into four distinct elements: Russians, Poles, Germans, and Jews; each of these spoke their own language and looked on all the others as enemies. In such a town [one] … sees at every step that the diversity of languages is the first, or at least the most influential, basis for the separation of the human family”
Zamenhof’s dream of a universal secondary language never came to fruition, but his goal underscores an important truth: for communities to be connected, they have to be able to talk to one another.
After Brexit, there has been a renewed effort by experts to reknit our country’s social fabric and bring together “Somewheres” and “Anywheres”. However, this national debate has largely overlooked how to help fully integrate the “Somewhere Elses” – migrants born overseas – into our society by supporting them to learn English.
Given the likely impact of the outcome in Afghanistan on flows of refugees, policies to address English language barriers will be more important than ever.
Aside from the impact on society, failure to address language barriers and help fully integrate new migrants also comes with high economic costs. Studies by the University of Aberdeen and Demos have shown that migrants with better language English skills are more likely to be employed or economically active than those with less proficiency for English.
Poor English skills can also limit an individual’s civic participation and access to public services. Numerous studies and reports have concluded that language barriers may be one of the factors contributing to the disproportionate toll that Covid has inflicted upon ethnic minorities.
So how common is low proficiency in English among migrants? Unfortunately, the data in this area is very poor, with the latest reliable survey the 2011 Census. This recorded that, of the four million people across England whose main language was not English, 844,000 (20 per cent) could not speak English well, including 134,000 (three per cent) who could not speak English at all.
Local areas with the highest proportions of poor English speakers per head of population were concentrated in London and Leicester. We will have to wait until analysis of this year’s census is released to get an up to date picture of language skills across the English population.
That said, more regular data is available on the number of children who have a different first language than English (DFL children), although this data does not distinguish between bilingual and children who cannot speak English. This year’s release shows that there are 1.6 million DFL children across England, 19 per cent of the school population. But more interesting than their overall number is their concentration across the country. Analysis of data for the individual schools shows that of the total number of DFL children across England, over 40% attend a school where they account for a majority of the school.
So what can be done to help adult migrants improve their English skills and support greater social mixing between school children of different linguistic backgrounds?
First, given that the Department for Education’s 2019 review of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) provision found that the cost of a course was one of the main barriers to potential learners, the Government could consider creating a ESOL loan scheme. Although the Government does already cover the cost of these courses for the unemployed, an undergraduate-style student loan scheme for ESOL could help support in-work migrants seeking to improve their English proficiency, in order to progress to a better paid job.
Second, more can be done to support informal, community-led “conversation clubs” that migrants often attend alongside official ESOL classes. Last June, an evidence review by the Learning and Work Institute concluded that a lack of classroom space was a “key barrier to delivering quality provision”. A lack of physical infrastructure for community programmes is not a problem unique to English language clubs with many other civic and voluntary activities struggling for space. The Government should therefore carefully consider the proposal from Onward for a Social Spaces Act to introduce an automatic permission for long-term unused assets to be converted for community use, including conversation clubs.
Finally, the Government should explore options for boosting social mixing through schools, wherever possible. While the UK’s national school linking programme, which has connected over 500 schools and helped more than 20,000 school children take part in community cohesion activities, has been a great success, the Government could consider expanding this programme further.
Of those asked in the British Social Attitudes Survey 2013, 95 per cent respondents said that to be “truly British” you must be able to speak English. Only by redoubling our efforts to help migrants learn English can we ensure that our country does not come to resemble Zamenhof’s Bialystok, where different communities live side-by-side without ever speaking to one another.