He does not want to learn English,’ said the day centre volunteer as he pointed his finger at a young man sitting in the corner, a moment before going on to explain that if the man wanted to integrate into society, he must learn English.
While I agree with the comment, I was dismayed by my colleague’s misconception of certain immigrants, for as a recent refugee himself, I thought he ought to know better. Intrigued about where this conversation was leading, I asked why he said that.
‘The other day,’ he replied, ‘I met an elderly man who has been in the UK for 49 years, but cannot speak English.’ Glancing back at me, he continued: ‘He told me that he had been in this country for 49 years and that all his children were born in this country.’
Noticing the inconsistency in his story, someone else asked, ‘Where was he from?’ Apparently hesitating about saying he was a Muslim, he said, ‘I don’t know—some Arab country.’
I looked at him and thought my initial response should be to remind him that as someone who works at a day centre where newcomers and refugees are the main clients, he should not be judgmental. I reminded him that many young adults who come here are very confused and do not really know what their future holds.
He seemed to note my professionalism, yet he was still keen to put forward his comments. Just as I thought I had had enough, another colleague picked up on our conversation and added, ‘It’s a fact that Islamic people are a cause for concern at the moment for the government but it’s acting too late.’ Soon after that the conversation shifted onto the subject of ‘Islamic’ terrorism and the question of alleged Muslim non-integration.
The relevance of this was not clear to me—and I also knew that such talk was inappropriate in this work setting. Not wanting to get into an interminable debate, I pointed out that they were sitting in front of four Muslim women who were—with one exception—first generation immigrants. We had obviously made efforts to learn English and indeed are still learning. Amongst ourselves we speak at least two European languages in addition to our native tongues. Before they could respond with an argument concerning the mores of modern Muslim women—which to some extent is used to signify women without the headscarf—I reminded them that at least two of us were overtly Muslim in appearance.
It is a fact that some immigrants already have knowledge of English, either through direct experience or from study, prior to their arrival in the United Kingdom. My colleague who has strong views on the necessity of immigrants learning English comes from a country that has English as a second language. Others like myself, however, have a lot of catching up to do in terms of learning the language and continuing their education.
Unlike my colleague, I try to acknowledge the efforts of individuals to communicate in English, however little that might be. Just the other day I was walking down Euston Road in central London when a Portuguese woman asked me for directions. As she did not understand much English, I decided to show her the way as I was heading in that direction myself. In using many Portuguese words, it was clear that she hardly spoke English at all, although she had resided in the United Kingdom for a year and half. A year and a half after my arrival here as a refugee from Somalia, my English was much better than hers, despite the fact that I did not have an opportunity to go to school for over a year due to immigration statutes and other factors. Still, I did not judge her, for maybe one day she will go to English class and learn. Sometimes it takes time to learn a new language. We all have different abilities where learning languages is concerned. Thus in my opinion we should encourage people to speak and learn English, rather than labelling them as not interested.
I believe that nobody chooses not to speak the language of the country they have made their new home, but rather that some find it more difficult than others, while some find it almost impossible to learn. In addition, as many of us will appreciate, there are different levels of speaking a language: there must be a difference between communicating in a language and being fluent in it. Could we not say that the elderly man did well in telling part of his history in the United Kingdom to a stranger? Alas, this has not been appreciated by those that should know better. I can imagine that he has worked in factory for decades, paying tax like the rest of us and is now a retired British citizen, whose children use English as their primary language.
As for the notion of integration, I do not know what this means anymore. No doubt it means something different to each individual, but suffice to say, it is not only a question of language, but also of learning to live amidst a culture you may not understand or even agree with, but are willing to accept as the chosen culture of the citizens of the given country.
It is interesting to note that the debate on integration and immigrants often concentrates on Muslims, not just in print but also in social conversation. Yet it is never more irritating than when these views are championed by other immigrants.