Duel: should all immigrants learn English?

Our panellists battle it out
February 18, 2016


Clare Foges is a former speechwriter for David Cameron and a columnist for the Times


Of course migrants should learn English. The strategy to date has left an astonishing number of people mute in our mainstream economic, social and cultural life. The last census (taken in 2011) showed 863,000 people living in England who are not able to speak English well or at all. They might as well be faced with hieroglyphics. The bus stop is babel. They are here but not fully here.

We have come to this situation through wrongheaded kindness. Proponents of multiculturalism didn’t want to “impose sameness” or be guilty of cultural imperialism. And so a whole architecture of interpretation and translation was erected.

Tameside council’s website boasts “access to a bank of interpreters covering over 140 different languages.” Manchester council printed a leaflet about pigeon-feeding in Urdu. You can register to vote or apply for housing without having a good grasp of English.

All this may be kind in the short term, but in the long term it is cruel. Remove the necessity to learn English and many immigrants will not bother.

And what then? They are condemned to menial work and unemployment. Those non-proficient in English are three times more likely to have no qualifications. They are overwhelmingly more likely to be unemployed.

Saying immigrants don’t need to learn English betrays that poisonous soft bigotry of low expectations: pat them on the head and assume they will never rise beyond washing cars or cleaning houses.

Speaking English is about more than being “economically active.” It is about belonging. It shames this

that there are so many women—particularly of Pakistani and Bengali backgrounds—who remain strangers in a strange land, unable to have the pleasure of conversing about the weather.

I want people who come here to eventually love this country and to be a part of it. For that they must learn English.

Oliver Kamm is a columnist for the Times and the author of "Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English Usage"


No one disputes the benefits for migrants of learning English, but you’re proposing an illiberal solution to a phantom problem.

The 2011 census shows 864,000 people in England and Wales (not just England, as you said) who reported being unable to speak English well or at all, but you ought to break the figure down. It comprises 726,000 people (1.3 per cent of the population) who don’t speak English well and 138,000 (0.3 per cent) who don’t speak it at all. This isn’t “astonishing,” unless you think it’s astonishingly low. Even in London, the most cosmopolitan city on earth, only 4.1 per cent of the population can’t speak English well or at all. (These figures include some pre-school children.)

Moreover, 92 per cent, almost 50m people, reported that English (or English or Welsh, in Wales) was their main language. Of the remainder, 80 per cent said they spoke English well or very well.

This isn’t surprising. English isn’t an embattled language. Do you seriously imagine that immigrants “don’t bother” to learn English? I’ve never met anyone in Leicester, where I grew up, or Tower Hamlets, where I live, who fits that description. Immigrants want to know English. Yet politicians in our determinedly monoglot culture don’t grasp that learning a new language is hard.

I hope we can move to the substantive issues of language learning but I have to deal first with your purported example of wasteful municipal spending. The “pigeon-feeding” leaflet is one of a few cases cited in 2015 by researchers at the University of Man chester as exceptions to their conclusion that “Manchester’s linguistic landscape is largely devoid of multilingual signage provided by public sector agencies.” Perhaps this heralds a collapse of British society’s cohesion and morals but I doubt it.

Government should support and fund English courses but it has no business demanding that people learn the language. English is not and never has been the official language of the British Isles; nor is it the only one; nor is it even the oldest one. There’s a cost to the linguistic misunderstanding evinced by reputable politicians on this issue. It gives cover to Ukip and similar chauvinist currents in depicting migrants as a problem rather than a benefit. I’ve had enough of it.


Here’s where we agree: learning a language is hard. I would find it very difficult. If I were living in a different country where they produced a lot of helpful information in English, where I could take care of things like applying for benefits and going to hospital without learning the native language, that would definitely reduce my incentive to learn the native language. This is why translation and interpretation are not superficial side issues. Pigeon-feeding leaflets were an example to demonstrate the absurd lengths some councils have gone to. But if you want a more serious one, how about the fact that you can apply for housing without speaking English? Or—at the last count (in 2012)—the £23m spent on translation in one year by the NHS? Or the Electoral Commission allowing translators into polling stations?

On the central point: I stand by my astonishment. I wouldn’t describe 863,000 people not speaking English well or at all as a “phantom problem.” In January, David Cameron raised the issue that 22 per cent of British Muslim women speak little or no English, with 40,000 speaking no English at all. This is not negligible. The uncomfortable truth is that many of these women are socially isolated and—because of their poor English skills—have little opportunity to build a life beyond their home. Aren’t women’s rights a cornerstone of liberal values? Is it liberal to turn a blind eye to this?

The use of the word “phantom”—and the tone elsewhere in your response—suggests the inflating of this issue to inflame the debate on migration; to divide; to apportion blame. But my motivation in writing this—and I imagine that of the government in acting on it—is rooted in including people in the life of our country, not excluding them.

Because inclusion is about more than migrants being able to work. This is a country—not 60-odd million people tied into a vast tax-and-welfare contract—and a country is stronger when we’re friends, when we can interact, laugh, understand and work with each other. For that, we need to speak the same language.


Yes, I apportion blame. Politicians are perpetuating a myth of immigrants who refuse to learn English. That isn’t a serious description of modern Britain and it stigmatises people who just want to get on with their lives and provide for their families. English is not “the native language” of these islands. To take one example, Welsh has half a million speakers. We are where we are because, through a series of historical accidents, English is the dominant language and has recently become a global language.

Of course immigrants who lack English will benefit immensely from learning it. Who disputes this? My objection is to the notion that immigrants should be coerced by making life tough for them. It won’t work and it’s morally reprehensible.

We don’t know why there are proportionally more Muslim women who speak no English than, say, Hindu women. Cameron may be right that some Muslim women speak “little or no English despite many having lived here for decades.” My purpose in stressing that learning a new language is hard is that these women aren’t going to acquire mastery of English by an act of will. A Somali woman in her seventies who speaks little English isn’t going to become fluent if you curb translation services in the NHS. All you’ll do is increase her dependency on members of her own language group and make it harder for her to get medical help.

It’s no part of the test of good citizenship to be “friends” with anyone. Immigrant communities contribute to British society without the need to cajole them into it. Baroness Warsi, the former cabinet minister, says her own mother doesn’t speak English well yet has inspired her daughters to high professional achievement. There’s scarcely a young person in the world who doesn’t wish to know English. Looked at from any angle apart from parochial politics, this is an absurd debate, and I’m not inflaming it.


Do we need pedantry on what our “native” language is? That sort of detail might animate the Gaelic Society but most would agree that English is our national language.

Of course “a Somali woman in her seventies who speaks little English isn’t going to become fluent if you curb translation...” No one argues that. The translation industry simply makes it easier for people to avoid learning a language. But clearly the most important action is offering English lessons in a format that works for such women. With its £22m for English lessons delivered in communities, that is what the government is trying to do.

On “coercion,” in practice this applies to those newly arriving in the UK. Should learning English be a condition of attaining citizenship? Yes.

No-one likes the language of coercion. But here’s the key point: very few who move to the UK are forced to do so. Many choose to come because of the NHS, free schooling, help with housing, financial support if you can’t work. It does not seem unreasonable to ask that people learn the language which will enable them to contribute fully to our country.

If the message goes out to those arriving that they can stick to their own language, communities and culture, then our common identity is impoverished in the long run. And call me a patriotic sentimentalist, but I think national identity matters. That’s why our national language—and all British citizens speaking it—matters too.


I don’t think of you as a sentimentalist: rather, you’re a social engineer. You’re disregarding the UK’s complex history in pursuit of a linguistically homogeneous society that’s purely mythical. There’s never been a single language of this country that all its people have spoken. The linguist Deborah Cameron points out that English only became the majority language of parts of the UK in the 20th century.

That’s not a detail. Politicians’ interventions on the subject are a venture in moral authoritarianism. David Cameron links failure to learn English with susceptibility to Islamist extremism but cites no evidence.

The idea that English needs legislative protection is an ethnocentric absurdity. Our rulers don’t grasp how people acquire language. David Blunkett once suggested that immigrants should speak English even at home—as if too much Polish or Bengali would crowd out the memory available for English.

All this is pernicious. A free society doesn’t have “common identity” beyond citizenship under the rule of law. It’s no more a government’s business what language people speak than what religion (if any) they profess. Clare Foges is a former speechwriter for David Cameron and a columnist for the Times Oliver Kamm is a columnist for the Times and the author of “Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English Usage”