Race Week – Language

There is a thing that really annoys me. It's when I turn up to a house and people who have lived here for some years who can't speak English.

In London there are enclaves of various cultures, In North London you have a large Jewish enclave, you also have gatherings of Greek and Turkish people. In my own particular area you have places that seem 90% Bengali, there is a smaller area that is Sri Lankan in make-up.

Now this is fine, people like people who look and act like themselves. This is natural.

But, when a large enough group of people get together there becomes less incentive to learn English. The government provides translation for hundreds of languages, the people get their groceries in shops run by people who speak their own language and they go to community centres and religious institutions where their language is spoken. They can go for months, if not years, without having to speak to anyone who doesn't understand them.

Until they call an ambulance, then we either use 'Language line', which is expensive, or we turn to our 'arm-waving, shouting slowly' skills of communication. Or I use the one word of Bangladeshi that I know.


(It means 'pain'. I am better at getting the general gist of what people are saying to me).

Some days I will go the whole shift without seeing any patients or relatives who can speak English.

But it's not the difficulty in communication that it makes me annoyed. What annoys me is that people who don't speak English are cutting themselves off from wider society. Most of our education about society these days comes, for better or worse, from television and newspapers. By not being able to understand English you are cutting the amount of information that you are getting by a huge amount.

This isn't to say that non-English speakers are uninterested in news – there are lots of foreign language TV channels out there, and while the news might be news about the UK (I have no idea), it is being presented through a different lens than 'native' newscasts. This then colours people's perceptions of what is happening out there.

This is why learning English is something that I consider an important part of living in this country. While it pains me to agree with a religious nut, Ruth Kelly thinks that this translation help should be cut as it only puts hurdles on integrating into the larger UK society. Look at the poor woman who was a victim of an 'honour killing' a spokesperson says that the community tried it's best to protect the murderers – without wanting to seem trite, would these people be so quick to defend this murder if they saw how unacceptable this was from 'Eastenders'* or similar dramas?

Enculturalisation via TV.

This insular nature of various cultures is a bad thing, and is only reinforced by not being able to speak English.

Look at my last post – the poor woman firstly thought that the treatment that she was getting from her husband was 'normal', secondly she thought that both the police and the ambulance staff would physically beat her up. This could all be corrected if she could understand some English TV.

Show me someone who watches 'Casualty' and thinks that Josh beats people up for 'honour'.

I think that withholding the learning of English it is sometimes a way of maintaining power over women. Often I will go to a call and it will be the men who can speak English, and the women who can't. Likewise I find women who have been 'shipped over' to marry men in the UK. These women seldom speak any English and I often fear that this is in order to keep them 'under control'.

Also how can you take part in the larger scheme of the UK if you don't understand the political issues? How do you know who you are voting for – we seem so intent to bring democracy to other countries yet we forget these large parts of our own country. Of course, language isn't the only barrier to this given decreasing voter turnouts.

In my job it also places that extra barrier between the patient and myself, I always trust that the questions and answers that are being translated back and forth are being done so accurately.

My dad is/was** illiterate and I saw how that barred him from large parts of society, so I can imagine how being unable to speak the language must feel. I know that I feel terribly isolated from the world when I'm on holiday in a place where English isn't spoken and while I try to learn enough to get by, understanding news reports (for instance) is far beyond me.

And of course, we shouldn't forget the Welsh who are being told that in business they should only speak the official language of the UK. Interesting that part of the reason is that it excludes those of us who are unfortunate enough to be monolingual.

As always, these thoughts are my own, based on my own experiences as a WASPish male; I love reading comments that educate me, so please do argue with me on this if you think that I am wide of the mark. I have only the vaguest idea what it is to be a person from a Bangladeshi background – so please educate me.

*I know people do bad things to each other in Eastenders, but they always get punished for it. For example, it's some sort of a rule that no-one in Eastenders can take drugs without having a 'bad trip', dying or going to prison.

**Is/was because I have no idea if he is still alive.

41 thoughts on “Race Week – Language”

  1. I think that if you have CHOSEN to come to the UK for work, education etc then you should learn English and this should be a requirement of leave to remain here. Have you any idea how dangerous and frustrating it is, trying to provide care for a woman who speaks and understands literally no English whatsoever, when there is no translator available and all she can do is smile, nod and say 'yes'? This happens at our clinic all the time, with mostly Chinese women. When you get a translator, you find the woman has been here for 2 years and still does not understand a single word or phrase of English. How can that possibly be right, or indeed how can anyone assume that this will help you get on in the country you have chosen to go to?If someone from England moves to France, or Germany, while it would be preferable and polite to learn the language, you know that most people will speak English so you aren't going to find yourself stuck somewhere that nobody will understand you at all (in trouble, say). If I was to move to a small village in Ethiopia, most people certainly do not speak English so I would have learnt Oromo or Amharic beforehand because there is no guarantee you'll have the slightest clue what is going on. If you have come over recently, or as an asylum seeker, then that is different- you didn't choose where you'd end up necessarily. But then once here, we should provide support and education for people so they can access services etc by learning the language so they are PART of society and not just existing alongside.I just don't understand the mindset of people who move to any country that has a very minority population who can speak their language, who assumes that that will be enough.

  2. The sad thing is that you only need to speak the local language if you aren't rich enough.I live in Hong Kong these days, and I am doing OK with learning Cantonese (I can make small talk with shopkeepers now, it's a start). However, my learning is hampered by the fact that I can just speak English if I want to. You save a lot of money being able to speak Cantonese (or at least being able to read Chinese), but if that's not necessary, people just don't bother.

    Many of my co-workers speak Cantonese but can't read it.

    In Beijing (where pretty much nobody speaks anything other than Mandarin), I know plenty of expat types who don't speak a word of Chinese. In one case, the guy was born in Beijing and grew up there but can barely order dinner in Mandarin, thanks to living in a gated community for eighteen years.

    So yes, it is important for people to learn English in Britain, but I'm not sure that taking translation support away is the best way to help.

    Free language tuition, along the lines of what's provided in France for new citizens, might be an idea.

  3. You make a good point about knowing the local language when you're on holiday – my German is pretty rudimentary, and I remember arriving at the Westbahnhof in Vienna the morning the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev started in 1991, with a large news display showing “Panzers im Moskau! Vize-Prazident Janajew…” followed by a long German verb whose meaning I had no idea of. For the whole episode I was basically puzzling out what was happening from the Austrian tabloid papers and waiting a day for the British papers to arrive.As to the use of Welsh, it's worth pointing out that there's never been any law specifying that English is the official language of the UK.

  4. Free language tuition, along the lines of what's provided in France for new citizens, might be an idea.I absolutely agree.

    And the thing about the gated community – if you are going to live in another country for any amount of time, then you should make an effort to become a citizen of that country – not hide away in a bit of 'little England'; otherwise what is the point?

  5. Wow, what a thought provoking and eye opening piece. I dont disagree with much of it but can partially share two relevant experiences.I now live in Switzerland with 4 official languages, English is not on of them. I have been learning French for 18 months now and still struggle but eventually I may get there (after 20 years). See the problem is, and this comes straight back to your “communities” comment, Whenever I speak French here I am always responded to in English, be it on the street, at work, anywhwere in fact. This seriously thwarts my forward progress. Yes I am reasonable at understanding but speaking is awful due to the lack of practice I get.

    The other issue and it may not be the only reason for my happier stress free lifestyle, is the fact that I do not follow the local news/newspapers because I dont understand them. This “protection” from what is happening around me leaves me in a childish innocence of what is happening in an adult world, net result, I am far less stressed than I was in the UK my BP is considerably lower and my cholesterol too. I know there are many factors that affect these two body measures but I am convinced a lack of stress does play a significant part. Finally, still with the news, I differ with regard to you opinion (if I understood you correctly) regarding watching the news in “their” language. I find the UK to be very biased and also the Government influences the media. You the people are biased by the feeds it puts out. Yes I still follow the BBC News every day but increasingly watch Al Jazeera, CNN (worse than the BBC) and other news channels. I am and I suspect you would be, very surprised at how good AlJazeera is. It is incredibly neutral and reports the facts in such a way that I have far more trust in what comes out of it news reports than the UK Governments mouths. Sorry I am not intending to get political here, just saying what I have experienced. Therefore in conclusion, is the news in “their” language of lesser value, accuracy or whatever, than the “English” News?

    Anyway Tom, cheers for a good read this morning and a bl**dy good article. Keep up the good work.

  6. If I'm visiting another country I make a point of learning some of the local language before I go. Even as little as the local equivalents of “please”, “thank you”, “I'm sorry/excuse me”, “good morning/afternoon” and “I'm sorry I don't speak [language], do you speak English?”.In my mind it's nothing less than bloody rude not to make at least a token effort to communicate with natives of your host country in their language. If you're going to live there for any time then you should make efforts to learn as much of the local lingo as you can. This isn't just good manners, it's common sense too.

    >This isn't to say that non-English speakers are uninterested in news –

    >there are lots of foreign language TV channels out there, and while the

    >news might be news about the UK (I have no idea), it is being presented

    >through a different lens than 'native' newscasts. This then colours

    >people's perceptions of what is happening out there.

    An interesting exercise is to see how British news is reported by foreign media. If you don't speak a foreign language then watch/listen to the news in the English language version of another country's media. Even the world service of the BBC gives a very different perspective to the national BBC services. I often find an outside/intended for outsiders perspective is much better balanced than the native English reporting.

    >These women seldom speak any English and I often fear that this is in

    >order to keep them 'under control'.

    Indeed, I'm sure that this is true in some cases. Compare with how hoi polloi were kept under control when the bible and all other learned matters in England were conducted in Latin.

  7. Sorry to be so boring but I have to agree with you. I would say, however, that you have to have an exceptionally good command of a language to be able to talk about medical stuff. Even a word like elbow for example, isn't the sort of word you learn routinely even at A level.As young children virtually absorb foreign languages it would seem sensible to start teaching more at primary school.

    I remember a friend and I trying to get a history by asking the equivalent of “does your Granny have sweet wee?” to some Romanians in French.

    So, interpreters should be available but not on tap like they are now.

    I went to a culture study day once and I learned that a)some languages which leaflets are translated into aren't really written languages so that's a waste of time and b) even pictures can be misinterpreted – eg health visitor holding woman's baby, could be interpreted as HV

    takingwoman's baby!

    Basically it's a minefield.Of course, you are right about women, after all , if they started to read papers and watch English tele they might want to have a different lifestyle.

    When I was a child our elderly next door neighbour didn't want a television, new fangled thing! He was persuaded and liked it so much he ended up watching everything, including the Welsh programmes- and he was Scottish and didn't understand a word or them!

  8. totally agree with you, another side of this is schools. A few years ago it would be very unsual to hear another language in the playground (spoken by parents not the children) nowdays as I stand there it's rare that I hear English spoken. I think the kids are amazing, they speak English so well in the classroom, even the little'uns, then they come out at hometime and mum is there speaking to them in their native language and the child answering likewise. I often think it would be easier on the child if their parents made a point of speaking English to them, they are thrown in at the deep end, having to learn a new language in order to recieve an education, if I was the parent I'd be doing whatever it took to make that easier for my child.

  9. I've also lived abroad (China – neither Beijing nor Shanghai, so limited contact with other expats). While I can quite happily chat with my neighbours/shopkeepers/taxi drivers in Chinese, I would never dream of dealing with officialdom (doctors, police, tax officials, etc) without a proper translator. Some communications are just too important to risk by making a silly language error.In the UK the situation is complicated. I don't like the idea that people (especially women) may be being kept under control through lack of language skills. However, I feel that attitudes along the lines of, “If they want to live here they've got to speak English,” can easily degenerate into prejudice and racism, which isn't going to help anybody.

    I agree with Tom. Keep the translation service – it's important. Offer free language tuition to anyone who wants it. I think you'll find that the overwhelming majority of non-English speakers do want it. At least, that's been my experience in the EFL field.

    Arwel: Really? English has no legal status as the official language of the UK? That's interesting.

  10. A good topic for discussion that could run for ages.I personally agree with the comments made by Tom. You cannot expect to integrate you and your family into a community within Britain if there is no inclination or desire to feel part of it.

    This can (and obviously does) have a detrimental effect on these people when they eventually require any sort of assistance whether it be medical, police or fire brigade.

    People looking to move to this country should be seen to be making genuine efforts to learn the language to help cross any barriers and to also understand what is and is not acceptable in this country.

    We have many Polish people arriving here now (where I stay) and while they are hard working individuals who have mixed well within the community it is disapointing to see the council are more interested in running classes for the local people to learn Polish rather than the other way around!

  11. I volunteer to teach English. It is a for women by women scheme because it can be harder for women to access more formal education, perhaps because of responsibilities keeping them at home or simply a lack of confidence to sit in a classroom with 15 other people.It is low level, informal and just one hour a week. We are asked to focus on practical language skills. Since October I have covered many things and this has included some health stuff. Parts of the body, medicines, words for ambulance, doctor, hospital and nurse etc. It would be great if you had any phrase you think would be especially important to learn so that I can incorporate them.

    I must give credit to the government because I am able to access free training materials to use although sometimes this is so focused on being multi-cultural it sometimes forgets to keep things simple. However, I must also berate the government because our scheme has lost its funding. The volunteers do it absolutely for free, we don't claim expenses even. However, there is no funding for the coordinator, more training or materials and the charity that runs it is having to subsidise it.

    I absolutely think that there should be language classes for people new to this country but this is not the only way of delivering learning. Some of the women involved in my scheme will go on to more formal education once that have learnt some basics but others, especially those that are elderly, will not; but they will find their hour a week extremely valuable.

  12. I don't know about London, but Hampshire (lots of Poles in Southampton) has copious amounts of free adult education english as a second (third,whatever) language at colleges. I wonder how many people take it up.

  13. My husband's job has brought us temporarily to Italy (NATO).within the Brit community, of a few hundred mobile families (not expats) the majority have a couple of lessons of Italian and give up. I am not an exception in being albe to hold a conversation, but I am in the minority. The schooling the kids receive is English, increasingly supermarkets make conversations with shopkeepers unnecessary and ultimately it's not a priority for 3 years. I keep on having this argument, but there is no answer!

    Secondly, the syllabus that I used to gain my Italian GCSE includes parts of the body and simple information on how to talk to Drs which was excellent help in my oral last year.

    Language teaching, I'm finding, is generally dreadful and I'm not suprised that many people think it's really hard to communicate with foreigners.

  14. On the whole I tend to agree with you: I certainly don't think you are totally off the mark.But the point you make about language as power should not be underestimated. Getting rid of translation services would perhaps have the worst effect on the vulnerable who most need them. And any man who discourages or prevents his wife from learning English probably wouldn't let her watch Eastenders even if she could understand it.

    I believe that unless you know the full circumstances of the individual's situation, it is not fair to assume that the reason they haven't learned the language is that they are too lazy or rude, or that they are uninterested in the culture of their new country. There are often far more complicated (and sometimes sinister) reasons behind it.

    (I say this as someone who has lived plenty of years in non-English speaking countries myself, and have always learned the local language. But I am young and reasonably well-off, have a natural knack for languages, and have the typical self-confidence of a Western woman. Despite these advantages, I have sometimes been tempted to retreat into a ghetto of my own nationality where the world makes so much more sense! I can only imagine what it is like for someone in already difficult circumstances.)

  15. I actually believe that being able to speak English should be a condition of residence.I don't want it to discriminate against asylum seekers and others in need of our help. What I'd like to see is that you get a residence permit no matter if you can speak English or not, on the condition that in 3 years time or whatever it must be renewed and you must be able to pass a basic English comprehension test. Just some simple test like interacting in a shop, maybe summarising a news story. 3 years should be ample time to learn enough of the local language to pass those easily.

    I think a lot of the cultural ghetto-isation and all the associated ills are because people coming to this country aren't integrating, and learning the local language is the first step towards integration.

    A point about “business transactions in welsh”. I've worked for a number of international companies, including a German company with 95% of employees German and working in Germany. All of those companies had a policy that the official business language is English. While invariably everything was done in German, it was expected that if any party in a conversation was not German the conversation would happen in English and all employees were expected to have sufficient knowledge of English to be able to carry out basic business in that language.

  16. There's a difference, though, between being able to name all the parts of the body, and being able to communicate things like “I have/he has a pain here *point*, I have/he has vomited, I am cold, I am hot, I have a fever…” I remember that stuff from GCSE French and it's the sort of thing I would hope to find a basic section for in a handy phrasebook to take on holiday with me. I also recall a diabetic girl in the class specifically asking, and writing down, how to say “I have diabetes” because even her teenage self realised this just might be important to know when in a foreign country. You can't be prepared for every situation, but there's some phrases that you can predict that you might need, especially the longer you are staying in a place.

  17. Ideally, yes everyone should learn to speak the language of the host country. I'm lucky in that I already spoke French before hubby dearest took a job there, however lots of my compatriots have tried and failed to,or given up. Our 'job' of looking after the house and kids prevents the social contact necessary to learn the language, and it's a heck of a lot harder to retain vocab as an adult than as a child, and there's a ready-made ex-pat commmunity to fall back on/get trapped in. Irrelevant to your post but a lot of those who haven't integrated are also quite right-wing and agree wholeheartedly that Johnny Foreigner should be able to speak English back in Blighty. Wonder if Irony tablets are available on the Scu/NHS!

  18. My Uncle is/ was an italian immigrant who came over to the UK over 45 years ago. He does know english, but rarely speaks it, only when he wants something! Instead, he pretends that he doesnt know english at all, and even more frustrating, he resorts to speaking rapid fire italian when ever he is confronted about anything! He married an english woman (my aunt) then proceeded to have kids, who all spoke english, yet he refuses to use it, even though he is more than capable!I totally agree with you Tom, about people who are unable to/ dont want to learn english missing out on english culture, and making lives a bit more difficult for themselves than it needs to be.

    I think that if people choose to move to another country, then they should try to adopt the local language, even if they only use it occasionally.

    Having said that, us brits are just as guilty! I mean, how many ex-pats are there in Spain/ Cyprus/ Germany etc etc that havent bothered learning that language due to the large ex pat community already there??

  19. When we moved to America we had the option of joining the English enclave or diving in with the locals. There is a substantial Indian community all gathered together in one area. I really don't get the gated community thing, around here it serves to keep the looney rich segregated from us regular people.

  20. Unfortunately nothing is 'free'. I work in the voluntary sector and know that funding free language tuition would be at the expense of an unknown number of other good causes. Shelter for victims of domestic violence perhaps.

  21. You don't. If there was a condition that people had to learn English in order to remain here, then people would not need translators quite so much.I looked after someone who had perfectly good English but couldn't be bothered to use it so just kept saying to me (in between answering my questions in English!) 'can't we get a translator?' Where is the incentive to learn English if you really don't have to? Even people from non English speaking communities have said that they would be better off with less translation services.

  22. My wife and myself will be enigrating to Denmark in the not too distant future, and in the course of our preperations we found the Danish Governments (rather long) online advice booklet for immigrants.Danish language is taught, for free, at government sponsored schools thorughout the country. Passing a short course at one of these schools is a pre-requisite for citizenship.

    Would it be so hard for something like that to happen here!

  23. Language is to communicate? but also used to exclude, or prevent knowledge being available. [ that be why Cockney and Yddish]The official Languages of England [not the other three] was for a whiile for uppers , Norman French, for the Churchmen – Latin, for the man on the green it be Saxon.

    When the Landed lords did not need excess workers , they were kicked off the land and they became Masterless. so when they be a nuisance they were tried in the Courts of the land and the Judge used Latin to get them hung.

    The Restoration [1660] brought English to the fore and became the fractured language of the People.

    An educated [brainwashed ] man had to use Greek, Latin, and Hebrew to tell his thoughts for others to understand. The English [King James ] Bible was the first reading material for the ordinary person . Thanks to that, other ideas were grown , the first English Book printed in England was just before the Shakespeares writings.

    So the English Language grew out the need to get things done, first English dictionary is only 300 years old , so 'wot' be the fuss, the new language of England will be an amalgam of all the rich languages of the world. While the rest of the world likes to trade in English Language and US Dollars, mean while Europe has to have fun using the babel of many Languages for its official legal transactions..

    One of the main reasons that people fail to learn the local language, be fear of being criticized for making a boob, another maybe aural comprehension. and thirdly laziness for many, as long as the tummy be full, no furture effort be needed.

    The Fear part prevents many from seeking worth, that is where the child in us can overcome that hangup,along with dire need..

  24. Welsh: when I be a lad, there many places in Wales that only spoke Welsh. strange, the man that changed the Structure of the House of Lords be a Welshman,who started to learn English aged eleven and became very fluent, enough to become one of the top legal beavers in the United Kingdom -Lord Williams.Hunger be a powerful motive.

  25. There's one point that I haven't spotted in these comments.I'd say I was fairly good at languages compared to my peers at school. I have learnt 2 languages to a basic standard (A at GCSE and a bit further) and retained a lot of them. I can speak enough French and Italian to say I'm ill, where, if I've vomited and what I'm allergic to. I've gone out of my way to make sure I've learned how to summon the emergency services in France or Italy. I'm nowhere near fluent in either language (and won't be without living in France or Italy for a sustained period). When on holiday, I usually get replied to in English when I try to use them in shops and restaurants, though if I'm the only person in the shop and the shopkeeper looks patient, I'll ask if I can practise. I can also read much more easily than I can understand spoken French or Italian because of the speed of the spoken languages.

    But if I'm feeling a bit grotty with something as trivial and not needing medical attention as having a headache before the painkillers have kicked in, or having period pains or feeling travel sick – then I find that it's too much effort to try to talk in anything other than English or understand someone talking in another language. If I really was ill, I think it would be a lot harder.

    I think that translation services should be maintained for stressful, complicated or medical situations even for the higher functioning immigrants who might be able to shop and live in English but not necessarily understand medical, anatomical or legal terms or cope with translating internally to their native language when feeling scared or ill. When it comes to everyday items, then yes, restrict the services but support that with free and flexible access to education and think about what is being restricted and where. If it's a leaflet about how to access English classes, avoiding forced marriages, or education about improving the fundamentals of health then translate, but perhaps only translate the forced marriages leaflet into the languages of the cultures most affected.

  26. This is the type of situation I was thinking about when I was wondering about who was 'worthy' of translation. It is easy to think that anyone can learn a new language if they really want to, but would exclude a whole raft of people who are vulnerable, through no fault of their own (I am thinking of physically or mental disability or people who suppressed by controlling or abusive relationship as examples) if translation is 'means tested' it becomes like other 'benefits' in that it is less likely to reach the folk that need it most (because they can't or don't know how to access it) and more likely to be greedily abused by those that don't need it.

  27. I have been doing a couple of days work for the Edinburgh Interpretation and Translation service, and we were discussing this the other day. The general consesus was that people do get too much interpretation done for them and that there is no incentive to learn English. However, it was pointed out that unless patients actually comprehend what medical treatement they are about to recieve it can invalidate patient consent and that doctors like to have interpreters there so they know that the patient clearly understands what is going to happen.

    When you get a translator, you find the woman has been here for 2 years and still does not understand a single word or phrase of English.

    From what I have picked up over the couple of days that I worked at the ITS was that interpreters and translators had to pass some form of assesment before they could be considered qualified, and wihlst trainees could go and interpret, they were considered trainees until they had passed assesment.

    It is a pity that people do not bother to learn English, but were do you draw the line in deciding when to provide an interpreter or not?

  28. That is what is best for the child, from a being brought up bilingual perspective. The local language should be spoken at school, and there should be exposure through media and the community, and the mother/father should speak the 'mother tongue' exclusively to the child at home.I have several friends who are doing this, or will do this with various languages, and it is what the linguistics experts recommend. However, in all cases the child also sees the parent speaking, or learning, the local language. Which in itself sets a good example.

  29. While we're on the subject of language, why do you go out of your way to make your posts so inaccessible and difficult to read?

  30. I grew up an immigrant and bilingual, moved overseas and was an immigrant in yet another culture for a while, and live among immigrants now in a Hispanic enclave near Los Angeles. One thing I can say with absolute certainty is that reducing translation services is NOT the way to help.Some of the isolation in little islands of one's own culture is simply that it feels familiar, safer, and you don't have to worry about putdowns. Many immigrants do have to worry about that last, and many haven't emigrated because they were so excited about life far from home. They're economic refugees and on some levels they really don't want to be there.

    But you've hit it with this insight: I think that withholding the learning of English it is sometimes a way of maintaining power over women. That's definitely true. And since women are generally trained to be more afraid, and generally have even more reason to fear putdowns, it's very easy to go with the flow and not get involved in all that “degenerate” Western “stuff.”

    I think that actually opens up an opportunity for compulsory language learning programs to work. Usually, anything forced is useless. But in this case, many of the women would love to learn. They just need an excuse, so it's not seen as an indecent attempt to mix with those weird Westerners. “The government made me do it” is a great excuse. I bet if it was done right (ie in a supportive rather than punitive way, and in the sex-segregated context expected) knowledge of English would spread very quickly. And the more women speak it, the earlier the kids would learn it, and that would be all to the good too.

    As far as making it a condition of residency: there are people who, with the best will in the world, are simply incapable of learning another language within a normal human life span. Honestly. I've met them. It doesn't matter how hard they try. So even though a language requirement for residency is not a bad idea, there needs to be some leeway for people who've made a good faith effort and just can't get it.

  31. I agree totally that it's a control mechanism for women: it keeps them from learning ways the male householder doesn't approve of, and also keeps women from being able to form meaningful – and perhaps supportive – relationships with other people who don't share the values of female oppression and female inferiority.Again, look into our own past and the concept of a “scold” – an “offence” punishable by torture – was a woman who spoke in a way displeasing to a man. It simply was not an offence a man could commit, presumably because men's every utterance was considered to have some value.

    Control of women's speech goes right to the heart of gender oppression in any culture, with female writers this last century taking male-sounding pen names just to get published, so I hardly think it's a stretch to see that this applies to women immigrants who are under the thumb in their own family and culture.

  32. On the vocaulary note: I've never heard “bish” used as a word for pain; it can mean either twenty or poison. “Betha” is the word commonly used for pain. Then again, there are many dialects so if your patients understand you that's all that matters.My partner learnt Bengali so that he could communicate with the patients when he was in Bangladesh for his elective, and it definitely came in helpful when he was working at Luton&Dunstable. As you can imagine, the LDH is in the catchment for a large Bengali community.

  33. I'm Irish. I've lived in 4 countries where the language is not English, and I have to say that the worst immigrants at learning the local language are always the English. I put this down to childhood – not hearing anything other than English. It's a fact when learning a foreign language that you need to learn to hear. Mr. Biscuits says he's moving to Denmark. Good luck with Danish. You'll have the classes where you're pronouncing i in 9 different ways, 5 of which will not be audible to the normal English-trained ear. (BTW, say hi to Lone). A lot of language learning potential is based in whether a child continues to 'listen' after the age of 7. Folk who've learned music throughout childhood are often quite quick at new languages.Another thing that's not been mentioned here is that non-Latin languages are extremely different to Latin languages. If you have trouble learning/speaking German or French, try changing alphabet, then try phrasing things in that language. It's hard enough to literally translate between languages, without having to think in a different way. Take Irish (a non-Latin language) for example, where you cannot say “I am sad”, rather “Sadness is upon me”. So I have every sympathy for the non-European immigrant for whom English is literally, like Greek to us.

    Then there's the cultural change. How many of us Western Europeans would be prepared to go to Saudi Arabia and try to fully integrate. Our values are also learned in childhood. It is very Western European to believe that we would integrate into another society and try speak their language, but it rarely happens, even with the best of intentions. Those who come to the west by choice are often those who make the best efforts to learn our language. And most locals don't make any effort to communicate with them in a simpler, or clearer English. I've learned to tone down my accent and think about what I'm saying (not relying on colloquial phrases, for example).

    Not trying to bash anyone here, but I think that the issue is more complicated than just wanting to learn. I would love to be able to pick up languages with ease… I thank my lucky stars that English is so widely spoken, or I'd probably be much more insular.

  34. Batsgirl: 2chezThe Lea valley has heard so many tongues since Ceasar's lads came a looking for lasses and cheap Labour.

    The spoken tongue in 100 years could be very interesting, after commerce dictates.

  35. Just a quick point. My brother and his family are shortly moving to Spain to live. Bruv and Sis-in-law and their 13yr old and 10 yr old are already learning Spanish. They have been told that when the girls start school there, they will have a translator with them for 6 wks only, after which time they will be expected to be able to speak the language well enough to be understood.Will I be hung, drawn and quartered to wonder if immigrants to this country should be expected to do the same???

  36. I can't understand how people can, or would want to, live without speaking the local language. I too lived in Italy for a while – I was sent there by work at just 3 months notice. Once my transfer was confirmed I enrolled myself on a crash course in conversational Italian and bought a self-study book. At least by the time I arrived I could be POLITE to the locals, hello, goodbye, please, thank you, etc, in shops, but I still felt very guilty that my colleagues at work had to conduct all meetings in English for my benefit, even though it was their country. I found the Italians wonderfully forgiving about my pathetic attempts at their language and was proud when I could eventually tell them to speak Italian to me (as long as it was slowly!) as I could pretty much understand.

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