It’s almost like clockwork – every few years the ‘segregation’ debate arises and with it question of the English language. The narrative tends to be: people of colour or in particular certain women of colour don’t speak English – it’s damaging ‘them’ and ‘us’.
The Government’s Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper states ‘770,000 people in England aged 16 and over say they cannot speak English well or at all; and women are disproportionately affected.’ This received extensive publicity when Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, wielding the example of his own mother, made it national news. From the Guardian to the Daily Mail, Javid had supposedly ‘revealed’ the number of people who don’t speak English. Except, the figures he was referring to weren’t news – they were taken from the 2011 census and reported on when the data was released in 2013. Javid explained his mother from Pakistan learned English fifteen years after coming to the UK, and it transformed her life. The reason for this anecdote: Javid said ‘most’ of the people who say they have little or no English skills are women of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin. The Green Paper makes a slightly different claims – “Pakistani (18.9%) and Bangladeshi (21.9%) groups have the highest proportions of people aged 16 or over with poor English language proficiency.”
But to get to this figure, the Green Paper uses the 2011 census and combines two different categories in the data: ‘don’t speak well’ or ‘don’t speak at all’. One of the problems with relying on this data for a news story, a Green Paper and a national strategy is self reporting doesn’t necessarily produce reliable results: people might say they can’t speak English very well, but the reality might be different. The data suggests the number of people who couldn’t speak English at all is nearer to 138,000, that is 0.3% of the population.
On closer inspection, if census data on different ethnic groups alone is going to inform policy, there’s a problem with how it breaks this down. White and mixed are lumped together as one category, while other ‘ethnic groups’ are broken down. But even if you look at this you find the number of white and mixed women who say they don’t speak English at all is 26,081, in comparison to 17,695 women of Pakistani origin and 9,879 Bangladeshi women – proportionately it might be more but statistically it’s not; it’s disproportionate but it’s certainly not ‘most’, as Javid claimed. Honing in on these women feeds the stereotype that Asian women are voiceless and powerless.
While the Green Paper didn’t make the same assertion as Javid, it seems to ignore this complexity – by picking out that a higher proportion of Pakistani and Bangladeshi people don’t speak English it glosses over white and mixed, which allows for an assumption that these minorities need to ‘integrate’ better or should solely be the focus of English classes. It clears the way for Javid’s comments. Numbers seem reliable; quantitative studies neutral but they are deeply political.
Though the report outlines the numerous ways the government supports people to participate in ESOL there is no accounting for the cuts that have taken place since 2010. According to Refugee Action, government funding for English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) in England dropped from £203million in 2010 to £90million in 2016, amounting to a real term cut of 60%. Migrant and refugee groups have pointed out that access to ESOL would also be helped by making it flexible – many people who might like to use it can work long, unconventional hours. They might have childcare needs or need mental health support, areas that have also been cut extensively.
The Green Paper explains why it’s homed in on English: ‘Poor English language skills limit an individual’s employment opportunities, their ability to mix, their civic participation and their access to services, hindering independence, confidence and self-determination’. Let’s start with the labour market. The Green Paper draws from analysis that shows ‘those with low proficiency in English were less likely to be employed and more likely to be economically inactive than people with high English proficiency levels’. This formulation implies proposals to learn English are predominantly for the ‘good’ of the people who will access these services. Except the problem with this is it uses the census data and takes into account few other potentially significant variables. We can’t necessarily extrapolate that English is the only factor here: correlation doesn’t equal causation.
The report states that boosting English skills are “fundamental to being able to take advantage of the opportunities of living in modern Britain such as getting a job.” It is not that English language is unimportant, but that this is not the only or necessarily the most significant factor when thinking about people in minority ethnic groups – particularly women of colour – being able to participate in the labour market. The majority of Pakistani and Bangladeshi women who don’t speak English are over 65 or 45-64, though of course they should have the opportunity to learn English, it makes no sense to suggest this is going to drastically alter labour market outcomes.
The Runnymede Trust shows that, alongside English, some of the other significant barriers for people of colour getting jobs are trust and engagement with institutions – including political participation. And labour market inequalities are classed and racialised: under government cuts women of colour have been hit the hardest, a disproportionate number of households of colour live in poverty and there is a wealth of evidence showing institutional racism shapes the labour market.
“Everyone living in England should be able to speak and understand English,” the report tells us, “so they can integrate into life in this country by…becoming part of community life and making friendships with people from different backgrounds.” The suggestion that lack of English is a significant causal factor in ‘segregation’ is a tired old tune – in 2011 David Cameron said immigrants who couldn’t speak English created a “kind of discomfort and disjointedness” and in 2002 New Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett advised migrants to speak English at home to avoid “schizophrenic” fissures in their families.
Except there’s no evidence for this. The research cited in this section of the Green Paper argues “poorer command of English significantly leads immigrants to live in language enclaves” but it also explains “there is weak evidence that English skills impact residency in ethnic, country-of-birth or world region’s enclaves”. Though this research asserts learning English will reduce segregation it does not demonstrate that – so-called “language enclaves” mean segregation, particularly when they are diverse in other ways. Indeed, this might support other evidence that shows segregation on the whole is not increasing; in terms of geo-spatial segregation, it is white British people who are the most segregated. It is unclear why people living in areas that also speak the same language is negative – when the report says people should be mixing with others from different backgrounds, perhaps we should be asking who specifically does it mean?
The report states “not being able to speak English may also exacerbate feelings of loneliness and isolation and prevent people – often women – from seeking help if they are subject to violence or abuse.” This may be true but there is no evidence given for this. Evidence suggests English language is certainly not the only factor in women seeking help if they are subject to violence or abuse -women who speak English face stigmatisation and not being believed about their abuse, as well as fearing their partners. Women of colour in particular have lost vital access to tailored services that are tailored to their specific needs and there is no consideration of how women who have immigrated to the UK and are reliant on their partner for their visa might fear deportation if they report domestic violence. Unsupported statements like the above seem to be based on stereotypes about people of colour, where ‘culture’ is subbed for ‘race’ to assume an innate patriarchal backwardness.
Learning English should not be or even seem like a punitive measure, and discussions around state-provided English classes need not feed racialised narratives about ‘segregation’. This debate cannot be disconnected from an imperial politics where English as a global lingua franca supposedly signifies British superiority and ‘true’ Britishness, and so any proposals about English classes must pay attention to this. In 2016, when asked what she thought of David Cameron’s announcement that migrant spouses who failed English language tests might be asked to the UK, Parveen Sadiq replied: “the English invaded more than half the world. Of the countries that they ruled, how many languages do the English speak?”
Maya Goodfellow is a writer and researcher.