“You might as well be speaking Polish”: Is Linguistic Integration a Two-Way Street?
Moving to a new country brings with it new challenges and obstacles, especially when it comes to learning a language. There are some who resent immigrants who do not learn the language of their adopted country. It is true to some extent that the language barrier may also be a barrier to social integration. Indeed, a report by Dame Louise Casey, published in 2016, revealed that certain communities in the UK are becoming increasingly divided along racial and cultural lines. Professor Ayres-Bennett of Cambridge University, who leads the MEITS (Multilingualism: Empowering individuals, transforming societies) project, whose aim is to promote multilingualism has stated that, “Without English, immigrants are likely to develop exclusive social networks and alternative labour markets".
Although Prof Ayres-Bennett acknowledges the importance of teaching of English to new arrivals, she contends that “It is very important to think of integration as a two-way street”. Indeed, she argues that teaching common languages used in multi-cultural communities, such as Polish, Punjabi and Polish also has the potential to aid community cohesion, as well as mutual-understanding and respect. This could take the form of more traditional, formal language learning or joint community initiatives.
Further difficulties are posed by factors that foster a certain reluctance to learn new languages. According to Prof. Ayres-Bennett, putting pressure on immigrants to “suppress or even lose their home language and culture” may be counterproductive, given the importance of language to their identity. For her the solution is “to respect and celebrate this and see English as adding to their [immigrants’] multilingual and multicultural identities”. When it comes to encouraging the British learn other languages there are also ingrained perceptions that pose difficulties. Here, the perennial question “why learn other languages when everyone speaks English?” re-emerges. Prof Ayres-Bennett attributes the continuing decline in language learning in the UK to its underappreciation by the government and general public, the lack of exposure of the public to foreign languages (relative to the exposure of other cultures to English-language media), as well as a perception that learning languages is “difficult and only for the intellectual elite”. In conclusion, it may be a while before the British are greeting each other with calls of “Cześć!” We can only hope.