I was brought up in north Wales, a child of English parents in a part of the world where 80% of people spoke Welsh as their first language.
And they spoke English differently too. I remember being confused when I moved to the local primary school and my first-language Welsh teacher told us at the end of the day: “Now children, keep your things.” I kept my things but everyone else put theirs in the cupboards and draws! Confusing, but in Welsh “cadw” means both “keep” and “put away”. Translation is not always straightforward.
Meanwhile, I also went to a local church in which we worshipped in both Welsh and English. I remember some of the adults saying that, while they didn’t mind saying prayers in English, they only really felt like they were praying when they spoke in their “heart language”. Welsh was the language they heard from birth and it was the language that stirred in their souls, however fluent their English was.
There is a myth that most migrants to the UK can’t—or refuse—to speak English. The overwhelming majority of migrants living in Britain do not need to learn English, they already speak it. The 2011 census showed only a fraction of the non-UK born population in England and Wales cannot speak English, and most of them are elderly Asian women in traditional home-oriented lives.
Should people in the UK who don’t speak English be afforded every opportunity to learn English? Absolutely! This will allow them to fully engage with wider society and is what nearly every non-English speaking migrant wants, while not losing the right to express themselves in their heart language; the language their mother’s sang to them when they were babies and that they first heard call to them in the playground as children.
This situation is likely to continue to improve as the Government has made passing an English language test a condition of getting a visa for work or study or applying for British passport. In addition, it has been made clear to unemployed people that if they are not prepared to learn English they will face benefit cuts. However, the same Government has cut funding and increased fees for ESOL classes!
In 2011, some 11.3 per cent of the UK population were foreign-born. These are people from the USA, Canada, Spain, Bangladesh, Poland, Australia and in fact, all the countries where you also find British people living abroad and making use of welfare from those countries (even if ours is the best).
This is good news. A report commissioned by the government in 2003 found no evidence that immigrants take jobs or depress wages from the existing population. More recently, studies have shown that immigration helps raise wages except at the very bottom of the jobs ladder, where workers are less likely to belong to a union or be in secure work. Immigrants are less likely than British citizens to claim benefits too (five per cent of EU immigrants compared to 13 per cent of UK-born).
As someone who was brought up as a welcomed outsider in Wales, I struggle to understand why people feel threatened by immigration. But then I see people struggling to find dignified well paid work and a decent affordable home and I hear politicians spin lies to the working classes about this being immigrants’ fault and I begin to understand.
There’s a reason why the fat-cat investment bankers who run UKIP and the Daily Mail want us to blame each other for the economic mess. It means we’re not paying attention to them. So next time you hear someone speaking in a language you don’t understand, know that they are talking the language of the heart and at heart we need to stand together.