Why your ability to speak English could be judged on how you look
When MPs published a set of new proposals in early January on ways to improve the integration of immigrants in the UK, one of the most controversial concerned speaking English. The report from the All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Integration, chaired by the Labour MP Chuka Umunna, proposed that:
All immigrants should be expected to have either learned English before coming to the UK or be enrolled in compulsory ESOL [English for Speakers of Other Languages] classes upon arrival.
The assumption here is that migrants don't speak English, or not well enough to integrate within British society. However, this disregards the fact that English is a global language, spoken by up to two billion multilingual people around the world. It is a case of what the linguist Adrian Holliday termed "native-speakerism" – the belief in the linguistic superiority of "native speakers" and the consequent discrimination of those who are considered "non-native speakers".
But the distinction between native speakers and non-native speakers is often not just based on actual language skills, but, far more disturbingly, on assumptions based on ethnicity.
Language and look
An example of the sensitivities around this issue were clearly on display during a Channel 4 news report on the MPs' report on January 5.
The report included brief interviews with two women currently living in the UK, one from Somalia and the other from The Gambia. They were meant to represent examples of the particular category of migrants requiring compulsory English language classes under the new proposals. But both women spoke good English when answering the interviewer's questions about the current lack of English class provision.
The two women were from Sub-Saharan Africa, were of an ethnicity that was visibly different from that of a typical white British person and, in the case of the Gambian woman, wore clothes that marked non-Judaeo-Christian cultural and religious affiliations. They not only represented migrants needing English language tuition but prototypical migrants, exhibiting suitably "exotic" traits that identified them as such.
There are two widespread underlying assumptions here that need to be challenged. The first relates to the ways in which national identity is often understood in terms of ethnicity. As the cultural scholar Paul Gilroy remarked in his book There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack, in Britain "conceptions of national belonging and homogeneity ... not only blur the distinction between 'race' and nation, but rely on that very ambiguity for their effect".
The second assumption is that there is an exclusive bond between a language and the nation it naturally belongs to – a point I have discussed previously on The Conversation.
Speaking with legitimacy
In turn, these two assumptions combined produce a third one: only those who are the rightful members of a nation, by birth and by race, are legitimate speakers of the language of that nation.
Citing a number of research studies, Holliday made the point that native-speakerism is not a matter of language alone, but is closely connected to ethnicity and race, even though this connection is rarely made explicit.
It produces situations of great inequality around the world. In the field of English language teaching, for example, it is not uncommon for jobs to be available exclusively to native speakers (sometimes explicitly defined as "white" or "Caucasian"), or for non-native speakers to receive significantly lower remuneration even when they possess higher qualifications.
This kind of inequity affects migrants in general. A 2011 study found that African migrants' "accents and varieties of English had been treated as inferior by 'native speakers' in traditional English speaking countries." According to the study, migrants were also:
Made to feel as if they were unproficient in English, weak in communication skills, or unintelligible. They got the impression that only speaking in the prestige/native varieties of English counted for proficiency and educational or professional success.
Native-speakerism is also intertwined with a colonial view of the world where the coloniser is attributed with cultural superiority over the colonised. This mentality has persisted well after the end of colonialism and is so pervasive that it affects the ways non-native speakers see themselves too – as inadequate and defective users of English. Tellingly, the Gambian woman in the Channel 4 segment said, "I don't have confidence for myself to speak English" – summing up this mindset exactly.
It is important that we become more conscious of the fact that English is not just an "English" language and that the ability to speak it has nothing to do with how "English" a person looks or behaves.