26 April 2007

Linguistic Time-Bomb

As a one-time teacher of English as a foreign language, who established a language school for adults in the developing world, I feel a crucial factor has been missed in today's reporting of the sharp increase in children who do not speak English as their first language.

Take the recently-arrived child in the class where my wife works as a teaching assistant – Fresh off the plane from the other side of the world, barely able to read or write in any language, and not speaking a word of English, he was thrown into a class of nine-year-olds, albeit with full-time one-on-one support. Even though he was no further forward academically than the pre-schoolers soon to move up to reception, he was expected to gain something from the exercise and, presumably, catch up with the rest of the class at some point.

That one in ten secondary school-aged children and one in seven primary school-aged children speak a language other than English at home should worry us profoundly. Not simply because of what it reveals about the transformation that unlimited immigration from Eastern Europe is having on our communities or the pressure that it is placing on housing, the health service, or jobs. Neither should we simply be concerned, as the Commission for Racial Equality policy director warned today, that growing racial segregation in our schools represents a racial "time bomb," that risks exacerbating issues such as the recent wave of violent crime.

When China was first opening up to the West, it issued visas to teachers of English as a foreign language but warned them only to teach English. They did not want any new cultural, political, or economic ideas brought in. What they failed to understand is that a language comes as part of and is inseparable from a whole cultural package. The teaching of a foreign language is one of the most politically subversive actions a person can engage in.

The increasing proportion of children in this country who do not have English as their first language are therefore not simply a significant drain on teaching resources. More than that, it is the cultural divide that we should be most concerned about. Not sharing the language, they will not share the same worldview and will be exposed to a different set of ideas and ideology. If we do not understand the significance of this now, then, like the Communist Chinese authorities, we will one day wake up and discover that we are living in a different country.


Alex said...

How many families would put 'welsh' as their first language? Welsh is a mandatory subject at welsh schools. Presumably the author here wouldn't include them as part of the problem. But it does illustrate the point that, though you might want everyone to speak English at home, it is not a reasonable expectation.

Ruth said...

As a fellow language teacher I totally agree about the link between language and culture. However, I don't think the writer has considered that we could wake up and find ourselves in a better country. Maybe these non-native English speakers are from cultures with stonger family values, with more relational worldviews, or with less materialistic tendencies and would have a positive effect on UK culture.