Being able to speak English is considered by many to be an integral part of “being British”. Officially, it is a requirement for those applying for British citizenship. Yet the link between English and belonging is also clear in more everyday contexts, including, unfortunately, instances in which people are discriminated against – and even assaulted – for not speaking English in public.
The UK’s 2011 Census included questions about language for the first time. The results showed that 138,000 UK residents (0.3% of the population) reported that they could not speak any English. In response, some sections of the press ignored the fact that 99.7% of people reported that they could, and printed front page headlines such as: “Migrants shun the English Language”.
Since then, the language status of immigrants to the UK has remained in the news, especially when politicians proclaim that migrants should be “made” to speak English, or that a date should be set for “everybody in the country” to speak English.
These calls might appear as well-meaning pleas for integration. But our research suggests that there is a more sinister agenda at work – one in which the right-wing press demonises people living in the UK just because their first language isn’t English.
We analysed a collection of more than 2,500 articles concerned with the topic of speaking English, published in right-wing British newspapers between 2011 and 2016. This collection of articles, which amounts to around two million words, included stories from the Daily Mail, Daily Star, Daily Express, The Telegraph, The Times and The Sun. Our findings show that articles about immigrants’ (in)ability to speak English are not about language per se. Rather, these stories contribute to a broader anti-immigrant narrative, expressing sentiments of exclusion and discrimination against people from minority linguistic and ethnic backgrounds.
Immigrants with first languages other than English were frequently represented as criminals and financial burdens on the country, threatening the cultural fabric of the UK. They were also represented as being poised to displace native English speakers from their dominant position in society. Figures of non-English speaking immigrants reported in the stories fluctuated from the 138,000 reported in the Census, to 800,000 and “even more” than four million.
Inflation of statistics is only part of the story, however. What is most intriguing is that articles often focused on the impact of immigrants not speaking English in public services contexts, especially with regard to health care and education, both of which featured as key voter concerns (alongside immigration) in the 2015 General Election and 2016 EU Referendum.
Immigrants are routinely portrayed as a drain on the NHS – prompting calls for them not to receive health care unless they can demonstrate proficiency in English. At the same time, readers are told that there are “thousands” of doctors whose linguistic incompetence is putting their lives at risk.
Immigrant schoolchildren, meanwhile, are forced into a double bind. They are represented either as struggling and demanding too much attention from teachers, or as having an unfair advantage because their parents teach them English at home. Either way, they are framed as damaging the education of native English-speaking children. Either way, they can’t win.
Of course, there are obvious practical and social advantages to speaking the language(s) of the place where you live. But we found that right-wing press reporting of this issue is disproportionate to the very small percentage of people living in the UK who can’t speak English. This type of reporting is likely to contribute to panic and hatred in an already volatile sociopolitical climate in Britain.
Such reporting also ignores proficient multilingualism and overlooks crucial factors such as the difficulties many immigrants face in learning English and assimilating into British society – which is not helped by Government cuts to language services. Any meaningful or balanced reporting on the issue of immigrants’ English proficiency should engage with these (and other) vital contextual factors.
It remains to be seen whether the proportion of non-English speakers in the UK has changed from the figure of 0.3% in 2011. However, we can safely predict that native speakers of English are in no danger of becoming the linguistic minority in the UK, contrary to what some sections of the media would have us believe.