Boris Johnson wants to force all migrants to learn English. What we need to do is fund free or cheap lessons to help them integrate. It will be much easier to pay for this if we stay in the EU.
It is much better that migrants – whether coming from the EU or further afield – speak good English. Johnson is right that they will then be better able to “take part in the economy and in society”.
But our probable next prime minister spoilt a good point by saying there are too often parts of the country where some people don’t speak English as their “first language”. What matters surely is whether they speak good English – not whether it’s their first, second or umpteenth language.
We can do much better
What’s more, Johnson didn’t come up with any ideas for how to help people learn English. The starting point should be to recognise we currently do a bad job.
The UK is one of only four EU countries which have language requirements for residence and citizenship but don’t offer a guaranteed free language programme, according to the Council of Europe.
The government has this year announced an action plan whereby language courses share a £50 million “integration” pot. But that figure is dwarfed by the cuts in recent years.
Funding of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) courses was cut by more than half in real terms between 2009-10 and 2016-17.
In the same period, the number of new starters on ESOL courses fell from 179,000 to 114,000. Not surprisingly, lots of people are denied the chance to learn: 80% of providers had “significant waiting lists of up to 1,000 students” and two-thirds said that lack of funding was the main cause, according to a survey.
We need to invest much more in language classes for migrants – and the government will have more money to deploy if we stay in the EU. Why not use some of the £4.7 billion a year net contribution European citizens make to the government’s coffers, as suggested by CommonGround?
German and Canadian models
If we do decide to invest in language classes, the government will have to decide how any new programme should work.
One approach would be the German model. Any non-EU national who arrived after 2005 and cannot make themselves understood in German “at a simple, adequate level” must take a 700-hour integration course – mostly language classes with some lessons in German history, culture and society. There are exemptions for people who can’t attend for whatever reason, for example they need to care for a family member.
Attendees are expected to contribute to the costs, with each hour-long lesson priced at €1.95. There are exemptions for anyone who can’t pay due to their financial situation. While EU migrants to Germany aren’t required to take the integration course, they can if they wish – at the same subsidised rate.
Meanwhile, Canada offers free language classes – in both English and French – to permanent residents and protected persons such as refugees. Unlike in Germany, there is no requirement to take advantage of the lessons. What’s more, there is lots of flexibility: the option to learn online or in a classroom; day, evening and weekend classes; childcare; transportation to lessons; and provision for special educational needs.
These are just two models from which the UK could borrow ideas. But the principle is clear: migration can boost economies and societies, and even more so if newcomers feel included and welcome. Knowing the local language is key to that, but governments need to allocate funding if they want to encourage learning. The UK will be much better placed to do this if we stay in the EU.