Working with the four immigrant students on Channel 4's Why Don't You Speak English led me to reflect on how we view 'immigrants' and what it means to be an immigrant in the current UK climate. Whatever image the word 'immigrant' conjures in the mind's eye, what it never seems to draw up is an English speaking person despite there being countless immigrants from English speaking countries residing in the UK, such as Canada and Ireland. The assumption that the word belongs to non English speaking individuals is an inaccurate cliché. Not only that, there are also plenty of immigrants from non-English speaking countries with high fluency levels. These individuals, likely to be in high career positions, partly because of their fluency, are also probably not at the forefront of our imagination when we think ''immigrant''. In fact the image springing to mind is probably very similar to the four low level English speakers ''Why Don't You Speak English'' follows. What is different about non English speaking immigrants is that suddenly the move to settle in a new country is much harder. Not only might they be judged on their difference in country of origin they are clearly judged on their literacy levels.
We buy our coffees from students with PhDs working in Starbucks trying to earn a living while they improve their English. They spend their mornings cleaning office blocks. Already they are exposed to undesirable treatment by customers, who find small misunderstandings with their orders an annoyance, ignorant to the fact that their Barristas are highly qualified individuals in their own countries. ''I want to stay in London'', said one student to me once, ''..but why be a cleaner in London when I can be an architect in Columbia?'' It's not just about earning a buck it's about holding a respectable role in society. This student didn't have a bad level of English at the time so what is it that's stopping them from progressing in their jobs? The obvious jobs for some immigrants early into their stay are those that don't involve English: skilled jobs like plumbers, electricians or construction workers where typically they spend time working with colleagues of the same nationality, suddenly falling into a comfort zone where their English skills plateau.
The struggles of non-English speaking immigrants lie in the language barrier. Being unable to communicate is a massive loss of power. No matter what status the immigrant may hold in their own country, the empowerment of expression using their mother tongue will diminish entirely once in a new world. They might be seen as 'uneducated' by some and they may be open to mockery and ridicule if they attempt to speak and make countless mistakes with their English. To a new speaker of the language, every day is a frustration. Even the simplest sounds of expression may be different in English. ''Ow'' may even be a foreign sound. (I have memories of walking down the Sukhumvit Rd in Bangkok and hearing ''Oi!'' meaning ''Ow!' which confused me!)
The government's plans for immigrants to have a ''getting by'' status of English before they enter the country is a long way off that individual being able to work and exceed in an English speaking company do the job that they want but to follow this up with free English lessons is a welcome hand. Sure, it's desirable to get every immigrant to speak English and in that time their confidence and immersion into the country grows but then what? They become a part of something, feel connected, but when those lessons stop where do they go? This responsibility is now in the individual's hands. If that person chooses to embrace the head start, they become empowered again but it's easy to slip back into old habits. The hardest thing new immigrants face about developing an identity in a new country is not being totally immersed in British culture, being able to disappear back into their micro-cultures and speak their mother tongue amongst family and friends. Being such a multi-cultural country it is too easy to find this. Comforting as always to fall back into what you know but a barrier to improving their English or Englishness - their connection to the society and country they live in which would heighten if everyone was as welcoming to them as those in their own communities, looking past the language barrier and seeing the person, having the patience to understand and overlook the misunderstandings of language or behaviour that different cultures bring.
In ''Why Don't You Speak English?'' I focussed on invigorating teaching, getting the learners on their feet, speaking, interacting with one another practising likely interactions typical of everyday situations that would reflect real life English. It was witnessing the confidence levels of the immigrants storm where I hadn't seen it before that brought belief to the change they wanted to make in their current circumstances, their isolation. The relationships with their host families lay down a thread for them to lead future relationships with, since it is our friends, the people around us, our connections in the day to day that make up our experiences and with English now a part of them they would be able to experience greater depth and meaning in those interactions. Not only that, their successes would have the chance to develop in their work lives and they would be able to make a life here.