x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Immigrant's refusal to learn English focuses glare on UK policy

An immigrant man in the UK is suing the government to assert his "human right" not to have to learn to speak English. What does this say about participating in society?

Back in the 1970s there was a popular British sitcom called Mind Your Language. The premise of the show, set in an English-as-a-foreign-language class, was essentially racist, with all the predictable stereotypes you can imagine such a show engenders. It reduced immigrants to comical characters, from the head-waggling Indian and the illiterate Pakistani to the camera-snapping Japanese electronics executive and the unwielding German.

But parents, still adjusting to life in Britain thousands of miles from their homeland and themselves trying to learn English, loved that programme. It was probably the first time since they'd arrived in the UK 15 years earlier that they saw Asian actors playing out recognisable scenarios - albeit on an exaggerated scale.

In 1979, Mind Your Language was eventually deemed offensive and scrapped, although versions of the show went on to be hits in India, Pakistan and some African countries.

My parents persisted with their language lessons. For my father, it was imperative for work. For my mother, as a housewife looking after a brood of five, the need was less obvious.

She managed to string unfamiliar sentences together, partly from a sense of wanting to participate in the society she now called home and partly so she was not left behind by her children, educated in a British school system.

This week, Rashida Chapti from India went to the High Court in Britain to fight for the right of her husband, Vali, not to learn English. The pair have been married 37 years and although she attained British citizenship six years ago, he has been told he must learn to read, write and speak basic English before being allowed to remain in the UK under new immigration laws.

Their lawyer claims the requirement is a breach of their human rights. Mrs Chapti says her husband is too old to learn the language.

If we draw parallels with the situation here in the UAE, few people actually bother to learn Arabic. Partly that is because of the transient nature of the population; perhaps it's sheer laziness as well because English suffices in most situations.

The question is: does learning the native language make you a better citizen? Can you ever be anything but a guest in the country you live in if you do not speak the language?

In parts of Bradford in the north of England - nicknamed Bradistan - there are second- and third-generation residents, born and bred in the UK, who are still barely able to speak English.

It is impossible to see how this is not disempowering. Can you ever make a valid contribution to society, to make friends, to be a part of the national debate, if you cannot articulate your opinions in the language of the land?

The refusal to integrate has created enclaves - ghettos even - where communities operate in isolation, regarded with suspicion by those outside and completely insular to those within.

It is far from the ideal of multiculturalism. These pockets, the creation of successive waves of flawed government policy, are divided by race and religion, with misunderstanding on both sides.

What is worrying is the sense of entitlement the UK's multiculturalism policy has bred. The Chaptis want to live in Britain, but don't feel the need to integrate. In the Leicester community where Mrs Chapti lives, she probably does not hear English spoken much, nor feels it would benefit her husband.

It may not be right to punish Mr Chapti for the government's inability to challenge these enclaves' insularity and failure to make their residents feel included, but the case should sound an alarm bell that it is time to bring all sectors of society to the table, in whatever language the discussion takes.

tyaqoob@thenational.ae