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Topic 2: Language Barriers - Allan Siao Ming Witherick

November 6, 2009 12:00 AM
By Allan Siao Ming Witherick, Embassy Liaison for the Chinese Liberal Democrats and District and County Councillor for St Albans, Hertfordshire in EU Chinese Journal: Shadow Parliament

The EU Chinese Journal have started up a series of "Shadow Parliament" articles- and this is one of those written by a CLD member, Allan Siao Ming Witherick.

EU Chinese Journal- you can read the whole article online in Chinese, or here in EnglishYou can read the Chinese translation at: http://chineselibdems.org.uk/photos/46.html

Issue 160 on the 6 November 2009

Topic 2: Should achieving a certain English level become one of the pre-conditions for immigrants to gain UK Residency?

The dilemma between 'pluralism' and 'national identity' has long been identified in the UK society. As a product of the two competing concepts, a certain English level is now required from future immigrants to gain UK Residency. The question now is: does the certain English level required from immigrants necessarily mean 'national identity'? Or, on the contrary, does abandoning the requirement of 'English level' from immigrants necessarily mean 'pluralism'?

Knowing a language can give you an insight and understanding of a different world and a whole new culture. Unfortunately I only speak one well though I have spent years trying to learn Chinese ( Cantonese dialect) and then French.

And that's the problem with the UK, we feel that everyone should speak English. It doesn't matter if we're in Lisbon or Wu Han, there is an implicit expectation that: "Everyone speaks English don't they?"

You can even go to certain parts of Europe where the British enclaves are so well rooted that you'd be forgiven for thinking you'd stumbled on to a village which has been simply lifted up and transplanted as a whole.

And yet at the same time these same people feel that those who would cross the sea to our shores, for whatever reason, should also speak English. In some ways it's a breath taking form of arrogance. Or is it?

If I walk around China Town I know there are those who even have virtually no English. It's the same in many communities where it is both ends of the spectrum that suffer. The youngest because they have been brought in to do basic menial tasks where only those giving the orders need English. The elderly sometimes housebound, but may have families to provide some support.

What happens when there is a problem though? How do you communicate with the emergency services? How do you read the sign warning you of something? If the family, community or other translators aren't there, what do you do?

But then our own British education system is especially weak when it comes to languages of any kind. Perhaps because of the poor level of availability of foreign media in the past (although this is gradually changing), or just the overbearing influence of the USA and Australia in our television programmes, films and music.

When I was younger I used to love the cartoons, carefully brought over from Malaysia, on VHS. I learnt more from them than I did sometimes in classes, but then as a kid it's only when something interests you that you make an effort- and I really wanted to know what was going on! You have to make learning a language not just important, but interesting.

The Liberal Democrats have recognised the challenge of keeping the UK in it's position as a world player and one of our MEPs in the South West, Graham Watson, has been keen to promote Mandarin in schools, recognising the important role that China will play in the decades to come. Some of that is about changing peoples attitudes to the idea of learning such a foreign language, with its new characters which just don't relate to our alphabet in the same way as other European languages.

But link it back to my opening statement.Knowing a language can give you an insight and understanding of a different world and a whole new culture.

What better culture could we introduce our young people to than the Chinese?!

It helps to open up an individual's mind as a whole and to the realisation of the difficulties faced by others trying to communicate. As a wider Chinese community we all know the benefits of a single unifying written script- could you imagine the effect on Europe if the same was to be achieved here?

Language is one way to break down the "Little Englander" mentality which says that which is different, that which I do not understand, I distrust.

Which in turn brings us neatly round to the question of what benefit does requiring English language competence of those coming to live here really bring?

Is it a necessity to help ensure that those who come here to work are not always consigned to the most menial tasks where communication with natives is limited? Is it our belief that language is a requirement so that the individual can have the opportunity to advance or seek new employment when required?

Is it there for humane reasons, to ensure that we can help those who need it when they need it in our country, regardless of which corner of the world they might hail from?

Or is it there so that, even if only in language, we feel more comfortable about our diversity? To enforce a fragile sense of shared identity, as if language alone might help convey some understanding of morals and principles? As we look to the USA, Australia and others is it that (supposedly) shared language which helps bring us closer together and makes us feel more like cousins than complete strangers?

Perhaps it's just to keep down the bill for translation which is charged to the tax payers of the country each year...

The simple response though is: Does it matter?

It could be for all of these reasons and many more. It could be for none of them. Either way the answer is clear:

Regardless of whether the UK has a policy stating a minimum level of English is required for those who seek to live here, we must do more to improve the standards of foreign languages taught here in the UK. So our children can sample the delights of another culture and have greater understanding and tolerance towards others in multi-cultural Britain.

Allan Siao Ming Witherick is a Liberal Democrat Councillor on Hertfordshire County Council and St Albans City & District Council and an active member of the Chinese Liberal Democrats. He is half Malaysian/Chinese and half British and helped to found ABACUS (Association of British and Chinese University Students) at UCL while at university.

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