The English language transforms the lives of migrants

The English language transforms the lives of migrants

Increasing support for non-English speaking migrants will produce a more united society and a stronger economy. We sponsored a report by Demos outlining the need for a national ESOL strategy to enable this.This article originally appeared on

It seems obvious but sharing a common language is a vital step towards social cohesion amongst our communities and the building of a shared culture. Yet in the UK we are failing to teach English adequately to the migrants who live and work amongst us. That is one of the conclusions made in a recent report by the influential think tank Demos, entitled ‘On Speaking Terms’. The research raised serious concerns about the policies for delivering English language learning to non-English speaking citizens, which it states suffers from “fragmentation, a lack of clarity and a short-termist approach”.

The findings were based on thorough and diverse methods of information gathering and focused largely on ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Language) - the vehicle through which most government policy and funding is funnelled towards this issue. A national strategy is needed, the report concluded, as well as a better funding system in order to increase both the quality of and access to learning, and to raise the profile of the challenge being faced. It also called on employers and local authorities to increase their support for ESOL, which was found to be lacking.

In the 2011 census around 850,000 migrants living in the UK reported that they could speak only poor English or none at all, isolating them in their personal and professional lives. The marginalisation of these UK residents has an economic and a social cost, which could be eliminated through improved support.

However, the report is clear that this isn’t simply about government spending more money instead Demos advocate a student loans style funding model for learners. Indeed, there was greater funding for ESOL under the last government with little more in the way of results –something the report makes clear.

Fundamentally, the current ‘one size fits all’ approach that focuses on arbitrary levels of attainment is inadequate to meet the needs of a diverse range of people with different backgrounds and goals. Provision must seek to embrace outcomes, which will allow migrants to live integrated and fulfilling lives, giving them access to English culture and a path into work if they choose it. This can be achieved but only with a comprehensive ESOL strategy, doing away with the fragmented policy drivers which currently run across several government departments. Currently, instead of a cost effective approach we have in place a series of piecemeal arrangements which have neither helped integrate our migrant population nor enabled them to realise their economic potential -to the detriment of all of us.

It’s not an unreasonable bet that as we head towards an election both immigration and English language learning will become a consistent theme. Whether this is a good or bad thing depends on whether any of the main political parties have developed credible solutions to fix the problem of ESOL provision or whether they’re content simply to demand all immigrants learn English –with little thought about what that actually means in terms of language competence or how in practice it might be achieve.

Meeting the challenges of English language learning amongst our large migrant community could potentially transform the lives of some of the most vulnerable and isolated people in the UK. To ignore the evidence will leave those citizens disengaged and alone, and our society permanently divided and economically weaker.

Andrew Williams