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In the comic 'What is coming' Maamon delivers situational english classes in his local community.

Language as a Barrier

Drawing on interviews with various migrant groups, Loretta Trickett explores how language can act as a barrier to finding work, integrating into new communities, and accessing essential services.

Helping migrants learn English is essential to support them in settling, obtaining employment, and providing them with the means to broadcast themselves outside of their own communities. As our research demonstrates, language was the key barrier with respect to gaining employment, but it was also a significant barrier to gaining information and access to other services more generally, particularly given the lack of interpreters offered by organisations which can impact access to agencies such as police, GPs, schools, housing, etc. A basic English proficiency level is necessary for engaging with British people and feeling less isolated.

Language is important for gaining employment. Numerous respondents had expected to gain employment with no English or extensive networks and were sometimes disappointed to find that this was largely untrue. However, others had gained employment with no or very limited English, particularly zero-hour contracts and factory work.

Language courses are expensive and not so easy to access, and often migrants would not be in the position to study English, often due to issues such as childcare responsibilities. This limits the ability of migrants to obtain basic services and satisfy fundamental needs. It also impedes their capacity to socialise outside of their immediate circles of family and friends, making integration into British society difficult. This resulted in many migrants and refugees feeling very isolated.

Much support comes from volunteers, often those who are migrants themselves and who have been in the same shoes, and who provide their service as English teachers or assist migrants as the first point of contact.

In the cases examined in the report, most of the formal classes took place through conversation or language classes, largely run by volunteers. The group of Muslim women in Beeston had been encouraged to attend a language cafe which included the help of a key woman with young children, who had herself faced isolation upon arrival in the UK, and who tirelessly volunteered her time to help other women like herself; the importance of such volunteers cannot be underestimated.

Concerning obtaining the initial needs, some refugees and some economic migrants were supported by a charity or agency. Refugees often had a caseworker, while most migrants did not. Information was often obtained by migrants through a university or through a migrant agency; otherwise, it was friends/family or other migrants.

Different people have a varying degree of vulnerability, depending on their status, which is important to consider when evaluating the language barriers. Arguably, refugees were more vulnerable than some of the economic migrants in terms of their reasons for coming to the UK. While all migrants are arguably ‘vulnerable’ in terms of lack of familiarity, limited knowledge and language skills, economic migrants have a larger degree of choice in their reasons for coming to the UK. In contrast, refugees will often experience the same issues of lack of language, knowledge and familiarity, but these are often compounded by effects of mental trauma, displacement and lack of choice. Due to these complications and their lack of friends/family and other contacts in the UK, our research identified they were often highly dependent on their ‘caseworkers’ and sometimes had ‘unrealistic expectations’ that they would be available at all hours of the day and night. This could, at times, mean that they were less autonomous than some of the economic migrants, as the latter often had more contacts pre and post-arrival in the UK to help them and because refugees looked to their caseworkers for support due to expectations that they would be their only source of support.

A useful resource for some respondents with very limited English was ‘Google’ translate especially used by the Syrian refugees and economic migrants who were very new to the UK who would often type a message into their mobile phone and get it translated through Google for someone else to read in English. A potential negative of this for some migrants and refugees who were not comfortable with such methods was their lack of engagement with others outside of their ‘immediate social circles’. Notwithstanding, there were a few migrants who had taught themselves English through Google translate and other methods. However, there was often little incentive to continue language classes or learning English on their own or through family friends once a basic level of English was reached.

A downside of this discontinuity is that it contributes to a lack of wider integration through disincentives to step outside of ‘silo’ social groups made up of other migrants from their own or similar backgrounds. The word ‘silo’ means the lack of communication and coordination between public organisations, including services. This lack of social integration is likely to make it harder to address the various challenges that modern Britain faces. The British Integration Survey (2019) found challenges include long-term unemployment, blocked opportunities/access to talent, social isolation and a lack of community wellbeing.

For the reasons mentioned above, all the participants consider their community groups essential for making connections and supporting each other and their cultural needs while living in the UK. There was a lot of positivity for the community groups, and they all meet at least once a week for activities, advice etc.

For many respondents, the lack of English affects their everyday lives. Recent national reductions in ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) funding and support has made it difficult to find appropriate English courses, and those that are running are severely underfunded, and largely run by volunteers. Again, this can lead to unrealistic expectations which cannot always be met.

Our research has revealed that significant problems are still occurring for some new and emerging communities when trying to access some public services and institutions and that these are often exacerbated by their individual history and trajectory. Often dependant on their transition into the UK, problems are still occurring for some new and emerging communities when trying to access public institutions, and language is one of the key barriers to access.

Taken from Dr. Loretta Trickett and Amanda Hanson with James Walker and Mahad Haq, ‘New and Emerging Communities,’ August 2019.

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Mentioned in this article

Agbonlahor, W. 2013 ‘Joining up the service delivery silos’ Civil Service World

The Challenge 2016 ‘The British Integration Survey’ British Integration Survey (PDF)