This week, Prime Minister David Cameron ruffled feathers with a new plan to combat extremism. £120 million will be spent on a language tuition fund to teach Muslim women in the UK to speak English. New rules also mean that those entering the UK on a five year spousal visa will sit a test half way through to prove their English is improving. Failing to meet the standard would risk deportation.
The reason? Cameron says new statistics suggest that 22% of Muslim women in Britain speak little or no English. Now, the government admits there is no causal relation between the ability to speak English and the likelihood of radicalisation. Yet they believe those who can’t speak English might be “more susceptible” to extremism. Speaking to the BBC, the PM said “If you’re not able to speak English, not able to integrate, you may find therefore you have challenges understanding what your identity is and therefore you could be more susceptible to the extremist message coming from Daesh.”
Not everyone is convinced by the argument that poor English skills leads to radicalisation. Cameron is accused by some of “conflating” two different issues. Baroness Warsi, the first female Muslim cabinet minister, says linking extremism to a knowledge of English is “lazy and misguided”. Speaking to the BBC, she said "to singularly point out that British Muslim women don’t speak English and that therefore leads to radicalisation and therefore only they should be taught English is a very odd way of pursuing an integrated approach to community cohesion."
Segregation in the UK is a hot topic. The Telegraph notes that as far back as 2003 48% of Britons worried that an increase in the Muslim population would weaken Britain’s national identity. Cut to 2013 and this had risen to 62%. 2013 also saw think-tank Demos warn that Britain was “sleepwalking into segregation”. Demos analysed 2011 Census figures which suggested white Britons were leaving areas where they were a minority.
Yet if language is the key to challenging segregation then the government might want to rethink its education policies. The UK has been labelled the worst nation in Europe for teaching foreign languages. The British council reports that the number of A-level students choosing to study a language is declining at an “alarmingly fast rate”. Whilst many may see learning a second language as an arduous academic task it can be a great introduction to a new culture.
It’s not just about persuading more pupils to study a language. The UK needs to increase the number of languages available to students. Despite there only being 137,000 French-born people in the country, French remains the most popular second language in the UK. French, German and Spanish are the most commonly taught languages in British schools. Incomparison: there are around 2.7 million Muslims in the UK - yet languages like Arabic and Urdu do not enjoy the same popularity as French. Though the British Council notes that thenumber of students studying Arabic at GSCE is slowly rising, “Arabic is frequently a marginal subject, not fully embedded in the curriculum”. A separate British Council report into language teaching noted that while French, German and Spanish will continue to be important “we will also need significantly more Arabic, Mandarin Chinese and Portuguese speakers as well as speakers of Italian, Japanese, Russian and Turkish”.
Many Twitter users responded to the PM’s announcement by highlighting other ethnic groups with low levels of English. One user asked “what about my Polish clients who don't speak a word?” Polish recently became the UK’s second most spoken language. Should this not become a core language taught in schools? The Chancellor George Osborne is busy cosying up to China - the world’s fastest growing economy. Surely it would be a smart move to start teaching more of our kids Chinese, to better equip them for the marketplace of tomorrow?
Speaking to the BBC about the new language fund, Shaista Gohir from the Muslim Women's Network UK said the real issues that need to be addressed are patriarchy and misogyny among Muslim men in authority. The only way this can be achieved is through building stronger links between communities. This won’t be achieved by threatening Muslim women with deportation if they can’t improve their grasp of English. Instead, the government should focus on failings within our education system. For integration to succeed, Britons should take the trouble to learn more about other cultures, as well as educating others about Britain.
Joel Davidge is Editor of Scenes of Reason