New Labour doesn't exactly have a language policy, but it has an attitude to language, and it is an attitude that worries me. It emerges in two recent proposals. One would remove foreign languages from the list of core national curriculum subjects and allow children to opt out of foreign language study from the age of 14; this was floated in a green paper but, according to a new survey, 30 per cent of secondary schools are already acting upon it. The other proposal, in a white paper on immigration and nationality, suggests that applicants for British citizenship should be required to demonstrate proficiency in English.
Although these measures were probably drafted without reference to one another, both depend on -- and, if enacted, will reinforce -- the same assumption: that Britain is, and may just as well remain, a monoglot society. Our inability to speak other people's languages is treated as natural and inevitable; others' inability to speak ours is considered a good enough reason to deny them full membership of our imagined national community.
The proposal in the white paper was welcomed by commentators across the political spectrum. A leader in the Daily Telegraph declared that "multilingualism is plain silly". Timothy Garton Ash, writing in the Guardian about what might reasonably be demanded of a British citizen, defined "a working knowledge of English" as one of the "minimal cultural norms", second only to willingness to obey the law. That British citizens must speak English has been presented as a self-evident truth, a modest requirement to which no reasonable person could object.
Yet there are several reasons to object. First, it does not acknowledge the nature of the demand that language learning makes on individuals. Learning a foreign language is not like memorising facts about parliamentary democracy or British history: just applying oneself to the task does not guarantee success. For adults, who have already lost their innate language-learning abilities, success depends not only on their motivation but also on their age, their educational background, the quantity and quality of instruction and how much contact they have with speakers of the language outside the classroom. Some immigrants, especially those who are older, poorer, less educated and more isolated, will find it impossible to pass a test, even though they may be anxious for their children to learn English.
But there is an even more fundamental objection to the idea that speaking English should be regarded as a "minimal cultural norm". Whose culture are we talking about? The notion that being British means speaking English is an ideological fiction: Britain is not and never has been a monoglot, anglophone society.
For one thing, the nations that comprise Britain are not all historically English speaking. Although centuries of intolerance have led to the attrition of the indigenous Celtic languages, there are still communities in which they are spoken, and in which some older people have only a limited command of English. Then there are all the non-indigenous languages that have been spoken here in the past thousand years, from Norse and French to Yiddish and Chinese: immigration did not begin in the 1950s. We have had monarchs who never learned English and aristocrats who used it only to address the peasantry. Anyone who suggests that multilingualism is alien to our traditions has quite simply got their facts wrong. Today, as in the past, there are areas in many British cities where people can lead productive lives without making extensive use of English, and survive without knowing any at all.
Some of the foreign-born citizens whose contribution to British life is routinely praised by politicians -- entrepreneurs, small businesspeople, philanthropists and community elders -- have remained largely monolingual in their first languages. …