Through correcting my parents' English, I realised how unnecessary it is to be fluent

David Cameron's call for public-sector workers to be fluent in English is pointless: cut-glass English hardly "proves" good citizenship

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The Independent Online

One of the many bizarre proposals in the Government’s Immigration Bill states that public-sector workers in “customer-facing” jobs will need to be fluent in English. Because apparently, of all the things wrong with our austerity-slashed, near-crippled public services, the most worrying one is that staff might not be speaking the most loquacious form of English.

People in public-sector jobs already have good language skills – obviously, or they wouldn’t be getting those jobs. I’m guessing it isn’t customers that these workers have to worry about but their own kids. As a child I relentlessly corrected my Iraqi parents’ embarrassing language errors: the mispronunciations, the misplaced stresses on the wrong syllables, the mangled idioms. Meanwhile I carefully practised speaking English (my first language is Hebrew).

At one point, as my mum’s language skills improved, I told her that she’d mastered a sentence construction even native speakers botch. Incredibly, she didn’t punch me on the nose for it – just to put my pedantry into even more mortifying perspective, English was the fifth in my father’s language set and is my mother’s fourth.

Of course, later in life, I regarded their language tics and accented English with pride, an endearing identity marker rather than a source of shame. In any case, my parents got their own back when I started learning Arabic and routinely butchered words in their mother tongue.

Meanwhile, Israeli kids I know display the same pedantry over correcting my often crummy Hebrew grammar. And such experiences are far from unique: many friends now feel the bemused slight of their children being more fluent in the language of whichever country they’re living in.

But there is not much point in insisting on fluent English when, at the same time, you are closing down schools and colleges that teach English as a second language and cutting free classes at an alarming rate.

Spoilt by a world that mostly speaks English to some degree and hampered by an education system that doesn’t prioritise language learning, far too few of us get to savour the delights of becoming fluent in another language.

There is a particular thrill to getting a joke in a non-native tongue or being able to articulate how you really feel, or reading graffiti in a different script. There is also a particular frustration to not being able to communicate with full range in the language of the place where you happen to be living; when you find you can’t completely understand a country and its idiosyncrasies that are so deeply embedded in its language, a textured part of daily life stays hidden and inaccessible. Dedicated second-language teachers appreciate this, which is why many of them are so passionate and effective at bestowing a love for learning upon their students. 

 

So, rather than insisting that cut-glass English somehow “proves” good citizenship, maybe the kind of language benefits we could focus on as ways of inviting less-proficient new arrivals or non-native speakers to advance their language skills should be withering sarcasm, weather-centric small talk and The Great British Bake Off.

Not only that, but we could also be a bit more encouraging (in other words, take the polar-opposite approach of the younger me) to those who are engaged in the process of adding English to the one or more languages they already have: there really is no need to speak so loud or so excruciatingly slowly.

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