Just before Christmas the UK government announced that migrants will only be able to claim benefits if they pass a series of tough new tests.
One of these includes a check on their fluency in English. These tests are now to be done without the assistance of a translator or interpreter. There are also talks of stopping the printing of welfare paperwork in foreign languages.
These moves come ahead of the removal of transitional controls on Romanian and Bulgarian workers. If government proposals are followed through, all foreign-born benefit claimants will face a rigorous testing of their proficiency in English.
But what exactly does proficiency mean? What counts as fluency? Who decides this? And what are the consequences of these decisions?
Acquiring, knowing and using a new language is a complicated process. It does not happen overnight. Even when a “new speaker” becomes proficient in a language in some contexts, this does not necessarily apply to all others.
Asking for a pint of milk at the corner shop does not require the same vocabulary as filling out a legal document. That is why translation and interpreting services are necessary.
Becoming a “new speaker” of a language takes time. It is often fraught by prejudicial beliefs about what counts as the correct way of speaking and by who is considered a legitimate speaker. Having a “foreign” accent is often equated with a lack of fluency and thus a point of discrimination.
Britons returning after living abroad will come under similar scrutiny and will also be challenged to demonstrate their “proficiency” in English.
But having lived abroad can also make people sound as if they have a “foreign” accent. Any of us who have lived abroad for a considerable period of time will know that we sometimes feel like we have “lost” some of our native language.
We lose some of the colloquialisms of the language and sometimes borrow words, intonation or accent from the other languages we have been exposed to. People tell us that we don’t sound “natural”.
Will this lack of “naturalness” be classified as lacking proficiency ? Could it mean failing the language test?
Globalization and European integration create a context for increased geographical mobility and the generation of “new speakers” in countries such as the United Kingdom.
For most immigrants and transnational workers, acquiring the language of their host community is essential to becoming part of their new community and playing their part in its economic, social, political and artistic life.
As one former Tory Minister put it, “the ability to speak English is one of the most empowering tools in the labour market and we should be encouraging as many people as possible to learn it”.
Nobody is disputing this. But what can be questioned is the expectation that becoming a “new speaker” of English, or any other language for that matter, is something that happens automatically. Learning a language takes time. Cutting support services such as translation and interpreting will not change this.