The Language Barrier

As part of its strategy to counter extremism, the British Government has today announced its intention to fund a plan to help all migrants to this country learn English. For once, I think that this is a plan to applaud.

For the inability to speak and understand the language of others around you fosters fear, misunderstanding and distrust.

Having lived in an ex-patriot community myself, I remember how easy it is to become persuaded by others that you are somehow surrounded by ‘enemies’, and to develop a laager mentality. This mindset takes it as a given that everyone outside of the circle does not understand you, they are somehow ‘against’ you, and forever plotting to attack or undermine you, so you sit there muttering darkly about these ‘outsiders’, and voicing your dislike and prejudices against them…it becomes a cycle of mistrust that can possibly become violent.

It is another example of the saying that we hate what we fear, and we fear what we do not understand. And when someone is trapped in a limited social circle because they cannot understand anyone outside of that circle, their chances of becoming a full member of the wider community are severely limited.

Having travelled in non-English speaking countries, I realise how much easier life becomes for me when I make the effort to learn even a small amount of the language.

There will be some who refuse to learn the language on the grounds that they feel that they are there temporarily, possibly working on a short term contract, and can get away with using their own language in a limited circle of work, shopping and socialising.

And there will be some for whom it is a matter of pride to use only their birth language.

I think that both of these viewpoints are mistaken.

Writers understand only too well the importance of language. We worry over whether to use this or that word or phrase to get our meaning across; we worry over whether the way we have worded something may be misunderstood. But when you are attempting to communicate with others in a language that you only vaguely understand, every single conversation is full of these fears.

And when that is the norm, it becomes easier just to avoid any situations where you have to try to use that language.

But it does not actually take much to overcome these fears. Perhaps accepting an invitation to visit to someone’s home, or their place of worship, will lead naturally to conversations where people can learn about each other. But the essential thing is to be able to communicate, which becomes next to impossible without at least a few words of a language in common.

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27 thoughts on “The Language Barrier

  1. I don’t know anything about the specifics of this particular policy so I can’t really comment on that. I do agree with your general point, though. Not understanding those around us can often lead to mistrust and resentment. Another possibility is that it causes us to feel social isolation and loneliness. It makes a lot of sense to try to learn the local language of wherever you live, although I know there can sometimes be reasons that make it a little hard in practice.

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    1. That is one of the problems in this instance, I think, Bun. The fear is that some of those who feel that sense of isolation and loneliness look elsewhere for ‘friendship’ and a sense of belonging, and this can leave them receptive to (for example) online radicalisation.

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  2. Agreed, Mick. A well-reasoned and presented argument for this unusual plan for this government. Unusual in that I actually agree with it! It’s simple good manners to attempt the language of the land in which you live. Different for those holiday stays, though it’s amazing the difference it makes when you make an attempt to pass the time of day with natives of the country you’re using for a break; you’re instantly treated to greater kindness and consideration.
    Well said.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I couldn’t agree more, Stuart. It is good manners. I can’t stand the attitude that some Westerners have, which seems to be that people in their own country should have to use English to communicate with them, just because they (the Westerners) couldn’t be bothered to learn a few words of the local language. I’ve always made a point of learning some of the language of any country that I’ve visited, even for just a stay of a few days. It is remarkable the amount of friendliness and help I’ve received in places as diverse as India and Hungary, just because I’ve used a few poorly pronounced words of the native tongue .

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      1. Yes, I’ve tried it in Germany, France and Greece. Not many words, but enough to greet, thank and say ‘please’. We who have the advantage of speaking English as our native tongue always respect and appreciate those who attempt to use it in communicating with us, so why should it not be the other way round?

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        1. Indeed. And on that point, I’m also embarrassed by the reception that some foreign visitors get here in the UK when they use English that isn’t perfect – I’ve seen them sneered and mimicked for it, probably by people who couldn’t speak a word of any foreign language, and would expect to use English if they went abroad.

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  3. I can read and write in 3 scripts and can converse fluently in 2 more and maybe get important points across in 2-3 more. Languages are so interesting and fun that it’s hard for me to imagine someone considering language an instrument of domination or cultural supremacy. I am aware that it can be used so, but to learn another tongue per se isn’t an act of submission….

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    1. Indeed it’s not, Himanshu, it’s a form of empowerment. I enjoy languages, but, like many in the west, I do find it hard to learn them. I’m not quite sure why that is, but it could be the basis for another blog post. I have to admit to a little jealousy of your prowess, there!

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  4. The same sort of attitudes have happened here in the US with our 2nd largest language group: Spanish. It has slowed the Latino population from fully integrating. In turn it causes the same kinds of mistrust (as I’m sure you see from the current political campaigns) that you see with your immigrant population.

    I always try to learn a little of the local language when we travel, too. It makes a huge difference when people see that you are trying!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Unfortunately, the mistrust is fairly obvious even from our side of the pond. I guess that there is a slight difference, though, in that Spanish has become a major language in the US, spoken by roughly 13% of the population, whereas in the UK, according to our last census, no language other than English is spoken by more than 1% of the total population. This suggests that the various problems around integration require different solutions.

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  5. I liked your post, Mick – you make some very good points. I’m inclined to agree with you that language barriers do lead to isolation and misunderstanding and as well as the obvious misinterpretation. This, is you say, can then lead on to more serious problems in society.

    Although I am not that well travelled, I think it’s only common courtesy to at least learn the basic, necessary words to enable you to get by, such as ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, ‘thank you’ and please’ etc. and preferably make the effort to learn a few more words. I think it shows that you are appreciative of whatever type of hospitality is offered to you in a foreign country and lessens the chances of conflict and dis-ease.

    And yes, I think you could write a blog post, discussing these points further.

    Well said, Mick

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  6. Good points Mick. It’s not necessarily a guarantee that it would solve mistrust issues though, there are plenty of folks in this country who, even though they speak the same language are still isolated from other lifestyles and still go down the the fear and mistrust cycle. It’s more a mindset; is the “other” evil because it’s different, or is it a chance to learn something new?

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    1. It wouldn’t solve everything, Dave, but in this country it can often be a problem that first generation immigrants, especially, fail to learn English, for whatever reason, and then they can find themselves isolated from society at large. It can become difficult even to visit a doctor’s surgery, or to go to a shop away from the area where they live, because of the language barrier. And of course that barrier works both ways – there are plenty of English speakers here who regard anyone who speaks a foreign language with deep suspicion.

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  7. I think this is essential. If you are to live somewhere any length, understanding the majority language is crucial. My slight concern is the coverage today focuses on patriarchal communities where women aren’t able to integrate for lack of language and, now, per this policy, failure to do so will lead to their aim to become a citizen thwarted. This seems to conflate two issues into one with the risk this is seem as another ‘attack’ on Islamic communities (Cameron used tis as his example on the Today programme this morning). Oh David, use a Pole or a Russian or a Malaysian for once, can’t you? So good idea, crap launch.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I also believe that the more we can get to know each other, the more we communicate with each other, the easier it is to get along. As you say, we hate what we fear and fear what we don’t understand. Something has to break the cycle! Good post….

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