Immigrant languages

“Britons should learn Polish, Punjabi and Urdu to boost social cohesion” This is the title of a recent Guardian article. As an immigrant, I disagree with such a notion and, in fact, I object to it. Below I explain why.

The article suggests that you, Britons, should learn the languages which are spoken in your community. So, if you live in a community where Polish I spoken, you should learn Polish. If you live in communities with other languages, you should learn those other languages. Simple? Not in a million years.

Before I tell you why I object, let me deal with practicalities. Learning a language is time consuming (here are some estimates, which I take with a pinch of salt). Polish is taken to be difficult, with complex declension, conjugation, grammatical gender and word order, which means it will take considerably more to learn it. Realistically then, you are not going to be conversing with me any time soon, so let’s get real here. Moreover, given today’s social mobility, it is hardly realistic to start learning a language every time you move community? Let’s get seriously real here.

And yet, this is not why I object to the idea and I don’t really care, if you rush to learn Polish. I mean – if you wish, go right ahead, but, please, don’t do it on my account. Below are my reasons.

1. My first reason is the choice of languages. Consider the following quote in the article:

One of the areas we are looking at in my project is the question of which languages we should be teaching and learning in the UK, and that is why we are looking not just at the major languages traditionally taught in our schools and universities such as French and Spanish, but also the indigenous languages (Welsh, Irish, Scottish Gaelic) and the community languages.

Have you noticed that French and Spanish are not ‘immigrant languages’? They are the ‘major languages’ that we traditionally teach.  But, surely, I haven’t missed anything and the French and the Spanish who live in the UK haven’t stopped being immigrants? Let me ask you a better question – what about the Americans?

If you believe Lynne Murphy’s wonderful blog, Separated by a Common Language, American English is not exactly the same as British English and it’s perhaps not exactly astonishing we communicate with each other, still, the differences are quite significant. And yet, no one is suggesting Britons start learning some American (English) language. No, Britons are encouraged to learn the ‘immigrant languages’. And ‘we’ give out the label as ‘we’ see it fit.

And this is the core of the problem. As well-meaning as the proposal is, it also positions Polish (and others mentioned above) as a ‘special language’, and most certainly not a ‘major language’. So, Anglophones, you are encouraged to learn the minor, non-significant, shall I say, ‘abnormal’ languages. Harldy worth it, innit?

Incidentally, it is worth pointing out that, if you believe Wikipedia, Punjabi is spoken by about 100 million people (‘native’ speakers), which is considerably more than French, which is spoken by only 75 million people. It’s an interesting little fact to consider, when you think about ‘major languages’. Urdu (66 million) and Polish (40) add another 100 million, which is hardly a handful of speakers. Just saying.

2. After this, problems just start mounting, because the proposal is not only about ‘immigrant languages’, it’s also about immigrants. Of course, Brexit has complicated matters considerably, yet, especially before the referendum, I didn’t often get to hear about Americans, Germans or the French as immigrants. Somehow, when it comes to Europeans, it’s always us, Eastern Europeans. Bulgarians, Poles, Romanians, Slovaks – it seems, we are the immigrants, not the Americans or the Swiss.

The proposals that you, my British friends, learn Polish only reinforces me as an immigrant, someone who needs your support. Why???

3. I’m afraid, it goes further. I meet quite a few Slovaks locally, but, no, I don’t speak Slovak, but, for some unexplained reasons, I am not asked to learn Slovak. It’s only you, Britons, who are asked to foster social cohesion with the local Slovaks, but not me. Could I ask why? What’s wrong with me? Is the ‘social cohesion’ I can offer second-rate?

And here you have the ultimate exclusion. By asking only the British to learn the languages of the community, we, immigrants, are, in fact, excluded even further. Not only are we ‘special needs’ people, but we are excluded from forging social cohesion as well.

Before you ask. No, not all immigrants speak many languages – I know quite a few Poles who barely speak English and nothing else apart from Polish. I happen to speak (at different levels of fluency) four languages, but that doesn’t mean that I speak Slovak. I don’t.

4. From the last point comes my final objection. I really don’t understand why immigrants are thought of in terms of multilingualism. Just as Britain (and most of continental Europe), Poland is largely monolingual (I do realise this statement could be nuanced considerably). We don’t come with this plethora of languages allowing us all to communicate with one another.

Let me tell you a story. Quite a few years ago, I was at a small symposium where the name of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was mentioned. Who was asked about how to pronounce the name? Yes, you guessed it – me. I politely explained that I had no Hungarian, which, to make matters worse, is a language from a different language family (Finno-Ugric group, part of the Uralic family), while Polish is a Slavonic language. The person who asked me, a British professor of sociology, after listening to me, said “Yes, yes, so what’s the pronunciation?” Less politely, I asked “How on earth would I know?”. She was quite irritated.

But this story taught me something. For that professor I was simply Eastern European, a person from ‘the East’, this strange and distant land where it’s very cold and you find polar bears roaming in the streets (I was actually asked about polar bears a number of times within the first years after coming to the UK). Yes, yes, you all know about Poles and Czechs, but we all live in Eastern Europe, this big blob on the map where Eastern Europeans live.

And so, we, Eastern Europeans are very easy to turn us into immigrants. We all are foreign, and foreign people speak ‘foreign’, so we all can communicate with one another, can’t we? So, why ask us to join the social cohesion initiative – after all, we all already are so bloody cohesive. We, the foreigners, we, the Eastern Europeans. And more and more, and more, we become these strange foreign creatures that really need support, don’t we?

So, as I said before, don’t bother learning Polish on my account. I don’t care. If you really want to do something for me, I would ask you not to turn around every time I speak Polish on the phone and look at me as I had just come from the Klingon homeworld. Don’t think it’s your God-given right to accost me and as me what language I am speaking. Also don’t assume that it is my duty to tell you. You can also stop saying that you cannot pronounce my name.

If you ask me where I am from, please don’t tell me that you know this person in Białystok… Not only do I not care, I am also extremely unlikely to know this person (one of about 40 million living in Poland). You could also stop complimenting me on my English or telling me how very Polish I still sound. I also don’t care that you know this popular Polish expletive (you have no idea how many times I heard people boast of knowing the word ‘kurwa’) or can say ‘Hello’ in Polish. Yes, there are special contexts when it’s sweet, but if we don’t know each other, or know each other barely, I really couldn’t care less.

All these things, and probably a number of others, are actually easy and simple and do not require you to learn a new language every time you move. I plead for them, because they would show me that you accept me here just as a human being, not as a bloody foreigner.

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