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Coerced to learn a language

Feb 02,2016 - Last updated at Feb 02,2016

Recently, British Prime Minister David Cameron threatened migrant families — primarily Muslim — with deportation if they do not pass an English test.

Cameron’s interest in showing his power over marginalised people, especially women, through his mastery — pun intended — of English is not new. 

In 2012, he gave his first lesson when he paid a visit to a former British colony, now independent Myanmar.

Despite the Burmese’s calling their country Myanmar — of course, the naming process was preceded and followed by bloodshed — Cameron insisted on using the anachronism, Burma, to emphasise the country’s subservience to Britain.

His most recent use of linguistic coercion is a little more nuanced and perhaps ambivalent, as his threat was preceded by his asking Muslim women to help combat radicalisation.


He encouraged — not threatened — them to learn English. The assumption is that, this way, Muslim mothers can better understand what their children are thinking about and can act as thought policewomen. Hence, control their children.

But in order to control their children, they themselves have to be controlled and disciplined.

This talk of control is ironically taking place in an apparently liberal community that is supposed to accept or tolerate the other and advocate the rights of women.

We are told that the British government was forced to resort to these ambivalent and desperate measures because they wanted Muslim women to be integrated into, rather than isolated from, British society.

We are further told that teaching Muslim women English would help them integrate into British society.

Theoretically, there is nothing wrong with that observation. However, when it comes to practice, a few problems arise.

One major problem is that the British government has, interestingly enough, cut the funding necessary for programmes that teach English to emigrants.

Moreover, Muslim women, in particular, who amount to 200,000, and emigrants in general are given only two and a half years to speak English adequately. Otherwise, they have to go back to their countries of origin, even if those countries are stricken by war.

From a pedagogical point of view, asking anybody to speak any language adequately within that short period of time is unrealistic, especially if we bear in mind the fact that learning a language cannot happen when you have an ultimatum in mind — unless one believes those books that say that one can learn a language within a week or so.

Second and foreign language teaching experts all agree that language learning is generally accompanied by economic, political and psychological challenges.

In fact, people sometimes spend their lifetimes learning a language; the writer of this article is a case in point.

However, the British government seems to have a different opinion, an opinion because of which Muslim women are instrumentalised and subjected, and if neither is the case, they are exiled.

Let us not forget that the women targeted are mostly married and have children. What happens when they are forced to go back?

Their families are most probably going to experience break ups. Thus, the de-radicalisation plan would inevitably result in a radicalisation plan: the family members would be destabilised, and loss of hope and indignation would ensue.

Despite all that, there would be at least one possible “good” result: the British government would help linguists who find the phrase “mother tongue” erroneous eliminate it, as more mothers may have to jettison their languages and cultures.

The British government’s policy sits very well with the ideology of hegemonic societies.

During his campaign, Mitt Romney, a former Republican US presidential candidate, asked Puerto Ricans to learn to speak English.

Romney and company suggest that it is easy to learn the languages of the establishment and forget one’s own language and culture. 

That attitude is definitely promoted by Western liberals and conservatives alike, who keep telling us that their cultures are welcoming and stand for the values of multiculturalism, and the much-touted values of tolerance and diversity.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) (1948) states that people should not be discriminated against because of, among other things, their language.

Furthermore, the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights (UDLR) (1996) grants people the right to belong to any linguistic community and to use that language in public or private.

Indeed, coercing people to use another language goes against those rights. 

I am not against learning other languages. In fact, I strongly recommend teaching and learning other languages, as several experts suggest that such experience increases what UDLR calls linguistic peace and even increases people’s intelligence.

But coercing one to do that, as the history of colonialism illustrates, will not work.


The writer, a Fulbright scholar, contributed this article to The Jordan Times.

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