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Monday, 16 September, 2002, 12:09 GMT 13:09 UK
Is language key to ethnic integration?
A few weeks ago, David Blunkett did a favour for his image among many of Britain's ethnic minorities by very publicly visiting a London cultural centre for Muslims.
There he found out about classes which help immigrants - generally older relatives of British Asians - to integrate into British life by improving their English and knowledge of daily life.
It was a very public attempt on the eve of the anniversary of 11 September to say Britain's Asian minorities, Muslim or otherwise, were a very central part of modern life.
His latest comments on what language should be spoken at home have undone much of that work - not least because there are many who don't see why it is any of the home secretary's business what goes on behind the net curtains of 23 Acacia Avenue.
The irony is that Mr Blunkett will find whole-hearted agreement with some of what he has said. Not one of the UK's leading groups representing ethnic minorities would dispute that speaking English is key to success in Britain.
The problem for many, however, is how he said it.
Was he referring to Britain's settled ethnic minorities communities, now into their third generation of British-born citizens? Or was he referring to the new waves of immigration formed by asylum seekers? Do his comments apply to Welsh and Scots Gaelic speakers?
Mr Blunkett says in his essay that English is not spoken at home in up to a third of British Asian households.
Many British Asians would dispute the figure and argue a lack of proficient English is confined to a minority of an elderly generation. Labour MP Keith Vaz whose Leicester East constituency has one of the highest proportions of ethnic minority residents, says Mr Blunkett's figure has "no basis in fact".
Rather, a concern which surfaces anecdotally is that older British Asians fear a loss of identity among the young because children aren't interested in speaking anything other than English at home.
Far from contributing to "schizophrenia which bedevils generational relationships", they argue that speaking more than one language strengthens that British Asian identity. It helps children understand their heritage and engenders respect and understanding of the older generation.
So was Mr Blunkett talking about unwillingness among asylum seekers to integrate and learn English? Not according to the Home Office's own research.
In a paper published this summer, the Home Office concluded that "the ability to speak English or the desire to learn it" is a "key factor" for asylum seekers when they decide to head for the UK.
Asylum and refugee campaigners argue that one of the most pressing issues for those entering the UK is language: If the arrivals aren't helped with their English, they won't be able to settle.
Integration and isolation
While it remains unclear who exactly the home secretary was referring to, the Home Office has stressed that Mr Blunkett was talking about integration rather than dictating what people should do in their homes.
Many of Mr Blunkett's speeches since 11 September have focused on the complicated nature of integration, isolation and diversity.
His flagship Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill, which includes the proposed Britishness test for new citizens, will soon pass its final Parliamentary stages.
But the communities currently feeling the most pressure on the two I-words are settled British Muslims, not least because of the increased interest in Islam since 11 September.
Iqbal Sacranie, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, criticised the government for sending out mixed messages. "The comments have been unhelpful, especially during these times when the communities are dealing with the anniversary of 11 September.
"What I find difficult to grasp is that there are clear statements coming from ministers that we live in a multi-faith, multicultural society where we respect each other's traditions.
"Then, on the other hand, we have these remarks about what language to speak.
"The need for ethnic minorities to speak English is so obvious it does not need to be stated.
"But the ability to speak another language contributes to the diversity that prevails in modern Britain. It's a clear infringement of the rights of others to suggest otherwise."
Ahmed Versi, editor of the Muslim News, said what concerned many was that Mr Blunkett, unintentionally or not, had echoed the sentiments of politicians in the 1970s who predicted that multilingual ethnic minorities would be somehow less able to play a full part in British society.
"There would not be this problem if the government listened to Britain's Asian communities who keep asking for funding for English tuition in their communities," he said.
"Communities want to provide help and language tuition in the community, be it in mosques or temples."
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