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Last Updated: Monday, 12 February 2007, 16:52 GMT
Immigrants: talking our language?
Adam Skwierawaski
Adam Skwierawaski thinks the government has its priorities wrong
Unemployed migrants in the UK must learn English or see their benefits cut, the government says.

But do immigrants themselves believe this will help them integrate into British society?

When Adam Skwierawaski left Poland for a new life in East Anglia in 2004, he thought he had studied enough English to get by.

But when confronted with Britain's range of national and regional accents, he realised he was out of his depth.

'Wrong way round'

"I just couldn't understand all these different dialects - Scottish, Welsh, northern, cockney. They don't teach you all those in language school," he laughs.

Now completely fluent and working as the Cambridgeshire organiser for the trade union Usdaw, the 24-year-old believes he had an easier time than most of his fellow migrants.

"I'm quite lucky because I mostly work with English people, so I picked up the language pretty quickly," he says.

"But a lot of immigrants end up working alongside people from the same country as them, so they don't have the chance to develop their skills.

"The government have got it the wrong way round. Anyone who can fill in all the forms to claim benefits in the UK has good enough English already - it's the ones in factories they want to concentrate on."

Welfare minister Jim Murphy announced the new proposals to force claimants to study the language.

They are very motivated to learn because they want to improve themselves
Ewa Mahey

"Not just for the sake of employment rates, but for the benefit of the individual, their community and society as a whole," he said.

But Adam's fellow Pole Ewa Mahey, 50, who is settled in Frome, Somerset, is not convinced by the plan.

She has been in the UK since 1993 working as an English language teacher and says she sees first-hand how committed most immigrants are to learning their new home's native tongue.

"They are very motivated to learn because they want to improve themselves - that's why they came across in the first place.

I spent years living abroad in numerous countries. My top priority was always to learn the language

"There is a real reluctance to lean upon the system.

"You have to remember what it is like to be in a strange country where no-one understands what you say - I'm very humbled by the way they reach out to me as their teacher."

The problem, she says, is that at the same time as talking tough, the government is making it harder for immigrants to access language courses.

From August, access to free English for Speakers of Other Languages (Esol) classes will be restricted to people claiming tax credits or benefits.

'Demand is huge'

Ken Penton from the trade union Community, which runs English classes for migrants, says the government's rhetoric is completely contradicted by its policies.

"The demand from people who want to learn the English language is huge.

"So what is the government thinking by cutting funding for this? It is saying that if you want to learn English you have to go on benefits."

Ministers say Esol provision is in dire need of reform, with waiting lists as long as two years in some parts of the country. They insist the reforms will help them focus learning on those who need it most.

But Adam believes their priorities are skewed.

"The vast majority of immigrants want to work, and they want to learn English as well.

"I really don't understand why the government don't take advantage of that."

Unemployed 'must learn English'
12 Feb 07 |  UK Politics

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