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Multilingualism makes us British - despite what Boris Johnson might insist

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Having a British nationality has become something I'm ashamed of. 

Three years since the referendum, and it's still baffling to me that our nation would vote in favour of turning our back on the European Union (quite literally in the case of the Brexit Party during the EU anthem in the new European Parliament). In an increasingly multicultural and diverse society, it's clear to me the leave vote was led by a desire for 'Britishness', acutely aligning our sense of national identity with xenophobia. 

When Boris Johnson pledged to make all immigrants learn English in order to properly integrate into British society at the Tory leadership hustings in Darlington, that feeling resurfaced with a strong vengeance. When speaking about the communities of immigrants residing in Britain he said: "I want everybody who comes here and makes their lives here to be, and to feel, British - that's the most important thing - and to learn English."

The most important thing for immigrants, in Johnson's eyes, is not to make them feel welcome or at home here, but to make them 'British'. 

Image Credit: Chatham House via Flickr

I strongly support the idea of providing immigrants with the opportunity to learn English if they choose. If it offers them greater financial and social opportunities then it's invaluable, especially for refugees. However, this enforcement of 'Britishness' onto people that choose to reside here is utterly hypocritical. How many languages does Mr Johnson speak? Why should we force immigrants to learn English when, typically, many Britons refuse to learn even basic introductions when they go abroad? Forcing immigrants to learn English does not encourage a greater sense of community, it strips these people of their own heritage and identity. 

At the hustings Johnson also insisted that English is not spoken as a first language in "too many parts of our country", and this kind of intense and ruthless nationalism takes away the ability for smaller communities to thrive. It is ignorant of the Gaelic and Welsh communities that make up Britain; street signs in Wales may predominantly be written in Welsh with the English translation underneath, but that does not make them any less British.

It's interesting to witness how a citizen's ability to speak English seems to have become a symbol of whether someone can be 'one of us'. It's a toxic mindset to collectively carry as a nation, especially since a single language is not the definition of a united country. You don't have to look far to find countries across the world that have more than one official language: Switzerland, for example, has four official languages, and most European countries at least attempt to speak the dominant languages of French, German, Spanish and Italian due to the ease of movement within the EU. We are already secluded from the unity of Europe due to our position as an island; why are we making that stronger by pushing for a solely English communication?

At a time when we are preaching for more diversity, we need to recognise that there are other avenues where diversity can manifest - not just in the workplace or through our culture, but in basic forms of personal expression, such as languages. It feels as though Johnson will be outlawing the speech of any other languages soon enough - all on account of this desired and falsely holy 'Britishness'. It just shows how Englishness is still being used by Britons with a naïve sense of entitlement and privilege. The stereotype that we believe "everyone speaks English" is just disrespectful towards other cultures and it's time we stopped fuelling and supporting that outlook. Our sense of national identity should be lead by qualities and values that as a nation we stand by, not the language that dominates us. 

As a nation, we have begun to seclude ourselves from the outside world, and in a time when we want to maintain our position as a global power and the climate crisis is ensuing this is the last thing we should be doing. If Britain really wants to be 'Great' then we have to accept that other nations can be great too. 

Lead Image Credit: Oli Lynch via Pixabay




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