Britain’s New Romance Language Is English

Jennifer Quinn, Google News, June 9, 2010

Love may have its own language–but that’s not good enough for the British government.

It wants English, too.

Starting this fall, the spouse of a citizen who is coming from outside the European Union and wants to live in Britain will have to prove he or she has a basic command of English.

The move, announced Wednesday by the new Conservative government of Prime Minister David Cameron, comes as countries across Europe tighten their rules on immigration amid rising unemployment rates and concerns about the ability of newcomers to integrate.

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In Britain, the government is casting the new policy as an effort to promote integration–not to keep out foreigners.

“I believe being able to speak English should be a prerequisite for anyone who wants to settle here,” Home Secretary Theresa May said in a statement. “The new English requirement for spouses will help promote integration, remove cultural barriers and protect public services.”

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The new measures have been criticized by civil libertarians, lawyers, and activists. Some say the changes discriminate against people from countries with few English speaking traditions, such as in Africa and Asia. Others call them an intrusion into citizens’ private lives.

Some also argue that English is best learned in a country where it’s spoken everyday, rather than forcing people into classrooms abroad, which could be of varying standards and potentially costly. Spouses will have to show evidence to British authorities that they’ve passed an English test with a government-approved provider.

Language requirements vary across Europe.

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But some Britons argue that it’s only natural for newcomers to learn the language of their host nation.

Dennis Weeks, a 38-year-old civil servant from east London, said he wouldn’t be able to participate in another country’s culture if he didn’t speak the language, so it seems fair that immigrants to Britain learn some English.

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Currently, spouses are granted visas which allow them to come to Britain for about two years, after which they can apply for permanent residency–which requires a citizenship and language test.

“Forcing husbands and wives to take language tests before they even arrive in the U.K. will rip families apart,” said Hina Majid, the policy director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, a London-based advocacy group.

“These new rules are likely to hit people from South Asia and Africa where English is not the main language. It may also hit women harder and discriminate most against the poorest.”

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The measures were first tabled by Britain’s Labour government in 2002. Last year, about 38,000 spousal visas were approved, and another 21,000 people were granted permanent residency.

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