Southampton: Language is a key factor in building cohesive communities

The ninth stop for the National Conversation on Immigration was Southampton, a University city and part of a built-up south coast metropolis of 1.6 million people. As a port, Southampton has had a long history of immigration and emigration. More recently, an estimated 20,000 Poles – about one in ten of the total population – have made their home in Southampton and Polish can be heard everywhere in suburbs such as St Mary’s and Shirley.

Our citizens’ panel – which included two Poles – voiced concerns about the pressures that such a large migratory movement had put on school places. But the consensus was that in Southampton the Poles and the Brits had learned to live with each other. A healthy economy and a growing number of Polish-owned businesses, most of which employ Brits, have no doubt contributed to improved community relations. Suburbs like Shirley were termed by one participant as “Poland number two”, but participants also stated how much they enjoyed the Eastern European supermarkets that have appeared across the city. Both the city council and civil society have undertaken work to bring communities together and know the steps they need to take to promote integration.

We had a long and interesting discussion about the importance of English language fluency in good community relations. Everyone agreed that when migrants spoke English it is much easier to build good relations. “I’ve had lots of arguments with my mum about this,” said one of the Polish panel members, “but she still only speaks a few words.”

With such a large Polish population it is possible to live and work in Southampton without speaking much English by depending on family, friends and work colleagues to translate for you. At the time of the 2011 Census 2.3% of those living in Southampton did not speak English well; that is over 5,000 people. Across England and Wales, more than 900,000 people speak little or no English, including many EU migrants, particularly those in lower-skilled jobs who work long hours.

New arrivals learn English through formal teaching, as well as informally by speaking it. Most English language classes are run by FE colleges and local authority adult education services. A smaller number of people receive informal help – drop-in language cafes and home visiting schemes, for example – usually run by charities. But new arrivals also become fluent in English through social interactions with English speakers.

The policy debate about English language learning has focussed on cuts to funding for formal college-based provision. This is important, and in some areas there are long waiting lists for classes. But language policy needs to do much more than think about funding. As our visit to Southampton shows, we need to think about better ways to help those who work in the day and are too tired in the evening to learn effectively in a class that lasts two or three hours. It is clear that much more flexible and high quality provision is needed, including short drop-in sessions offered in workplaces and community settings before the school run or at the end of the day. Freeview channels could be used to broadcast classes, as happens outside the UK. And we need to make sure that everyone gets the chance to practice their English in a community that is welcoming and integrated in every sense of the word.

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