Versta je me? (Do you understand me?)

Published 22 January 2013 / By COMPAS Communications

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Over the last ten years, living in a household where (Flemish) Dutch is our second language, I have been intending to learn Dutch. I say intending, since over those years, my efforts have been half-hearted and sporadic, so while my passive understanding is reasonable, my spoken language is less so. A fact recently brought home to me when 6 year old laughed at my pronunciation and my 3 year old has already surpassed my level of proficiency.

Stronger Flemish stance on language
While my limited Dutch may be a subject of mirth at home, in Flanders, language has had an extremely serious and pivotal role in the creation and maintenance of the Flemish nation since the 19th century. And this is still very much the case today. This is exemplified by the recent electoral victory of the New Flemish Alliance (Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie, N-VA) a Flemish democratic nationalist party which seeks to establish Flanders as an independent state and leave ‘Belgium’ behind. Within that, the Flemish language has an essentialist significance as a cultural and political marker: Professor Jan Blommaert, professor of language, culture and globalisation at the universities of Gent and Tiburg in a recent blog observed how ‘Flanders Flemish’ is again becoming a core slogan.

Language as a criteria for access to services
Working in the area of welfare and migration at COMPAS, I was particularly struck by the extension of this stance on language into welfare policy. Blommaert observed how Bart de Wever, the new mayor of Antwerp and partyleader of the N-VA is considering a policy which requires a higher level in Dutch language proficiency (from the EU level of A1 to A2) to access key services and benefits, including social housing.

Defenders of the policy argue that this is perfectly logical – and it is everybody’s best interests to improve language proficiency of immigrants. Yet Blommaert argues against this on the grounds that

a) the abstractions of proficiency levels set by the EU language levels have nothing to do with the reality of whether people are able to communicate or not

b) in increasingly diverse societies emerging from changing migration patterns, multilingualism is the norm and people develop their own informal and good enough languages of interaction

c) a policy of Dutch-only creates discriminatory outcomes whereby fewer people- and in particular immigrants - will be able to access benefits, housing and support in daily lives. Language here becomes an instrument by which some people find it harder, rather than easier, to participate in society.

Lessons for the UK from Flanders
Is this debate relevant to the UK and if so, how can we learn from it in relation to UK immigration and integration policies? The situation in the UK is different principally because of the status of English as a world language with little emphasis on its use for cultural survival. Yet, there are also similarities across the two contexts in terms of how language proficiency mediates access to services whether informally or formally, as exposed by our recent research within IMPACIM, which looks at entitlements to and restrictions on access to welfare benefits, education, social housing etc. for legal family migrants.

In the realm of access to welfare provision in the UK language proficiency is less explicitly posed as a condition of access as it may soon be in Antwerp. It is of course part of the conditionality for entry, settlement and citizenship in the UK, as is the case across many European countries. The requirement to demonstrate sufficient language proficiency in addition to knowledge of life in the UK have been strengthened for entry and settlement, and this is generally considered by politicians normal and good, across the political divide. And certainly within our work we are seeing how the possession of limited language skills impedes people’s abilities to gain employment and participate fully. It also acts to informally restrict access to welfare provision, denying people the capabilities to challenge mistakes - especially in cases where those who are genuinely entitled to access services are denied them.

Yet importantly, within the same work, we are also seeing how rules on funding eligibility for ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) restrict the opportunity of many highly motivated migrants, in the first years of entry to learn English, missing a crucial window of opportunity and setting in place a long term pattern of social exclusion, particularly for women. Meanwhile, even when desire to learn is great, and funding sorted, variable local practice and a smaller priority for ESOL following austerity drives has meant that in some areas, demand far outstrips supply. Curiously however, this situation is turned on its head. In the popular imagination, immigrants are blamed for having poor English skills and failing to integrate, while the costs of their learning understood as not one for the taxpayer to bear.

Impacts on integration
In both the UK and Flanders then, policy intentions around language and welfare may be apparently benign, driven by rationales to further integration or to cut costs. But in both countries, when intersecting with other policies, they may produce ultimately the opposite effects to which they are seeking to achieve. Do look out for the IMPACIM findings over the course of the year, where we unpick this complex relationship between policies that restrict migrants’ claim on the public purse and their longer-term impacts on people’s lives and capacities to integrate.