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Latin Americans in London and the linguistic integration debate



latam_shop_in_londonLarin American shop in London. Language has become a major obstacle for the integration of many Latin Americans in British societyThe linguistic integration of migrants is a controversial topic. Despite extensive evidence to the contrary, migrants who experience language difficulties are often accused of not wanting to integrate and to prefer speaking their first language in the comfort of their own ethnic enclaves. The much criticised think tank, ‘Migration Watch‘, for example, argues that 88% of the people in Britain believe that immigrants who are unable to speak English or unwilling to integrate have created ‘discomfort and disjointedness’ in British communities. Conversely, the use of their first language is often perceived as another sign of migrants’ lack of interest in social integration.

This perspective seems to overlook the various ways in which language barrier impacts migrants’ lives. Speaking fluent English is not only directly linked to people’s experiences in the labour market, but it greatly influences their access to information and important services, such as health and education.

The linguistic integration of migrants is an issue of major importance for both migrants and the local community. However, learning a new language is a challenging task. It implies much more than the mastering of grammar and vocabulary as it requires cultural adaptation and the acquisition of a different world-view. Embedder in history and culture, language is strongly linked to people’s social identity. Not surprisingly, people frequently refer to their first language as mother tongue.

Since 2005, the Home Office has required applicants to demonstrate an ‘appropriate’ level of English language knowledge. Throughout the years, the UKBA has revised these regulations and implemented increasingly tougher requirements and it is now expected that by October 2013, those applying for settlement will need to demonstrate an intermediate level of English (The Guardian). On the other hand, these measures have been accompanied by a series of funding cuts to ESOL provision which have made it extremely difficult for certain sectors, such as dependants and those in low-pay jobs, to access English language education.

As a ‘new migrant’ community, Latin Americans face the challenge of integrating into a multicultural London that undermines bilingualism. A vibrant multilingual city where migrants’ ability to speak English is a matter of immigration rather than educational debate and where the use of the first language is perceived as a threat to integration and social cohesion.

*Lucila Granada is a PhD student at the School of Languages and Social Sciences at Aston University, Birmingham, UK. Based on the Latin American community of London, her research focuses on the links between language, identity and integration.

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