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When Languages Unite Us, and Divide Us

London and the Wailing Wall

Often when we were kids, my friends and I would get on a random bus and ride off into an unknown, unfamiliar part of London. We would watch the buildings change, see different people get on and off the bus, and listen to the languages they spoke.

On some routes we would hear Arabic, Pashto, Persian or Amharic. On others we would hear Polish, Lithuanian, Ukrainian or Russian. Sometimes we would hear a language none of us could recognise, and we would all sit and concentrate until somebody finally exclaimed: “I’ve got it! It’s Welsh!”

polishspecialtiesshopLondon was the whole world when I was growing up, and so the whole world became part of my identity. At my school I’d estimate at least 50% of the other kids had dual or non-British heritage, including myself. Even if they had English names, everybody knew that Mark was Italian, Jamie was Indian, Sam was Thai and so on. We revelled in that diversity, and celebrated it whenever we could.

On the short walk from the Tube station every morning to my school, opposite the POSK Cultural Centre in Hammersmith that had housed the Polish community in exile for the duration of the Cold War, I had to pass the Wailing Wall.

The Wailing Wall, or Sciana Placzu, was an unremarkable brick structure which had become the de-facto first port of call for all Polish immigrants looking for any work in the UK. The bus from Poland would drop them off outside the Cultural Centre, and they would immediately cross the road and stand there and wait. Every so often, a van would pull up and an English person would get out, saying he needed three Polish people for a gardening job. Everyone would scramble. He would take the ones he wanted, put them in the back, and drive off as the wailing stopped and calm returned to the Wall.

Sometimes there were just a handful of people at the Wall. Sometimes there were many. I remember times when there were so many people there that I had to cross the road to get past them. I watched the Wall for years. It began in 2004, when I started at my school and Poland had just joined the EU. It ended in 2010 when I left school, the British economy had crashed, and the Poles had started to move back, leaving the Wall vacant once more.

“Speak! English!”

oxfordbusMany years later, I was on a bus in Oxford. I was looking out the window at the green English countryside, when out of the corner of my eye I spotted an old man with hearing aids raise himself from his priority seat at the front and stagger towards two young ladies sitting a few rows behind him. Their conversation stopped abruptly as they realised he was holding a wrinkled fist in their faces. “Yes…?” one of them asked, nervously.

“Speak! English!” he shouted, waiving his fist and smiling maniacally.

“…what?!” they answered, alarmed.

“Speak! English!” he repeated. “You’re in England! Speak! English!”

The two ladies exchanged a flummoxed glance.

“But… we are Spanish, and we prefer to speak in Spanish thank you,” one said.

The crazy old man’s eyes sparkled as he put his fingers to his lips, issuing a hissing ‘shh’ sound.

“Speak! English!” he said again, and staggered slowly back to his seat.

A few weeks afterwards, a British politician and Member of the European Parliament gave a speech to his party saying how “awkward” he felt about being on a train in Central London and hearing foreign languages.

He explained: “In many parts of England you don’t hear English being spoken any more. This is not the kind of community we want to leave to our children and grandchildren.” He said the reason he felt so awkward was because he “couldn’t understand them.”

Two years later, that man would become the figurehead and face of the campaign that shook the country, and crashed it out of the European Union.

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Brexit

Immediately after the vote, the country that I grew up in, that I loved, and that a few weeks earlier I had chosen to move back to, ceased to exist.

A German lady of about the same age as my mother who had lived in the UK since the 1970s called a radio station in tears because her neighbours had thrown dog shit at her window and told her they didn’t want her living on their road any more. She was so scared that she hadn’t left the house in three days. She told the radio presenter tearfully and in an audible German accent: “It’s very scary when you’re on your own.”

14829312-largeThen, a Polish family in Plymouth with three teenage daughters woke up in the middle of the night to find their garden shed on fire. They also found a note, saying “Go back to your **** country next be your family.” People in Plymouth and across the country started saying that they were now “too scared to speak Polish in public”. The politician on the train finally got his wish.

Then, in Essex a man named Arkadiusz Jóźwik who was a Polish national, was attacked by a gang of teenagers while eating a pizza at night with his friends. He was left with head injuries so severe that he died of them. His crime was the fact that he couldn’t speak English.

Then, a 31 year old Czech man named Zdeněk Makar was beaten and stabbed to death after his murderers heard him ordering fried chicken in a foreign accent in a shop in East London. Tragically, his sister said that he had come to London 10 years ago “because he wanted to learn the English language and he loved it.”

These are just a few snapshots of the tidal wave of nationalist and xenophobic feeling that has devastated my country. At the heart of all of them is language.

Global English and the Language Divide

 

Language is the tool that brings us all together. In the age of Global English, people from around the world can talk and get to know each other better than ever before.

When you have two non-native speakers both stepping up to speak in English, this system works beautifully. English is just a way to communicate, and nobody gets upset about mistakes, foreign accents, or other eccentricities.

But when a non-native speaker speaks to a native speaker, the parameters change. While for one person English is just a tool, for the other it is their entire life, identity, and way of seeing the world. While one person may be used to having slightly restricted or unnatural sounding conversations in English and knows not to think too much about them, the other is not, and instinctively assumes that anybody who speak that way is stupid, uneducated and perhaps even a little bit sub-human.

That leads them to shout, to patronise, and to feel indignant about ‘the language problem we have in our own country’. They don’t think about the fact that behind the counter they’re shouting at a 19-year-old girl, fresh out of school in Poland, who’s come over to earn some pocket money working at Costa Coffee for a bit, and might have just misheard you.

Language is the tool that brings us all together. But if we don’t know what it means or feels like to learn to speak another person’s language, then language – and, in particular, multilingualism – is at risk of driving us apart.

Learning another language is an immensely humbling activity. It helps us to appreciate the many efforts others go to in order to learn ours, and the great frustration they must constantly feel in never being able to express themselves as freely as they would in their own.

But if our only experience of other languages is of foreigners speaking ours, leaving us thinking “I could say that better”, then we have a problem.

Learning a foreign language is like learning to see the world through somebody else’s eyes. If everybody had that experience, then the world would probably be a better place.

Instead, though, what English speakers the world over perceive to be happening is that other people are trying to see the world through their eyes. That means that their world view is desirable. That must mean that it is better. Right?

We do live in a world of Global English, which means that more people are learning languages than ever before. That is fantastic, and helps many countries to communicate better and foster closer friendships between their populations.

But I believe that, paradoxically, that leaves English speakers, who are hardly learning foreign languages at all, isolated. It gives them an excuse not to learn foreign languages, because everyone learns theirs. That leads them to conclude from all their interactions with non-native English speakers that they are a bit stupid, and somehow inferior.

When you believe another person to be inferior, then their inferiority is defined against your superiority. And when you believe yourself to be superior, special, and yet somehow neglected and overlooked, that is when you get Brexit.

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