How can you be British without speaking English?

Signs in Polish in a London shop window
Image caption It is possible to live without English in some 'standing communities', says Romanian interpreter Petru Clej

Across the UK there are people, who originate from outside Britain, who manage much of their lives without knowing English. But how is it possible to live on UK soil for decades - have your own shop, run a restaurant, or hold down a job - without knowing a word of the native language?

Labour leader Ed Miliband says too little has been done to ensure immigrant communities are integrated into wider society and has called for more effort to be put in to ensure those settling here can speak English.

So how easy is it to get by in the UK without it?

Of course, there are large British communities that count Welsh, Scottish Gaelic or other indigenous languages as their mother tongues, but few are unable to understand English.

How do migrants arriving with virtually no knowledge of the language cope?

One of largest growing immigrant groups is the estimated 150,000-strong Romanian community, based largely in north and east London.

Petru Clej, a Romanian interpreter working in London, says within these "standing communities" it's quite possible to live without English.

"They settle here in groups. There are whole neighbourhoods filled with Romanians. They have their own shops, their own churches, all of them have Romanian satellite TV and they work together on construction sites.

"I have encountered Romanians who have been here 10 years and don't speak a word of English. By and by they get along, though it's not a brilliant living. If they have children, they go to school, learn English and act as interpreters for the parents. So there's not always an incentive to learn."


There are certain fields where interpretation services are commonly provided. The criminal justice system, for example, provides translation for non-English speakers, as do social services and the medical profession.

Some employers also provide translation at times to enable their staff to carry out their jobs. Employers in the construction industry often hire an interpreter to enable staff to sit safety exams which they need to take before they can operate machinery.

And in areas with big eastern European communities, Mr Clej says schools are hiring teaching assistants who can speak certain languages to help children from non-English-speaking homes.

Sudarshan Abrol is a retired head teacher, from Birmingham, who now works as a volunteer at the UK Asian Women's Centre in Birmingham.

She encounters many people of Asian background who have been in the UK for years but never managed to learn English.

Image caption The close-knit nature of some Romanian communities in the UK mean many never learn to speak English

"The younger generation tend to be able to speak English, which they have learned at school, but there is a generation of people now in their 50s and 60s who are still struggling to speak it," she says.

"I have a lot of ladies coming to me now, their husbands are gone and they are on their own and they are finding it difficult to express themselves at the doctor's or if there is a problem at home. They don't know where to go. I always say, 'Why don't you just learn simple English?'

"Some of them have picked up a few words, like 'What is your name?' and 'Who is your doctor? Where do you live?' or they remember the numbers of buses, which is important in case they get lost, but that's all they know."

Ms Abrol has little sympathy, saying: "I personally believe if you come to this country you should learn English. Them not speaking English is costing this country a lot of money, translation costs a bomb. And if you go to the doctor's and you can't express what is wrong with you, then what do you expect from them?"

Habib Rahman, of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, says people usually want to learn English and want to become integrated into British society.

"Integration is very important. When people come here we want then to integrate as quickly as possible and not speaking English is a barrier to that. It's in their own interests to learn it so they have access to improved employment chances and education opportunities for themselves and their children."

He says it can be hard for those who are not educated or even literate in their own language to learn English, particularly for some older people - but it is not impossible.

"You see some people who have come at a later time of their life and when they go to the Post Office, they speak English. Not fluently perhaps but they speak English. Out of necessity, people will learn."

But in some cases, he says we should "see with the eyes of compassion" and respect the human rights of older people to be able to live with their families, and not insist on their learning English.

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