Tuesday, 20 May 2014

A very British panic attack

Michael Rosen has a question:
How many people are not learning English? Typical of politicians to run up a flag about something without specifying dimensions or details. How many non-Brits are not bothering to learn English?

How much of a 'problem' is it? So, for example, I hear Turkish people talking Turkish to each other in North London. This is while they are doing business - you know, that thing that the government say is wonderful - running shops - that sort of thing. What's the problem?!
When I think about the things that cause me, personally, problems, 'people not bothering to learn English' hardly registers. The nearest thing to an actual lack-of-English-skills problem I've had recently has been occasionally not being able to understand the odd word spoken by someone in an Indian call centre. Which is, when you think about it, quite a compact, manageable problemette.

Millions of people half way across the globe are learning to speak my language and occasionally not getting it exactly word perfect. Poor little me, boo hoo! Why, oh why can't they be like us hard-working British families™, who can just about be bothered to learn to mispronounce the names of most of the dishes we might find on a typical Indian restaurant menu?

I know that I don't live in an area with a massive mix of nationalities and that, in parts of, say, London, or Birmingham, I might, shockingly, have to deal with people whose English is sometimes less than perfect in person, as opposed to over the phone. Which might, very occasionally, be moderately inconvenient, perhaps, but with a little common sense and good will on both sides, you wouldn't think this would inevitably lead to some desperate-stocking-up-on-ammo-and canned-goods-ahead-of-the-linguistic-apocalypse scenario.

But, you know, they might not be speaking English at all! In my hearing! On a train! And I might feel uncomfortable! And it's perfectly true that anxiety disorders can be a problem, although I'm told that it's easier to calm yourself down by breathing in to a count of seven and out to a count of eleven than by, say, insisting that every single person in the country must immediately switch to speaking in English at all times, in order to spare the feelings of anybody suffering from panic attacks, brought on by the sound of people recklessly not speaking English in a built-up area.

Nope, still doesn't sound like much of a problem to me.

So why do so many of the political class spend so much time talking up this and other immigration-related non-problems, especially when most ordinary people have far more pressing real problems to deal with?

The official explanation is that politicians are responding to people's real, understandable anxieties. Which would be enormously depressing, if true, as it would suggest that the average member of the public is some kind of incurable nitwit who can easily be distracted from his or her actual, serious problems by some annoyance so tiny as to be practically non-existent, like some insane paramedic, who, presented with an accident victim with the remains of one arm hanging on by a couple of tendons, notices, and chooses to prioritise, the issue of the patient's slight runny nose, rather than spending any time trying to stabilise the almost-severed-limb situation.

Although there may be a few incurable nitwits out there, you don't have to be too paranoid to notice that it's certain well-established politicians, journalists and think tanks who are are keenest to start this nitwit-friendly "conversation" and to carry it on loudly and incessantly. Or to wonder why they might want to direct voters' attention and anger towards made-up or trivial annoyances and away from the sort of actual problems that could be fixed, but only at the risk of upsetting the vested interests of Important People (real and corporate) who do very nicely, thank you, out of the staus quo and whose loyalty to the established order, or donations to party funds would be sorely missed.

Any ideas?