Why Don’t You Speak English?

Sifa in Why Don't You Speak English?

Last night we watched Channel 4’s Why Don’t You Speak English? The story of four immigrants, who entered Britain over a year ago, from Poland, Colombia, China and the Democratic Republic of Congo, who have learnt very little English so far.  The Telegraph found it “patronising, dumbed-down, and sensationalised”.  Indeed it did start with a clip of Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech, but to place it on a par with Bank of Dave, The Man With 10-Stone Testicles or C4’s gypsy programmes, seems a little harsh.

Neil Midgely at the Telegraph would have preferred a focus on the actual language-learning process and detail why immigrants should learn English, and indeed assimilate into British society, suggesting that Channel 4 fought shy of doing so because that would challenge the prized left-wing dogma of mulitculturism.  Really?  Perhaps Channel 4 was just being a little too subtle by including a thoroughly assimilated English-speaking family of Indian heritage as the ordinary British family that hosted Agnieszka from Poland. 

Tom Melzer at the Guardian and Gerard Gilbert at the Independent were less scathing. The Guardian review helpfully highlighted the many pitfalls that lightly-briefed, well-meaning amateurs frequently topple into headfirst when trying to teach English, as well as the moments of genuine emotion.  The Independent focused as much on the entertainment as the educational elements of the programme – imagining Nigel Farrage beaming his approval as Fabian’s host held forth about immigrants “taking English jobs” and having “to look after our own first”.

The survey on Channel 4’s website that accompanies the programme appears to be designed to confirm that the UKIP stance is shared by the majority of viewers.  For instance 80% of respondents believe that immigration should be reduced and 78% that immigrants who can’t speak English should not be entitled to claim state benefits. There is no question about whether it’s fair to withhold benefits from people who have worked and paid taxes. As ever, there is no challenge to the misguided belief that it is easy for a new arrival to claim benefits even when in dire need. The question ‘All things considered, how much do you think watching a programme like this will change your attitude toward immigration in the long term?’ left us quite bemused.

We await next week’s programme (30 July) with bated breath. Will the learners’ English language continue to grow in fluency? Will Agnieska review her CV? Have Eileen and Steve learnt to say Apo, not Apple? Will the viewers’ prejudices be challenged or confirmed?