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Immigration and language fears – why the hype now?

It is an unavoidable topic these days – why is it that more immigrants do not speak English? The mere mention of policies regarding regulations on immigration in relation to English learning can send people into a frenzy, arguing that if people want to live in this country they should be able to speak the language. Others argue further about the availability of jobs and housing, whilst the tensions between people of different races and linguistic backgrounds rage.

From this description you might think that immigration is a new phenomena or at least that immigrants in past centuries became fluent in English instantly – not so. Looking back in history, waves of immigration can clearly be seen all over the world, not just in English speaking countries of course but everywhere. Surely these tensions have been felt by native inhabitants of any country that has received immigrants, yet looking at the news of late, you may be led to believe that current influxes and high numbers of non-English speakers signal the end of times for English speaking countries as we know them.

In counteracting this panic, we can look back to the years between 1840 and 1880 in America. German immigration hit a high at this time and German was easily heard throughout certain parts of the country as a main language in many communities. Did this language usage quickly die out? Replaced by efficient fluency in English? No, of course not. According to a paper by Miranda Wilkerson and Joseph Salmons, although the Great War put an obvious dampener on German speaking between 1914 and 1918, there were many monolingual German communities that survived decades after the arrival of immigrants. It can be established from research that this likely stemmed from a pride in one’s own language and heritage rather than a snub to English. Many parts of American life were adopted and sure enough English would have been learned by many immigrants but that did not counteract the importance of keeping the German heritage alive.

Is it not clear then that although there is often widespread theory lately that English could soon become a minority language – even in Britain – immigrants not speaking English in English speaking countries is not a new concept and perhaps the panic is unnecessary? How about ex-pats moving to Spain and speaking only English, how does that compare?

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About Sharon Stephens

Sharon Stephens is Operations Director of Lingua Translation. With a First Class Honours Degree in Translation and a University Lecturer in Translation (Masters), she is a self confessed language geek! Bringing the academic principles of translation and business together Sharon offers a quality-driven and needs centric translation and interpreting service - like no other.

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