In a move calculated to make immigrants learn English faster, the British government wants everyone to translate less. Insisting that translation makes it too easy for newcomers to avoid learning the language that put the great into Great Britain, Hazel Blears, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, is asking hospitals, the police, courts, and local governments not to translate anything unless it’s absolutely necessary. And when they do translate something, Blears wants it done with pictures accompanied by English captions.
Pointing to Polish road signs on English streets, and all sorts of government reports published in 10 languages when no one even reads the English version, Blears complained that translation is a waste of money.
Polish road signs dot the English countryside because Polish drivers tend to ignore or misunderstand the English ones. Opponents of translation argue that nonanglophones shouldn’t get special treatment since English-speaking drivers ignore the signs as well.
But critics of the new policy complain that the Labour government speaks with forked tongue, because even though it hopes to save £100 million a year on translation services, the government is also reducing opportunities for immigrants to enroll in free English classes. After all England, like the U.S., another country trying to cut down on foreign language expenses, has a war in Iraq to pay for.
The ebb and flow of language into Britain is nothing new. England has been exporting language to the rest of the world for centuries – though some of the former colonies might argue that “exporting” is too gentle a way to describe what England did to them. Now that the sun has set, the empire is striking back, and non-English-speaking immigrants with British passports, along with citizens of the European Community, guest workers, and tourists, are all flocking to the sceptered isle and bringing their words with them.
But this isn’t the first time that England’s green and pleasant land has been overrun by language. The Viking invasion of the 8th century and the Norman invasion in the 11th brought a massive infusion of foreign words into English, and by the time the Renaissance reached England, the English were copying words so fast and furiously from their European neighbors that the vocabulary of English had become more continental than native.
Borrowing words from other languages has given English the largest vocabulary of any of the world’s languages, but instead of welcoming the chance to double the size of its dictionaries once again, English speakers in England are fast joining their American cousins, hoping against hope that the way to shut down immigration is to shut down immigrant languages.
But that won’t work, because no matter what the xenophobes say, immigrants in England and the U.S. are learning English. Maybe the adults don’t pick up English as fast as the authorities would like, but the children do. A report by the Pew Hispanic Center finds that while only 23% of Spanish-speaking immigrants to the United States speak English very well, 88% of their adult children are fluent in English, and most prefer it both at work and at home. There's no reason to suppose that other immigrant groups are switching to English any less energetically.
Translation services ease the transition as immigrants learn English, but the British ban on translation poses some obvious problems. A doctor won't understand a non-English-speaking patient any better if the patient is forced to use cartoons and gestures to communicate. As John Oliver has said in his poignant critique of official English on the Daily Show, you can point to your broken arm, but what gestures do you use to tell a doctor you’re allergic to penicillin? A non-English-speaking victim of a crime won’t have much luck describing a perp to Scotland Yard detectives who don’t happen to speak Urdu or Japanese. And of course children in school will find themselves falling farther behind in their lessons if they have no bilingual support, even though they’re soaking up English as fast as they can.
Taking the translation ban to its extreme, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the official government-sponsored Church of England, is reportedly considering whether to make the faithful read the Bible in its original languages – not the King James version or the Latin bible that preceded it, but the original Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew. That’s not likely to draw many converts.
Secretary Hazel Blears, who loves English, tap dancing, and classic Italian motorbikes, poses with one of her bikes. Under her no-translation policy, she will ignore any Polish road signs that she encounters on her way to Downing Street.
Plus the goal of forcing everyone to speak the local language could wind up making the government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown, already rocked by scandal, even less popular, because English isn’t actually native to England. Speakers of Celtic and Pictish were in Britain first, and even the Romans set up outposts in England and spoke Latin there long before the Angles, Saxons and Jutes journeyed from Europe to colonize the British Isles, bringing with them the language that would eventually be called English.
It turns out that, even in England, English was a colonial language. While there aren’t any Pictish or Cornish speakers left to enforce a no-translation-into-English policy on the intruding anglophones, there are a few Scottish nationalists around who might be more than happy to tell the English to go back where they came from unless they’re willing to start speaking Scots Gaelic, or Gaidhlig, down at the local.