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Why Don’t they Speak English?

Immigration is a hot topic, regardless of where you sit with the Immigration debate, you often hear this phrase or something to this effect, especially in media headlines[1] that “they” (referring to foreigners or the others) should make an effort to learn our language.

In August 2017, I accompanied a service user to enrol on a College ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) class. We were told to get to the college super early in order to ensure we would get on to the correct level of ESOL class. So, we arrived at the College at 6.30 am, only to find a group of people who had already gathered at the closed gates of the college. Some of them had been there since 2am.  We were pointed to a gentleman sat crossed legged on the floor near the College entrance. Wearing a big woolly coat, he looked like he had been their all night. He took our names and told us we were number 94.  It appeared the group of people had organised themselves to ensure people are seen in the order they have arrived. Brilliant idea I thought, however as more people started to arrive, I wondered whether this self-regulation of the queue would actually work.

We waited patiently for 3 hours.

Finally, someone from the College came to the gates. There was an enormous rush. Me and the service user were left behind, stood squashed in a large group, everyone pushing slightly forward. I observed the faces of those I stood with and I saw ‘determination’. It made me reflect on my own privilege. I had never been through such struggle to access any education. I doubted that I would have this level of grit and determination if I had to.

I was relieved that the list taken by the gentlemen was used by the College official. We waited while they called out numbers.   One by one people entered the College gates to join another queue.  Those that had arrived early but not early enough were not on the list. The official repeatedly shouted ‘those that are not in this list go to the back of the queue’.  People still did not move, I wondered whether they just hadn’t understood his English Accent.

The lady I was supporting suddenly grabbed my arm and whispered in a faint voice “I need to sit down”. I sat her on the floor, gave her water and asked if she was still OK to continue. With a long history of serious mental and physical health problems, this lady consistently misses any morning appointments as she struggles to get up. So, getting up at 5am was a small victory in itself and demonstrated how important it was for her to learn English.

My heart broke when a Sudanese lady stood behind me finally got to the front, only to be told her documents were not correct and so she would not be entitled to free classes. She didn’t shout or make a scene, as I might have done, but calmly and elegantly manoeuvred her pram away, still wearing her infectious smile. I felt a sense of injustice and was annoyed on her behalf. When another Arabic speaker waiting in the queue volunteered to interpret for me, the Sudanese lady confirmed she had understood and was going home and would return with the correct papers. I was astonished by her patience. Another lady cried when she was told as she is an asylum seeker she could not enrol. She pleaded with the official, stating she had been waiting since 4am. Unfortunately, the rules are the rules.

This experience left me with mixed feelings. I witnessed the sheer resilience of the human spirit, I saw how people persevered where I possibly would have given up.  My service user was the happiest I have ever seen her when she got on a course. I couldn’t help think about those that I had seen turned away.

Why don’t they speak English? This is the wrong question. My experience showed me people are motivated to learn English. Sadly, the system and limited provision of classes is the real barrier preventing people from learning English.

We run ESOL classes for any survivor, regardless of their immigration status. To find out how you could support these classes go to

Written by Neelam Banaris, Snowdrop Project Senior Caseworker.