Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Language matters

Earlier this year, while I was studying part-time for my MA in Applied Linguistics, I attended a lecture by a well-known feminist linguist who has a chair at Oxford.  It was shortly after Nigel Farage had described travelling on a train through South East London and hearing no English spoken.  The lecturer’s response was to sneer, whipping up laughter from the audience.  She also sneered at Labour’s commitment to ensure new immigrants could speak English.  ‘I hear different languages every day I walk across Gloucester Green, hwa hwa,’ she scoffed.

A student put his hand up.  A former factory worker, he said he was funding his PhD, by returning to his home in the north to do shifts at the factory.  He admitted to the feeling of alienation Farage had described because most of his former workmates had left and had been replaced by a workforce made up of East Europeans.  They didn’t speak English so he was unable to have conversations with fellow-workers.  He put it in linguistic terms: ‘I don’t feel part of the in-group any more.  I find it quite hard.’

The student’s assertion caused a problem for the academic.  He had all the credentials she would endorse: a working-class lad, paying his university fees by hard graft in a factory …but here he was sounding like Nigel Farage!  She hesitated and you could sense her computing how to deal with his point.  Then she did what most politicians do: she acknowledged his ‘interesting experience’ and moved on.  In other words, she fudged it.

There is no doubt that the lack of English among shop workers, waiters and even staff at university libraries can be infuriating when we go about our busy lives in London.  This isn’t racism or – more properly – xenophobia.  It’s just another hindrance, like delays on the Northern line.  However, it can lead to people feeling alienated – part of the out-group.  The way to address expressions of alienation isn’t to sneer; sneering leads to people suppressing their annoyance - and articulating their feelings at the ballot box.

After the lecture I had a conversation with the PhD student who had described his ‘out-group’ feelings.  We agreed that sneering at people’s sense of alienation would simply deliver them into the arms of UKIP which none of us wanted.  That was in March.  Seven months later, it looks as though we’ve been proved right. 

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