‘Integration – I think I’m very good with it, I think,’ Ana, one of the participants of my ethnographic research into migrant language education (Zschomler 2020), exclaimed enthusiastically. We were just about to finish a more in-depth interview during which she had been telling me a lot about her rich experience of migration and language, including her unforeseen migratory trajectory over the course of her life from Russia to Latvia to Sweden and now to the UK. As we came to talk about ‘integration’, Ana became invigorated; after pausing for a little while, she sat upright in her chair, slightly leaned forward and, looking at me intently, made the above statement. I was struck by her confident declaration and curious to hear more and, as she was taking a deep breath, I was assured that I wouldn’t have to wait long. She laughed a bit before she continued with: ‘I tell you why’. One of the main reasons, she explained to me, was that she was always invested in learning the local/national language which she felt was the duty of every migrant to do as quickly as possible after coming to a new country. As she explained, ‘For example, when I was living in Sweden, I worked in Denmark for 12 years and I learnt the Danish language … I lived in many countries, but I always learn language – in Latvia, in Sweden and then I start work in Denmark, I travel there every day and I learn language […] now I’m in England because my daughter is here but I learn English […] maybe I go back Sweden, I don’t know but I learn English now.’ A bit later, she further explained how this distinguishes her from others: ‘I’m always after language, I’m not like, like, hhmm, in Sweden so many people come now but don’t learn, bad, bad, very bad … many people coming somewhere and just think what can I take, but what you can give?’
By no means do I want to negate or diminish the manifold advantages of speaking and acquiring the language/s of the place where one migrates or seeks refuge. What I would like to draw attention to here is how Ana’s attitude and aspirations of ‘integrating’ through learning the language wherever she goes allows her to position herself as ‘good migrant’ or ‘model immigrant’ as opposed to those who apparently don’t – who she criticises as being ‘bad, bad, very bad’.
Ana’s way of narrating her own ‘success story of integration’ through her disposition of always investing in the language was very common among my interlocutors and has also been noted by other researchers (see for example Cederberg 2014). It is also very much in line with popular and political discourses on the issue of migrant integration across many European countries and the UK. Regarding the latter, influential publications and policy documents (Casey 2016; APPG Social Integration 2017a; 2017b) are unanimous in their view of language being ‘the key’ to successful integration and full participation in society. They lay out the expectation that migrants should have either learnt the language before coming to the country or be made to do so as soon as possible after arrival. They even go so far as to assert that ‘no one should be able to live in our country for a considerable length of time without speaking English’ (APPG Social Integration, 2017b: 66).
Such statements and indeed the general language learning for integration rhetoric are problematic! What they reveal is how language and language learning have become heavily interwoven with questions of migration control and citizenship, including who can be considered as ‘good’ migrant or potential citizen and claim the right to belong. What they tend to conceal is any acknowledgement of wider structural issues, exclusionary mechanisms, and inequalities that impact and shape the often precarious lives and realities of migrants and refugees on a day-to-day basis. These realities often make it very difficult to ‘integrate’ or to even access language learning opportunities. Instead, personal responsibility and individual power, agency, and effort to acquire the language are foregrounded. The effect is that those who seemingly ‘fail’ or are deemed ‘unwilling’ to ‘integrate’ may be blamed, shamed and othered – for ‘not integrating’ and instead leading ‘segregated’ lives, for not being economically productive or socially mobile due to a ‘lack’ of English, for being a ‘drain on the system’ for example when in need of a translator, and so forth – often leading to the scapegoating of particular groups and repeating a cycle of stigmatization. This means that instead of tackling wider structural issues and inequalities, attention is directed towards those who are perceived as problematic. This comes at the expense of forsaking possibilities of solidarity and showing empathy for others.
These discourses and dynamics have a massive impact on the lived experience of those who have come to the UK to set up a new life here. In the research I was conducting with a heterogenous group of adult migrants it was evident that this casting of blame and shame and the drawing of boundaries and divisions between those who are considered ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘willing’ or ‘unwilling’, ‘deserving’ or ‘undeserving’ not only happens from the top down but also amongst those affected – in this case my participants. Many times, my interlocutors seemed to uncritically draw upon and reproduce the ‘language learning for integration’ rhetoric. They went to great lengths to portray themselves as ‘good’, ‘willing’, ‘deserving’ whilst dis-identifying from those they considered problematic or ‘bad’, in a similar vein to Ana above. Some suggested the government take more punitive measures against those who did not succeed in acquiring English and curtail their welfare, as they felt this ‘failure’ to learn the language rendered these others ‘underserving’ of such support, measures which are currently not government policy in the UK, but which have been discussed in the past. However, this marking of difference, drawing of symbolic divisions, and apparent complicity with a culture of blame and shame was by no means straightforward and often happened in contradictory ways. As I argue in my research and as other researchers have done as well (Back & Sinha 2018; Jones et al. 2017), these processes need to be seen as part of my interlocutors’ own complex struggles for recognition, legitimacy, and the right to belong particularly in the face of an often acute awareness of their own precarious position and in the context of hostile environment policies, heightened inequality, and a diminished welfare state. Suzanne Hall (2017) has poignantly described this as a ‘brutal migration milieu’ which leads to ever more competition between individuals and groups.
To conclude, the promotion of English as a marker of integration is intertwined with it being used as a yardstick against which migrant deservingness and the right to belong are measured. This leaves an imprint on the lived experience of migrants. The processes of casting blame and stigmatization operate in the space of everyday life between different migrants including language classrooms, as in the case of my research. However, I also found these dynamics were not only reproduced but also counteracted and resisted. To this end, critical accounts emerged which fractured dominant discourses and imaginations which disrupt the culture of blame and shame that often flows from them and which ‘rehumanise social relations’ as Hannah Jones and her colleagues (2017) put it. Thus, I argue that it would be more productive to shift from thinking about ‘language learning as the key to integration’ to ‘language learning for enriching solidarities in diversity’ and to put more emphasis on how to best leverage migrant language educational spaces as a catalyst for a supportive sociality from the bottom up.
Silke Zschomler is a post-doctoral fellow leading the project: ‘From ‘language learning as the key to integration’ to ‘language learning for enriching solidarities in diversity’
APPG Social Integration. (2017a). Interim report into integration of immigrants.
APPG Social Integration. (2017b). Final report into integration of immigrants.
Back, L., & Sinha, S. (2018). Migrant city. Abingdon: Routledge.
Casey, L. (2016). The Casey review: A review into opportunity and integration.
Cederberg, M. (2014). Public discourses and migrant stories of integration and inequality: Language and power in biographical narratives. Sociology, 48(1), 133–149.
Hall, S. M. (2017). Mooring “super-diversity” to a brutal migration milieu. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 40(9), 1562–1573.
Jones, H., Gunaratnam, Y., Bhattacharyya, G., Davies, W., Dhaliwal, S., Forkert, K., Jackson, E., & Saltus, R. (2017). Go home? The politics of immigration controversies. Manchester University Press.
Zschomler, S. (2020). Reimagining migrant language education from the bottom up: an ethnographic study (Doctoral thesis).