As anyone who has moved to a foreign country for a short, or long, spell knows trying to live somewhere without speaking the language is like trying to watch television from underwater. You really only get half of the picture.
That’s why learning to the speak the language of the country you live in is so important, and why most people who settle in Britain permanently are desperate to improve their English, if it is not their first language.
At a recent Spectator immigration debate at the Royal Geographical Society, there was general agreement from most of the panel of the need and importance of migrants to Britain to learn English.
And most refugees and other migrants are desperate to do just that.
Lecturer Jo Thorp has written on this blog about the life-changing moments for students in her English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) classes. Her students, she said, included: “Somali students whose war-ravaged youth had deprived them of schooling, to a young woman from Romania who had been trafficked to the UK to work in the sex industry and her younger sister who she had helped avoid the same fate; a father whose young children were growing up in Iran while he tried to build a life here so that they could be reunited and Congolese students tired in the class after doing early morning cleaning shifts in city offices.
HCC ESOL Student VOICES booklet shows the transformational impact learning English can have, and the social and economic benefits for both the individual, and society.
One student said learning English was the key “to getting a job and having a brighter future”, while another spoke of the joy of being able to speak to a GP without a translator.
But changes in eligibility for ESOL courses mean the majority of students who want to take the courses cannot afford to do so.
Teachers of ESOL say for many of their students it is attending classes that is the first step in meeting people of other backgrounds, and for many it is a massive step towards feeling much more part of Britain.
Many of those new arrivals do not have enough money to pay for English classes, and are unable to work or mix with other communities because of those language difficulties, but much of the funding for ESOL classes has been cut. The question ahead for policy makers is how that group of people, who benefit greatly, can now learn English without that funding. Money is tight and services are being cut, we are all aware of that, but there needs to be a litmus test of whether this is a vital services that brings our communities together and improves the nation’s chances to build a better future.
The government’s recent statement on integration is a recognition of the need to start a new, more informed debate on all our people having aspiration to be part of a bigger story about Britain.
Communities Secretary Eric Pickles is right to think that there is a need to talk about what unites people in this country. There is a tendency to moan about the present, to escape into a nostalgia not based on fact, and to talk about the divisions, not the strengths.
The activities around the Olympics and the Jubilee also have the power to bring many people together, and to open doors across roads where friendships can start. As the recent television programme show What Makes Bradford British showed, once people get to know their preconceptions and fears are often overturned.
It is all too easy to focus on the negatives, even in our sense of humour, but one of the memorable things about the Sydney Olympics was how it appeared to sweep every Australian into wave of enthusiasm about being part of it, and give being Australian a boost.
It is perfectly possible that the London Olympics can do the same, if we see it as an exceptional moment to enjoy, and one that shows that modern Britain is a welcoming and positive place.
Read more of our articles on the Olympics and national identity:
Olympic games is not an Anglocentric affair
Humour is great part of British Olympics
The real Olympic opening ceremony?
Olympic bosses should not let mad branding rules hit Games fever
Fans at Olympics say good chance for “everyone to come together”
Olympic torch journey has touched many hearts
Or watch our Olympic interviews and videos:
British Future director Sunder Katwala at the very first Olympic event of 2012
British Future at the Olympics’ first day
British Future interviews crowd at first match of Olympic Games
British Future interview with football fans at Olympic Games match in Cardiff