The advantage of migrants not learning English
There’s been plenty of coverage of Ed Milband’s speech on ‘cultural integration’ in Tooting today, and I don’t intend to repeat stuff. For the record, I agree that it was an attempt at celebrating cultural diversity, along with some decent enough policy points about protecting migrants from some of the worst excesses of capitalism. I still don’t see how the labour movement can really claim the high ground on how we all live together until it confronts once and for all its shameful institutionally racist past, which helped create the divisions of today, but that’s another post (here’s one I wrote earlier). As it stood, it was on ok speech.
But this bit was strangely strawman-like:
Where there are Home School Agreements, English language learning should be included. Which too often doesn’t happen at the moment. That would ensure that both schools and parents share the responsibility for helping foreign-born children learn how to speak English.
Is Ed Miliband really suggesting that there’s a substantial number of parents out there who are keen to stop their children learning English at school – children who can only be saved from a lifetime of English-free non-integration by making their parents sign a piece of paper which presumably they won’t be able to read anyway? If so, who and where are these people? Because the research I’ve seen about migrant parents’ attitude to their children’s education suggests quite the opposite of what Miliband appears to be suggesting is going on.
For example, Haleh Afshar’s research back in the 1980s found that:
Muslim women in West Yorkshire, like their male counterparts, place an inordinate trust in the ability of the educational system to act as a means of delivering their children from the drudgery of poverty. Although in practice there is not enough evidence to support their optimism, women of all backgrounds, regardless of their own levels of educational achievement, seek to promote their children within the school and further educational systems and are increasingly doing so for their daughters as well as their sons.
And later (2002), Tahir Abbas found in his study of Asian families in Birmingham that, while social class may play a part in attitudes to the importance of education:
In general, both parents and their children are convinced in their enthusiasm for educational achievement, with research continuing to show the importance of parenting to secondary schooling.
If Asian and Muslim communities – arguably the broad group in Britain most demonized as separating themselves off from the ‘mainstream’ – are so keen for their children to participate and succeed in school (for which presumably a grasp of English is necessary), what other groups are out there actively denying their children access to the lingua franca? Is Miliband suggesting that ‘foreign-born’ children are affected by a a whole new set of attitudes from parents which don’t seem to be held by earlier migrants? I just don’t get it.
But perhaps I’m being too pernickety. Perhaps Miliband was merely seeking to point out the importance of newly arrived parents learning English as quickly as possible so that they can help their kids out at school, so that those kids get over the barrier of a late start and catch up as best they can. That would sound much more reasonable.
Oddly, though, the research doesn’t seem to support such a thesis. On the contrary, the research that has been done (in the US) on children of migrant families who learn English while their parents don’t suggests that their role as ‘language brokers’ is a significant factor driving their educational achievement. Dorner et al (2007), for example*, studied ”the regularity with which the children of mostly Mexican immigrants in Chicago interpret languages and cultural practices for their families”, and found that:
[S]uch “language brokering” is related to academic outcomes. Using data collected from a subset of children (n=87) longitudinal regression models, which controlled for early school performance, showed that higher levels of language brokering were significantly linked to better scores on fifth- and sixth-grade standardized reading tests………The practice of language brokering that we have identified has not received much attention from educational researchers seeking to boost students’ achievement. And yet it is a literacy and numeracy practice that takes place every day in the homes of immigrant families, and it is one that may have measurable payoffs for children’s school successes across a range of subject areas. While not all language brokering situations may have uniformly positive benefits—and earlier research has demonstrated the trade-offs between cognitive and psychosocial costs and benefits—standardized test score gains may indeed occur for the children of immigrants who accomplish deep and varied brokering tasks.
This, I suggest, is more than an esoteric research point. It suggests that significant numbers of children coming into schools and not just learning English for themselves but using their new language to help their families navigate through their new lives in Britain might, if the proper teaching resources are in place to help, actually be beneficial for educational standards overall, with native-born children carried along in the wake of these growing competencies and life skills. It even provides one partial explanation, dare I say, for the impressive surge in the achievement across London’s very diverse schools (p.18 of report), which, as Chris Cook at the FT has pointed out, is difficult to attribute entirely to improvements within the schools themselves (though this is undoubtedly important).
In short, maybe immigration is making for a cleverer country. Even the Daily Mail might have trouble arguing that that’s a bad thing.
That is not to argue, of course, that we should be actively seeking to deny parents access to English tuition so that their children can grow into even more rounded, talented people than they will be anyway. That would be pretty stupid, given the other advantages that having parents who can communicate freely in their new country will bring.
But it is to point out that, sometimes, this stuff about ‘cultural integration’, and the creation of a problem just so that Ed Miliband can offer the papers a thoroughly New Labour, managerial solution (Home School Agreements for Gawd’s sake), might not actually be a very good idea, and that a wholesale defence and celebration of immigration, in the interests of the (One) Nation, might actually end up being a winner, if Labour has the balls for it.
* For more, see also Halgunseth, L. (2003). Language brokering: Positive developmental outcomes. In M. Coleman & L. Ganong (Eds.), Points and Counterpoints: Controversial relationship and family issues in the 21st century: An anthology (pp. 154-157). Los Angles, CA: Roxbury.