Saturday, 16 October 2010

Do you speak-a my language?

A few days ago I was on a train out of Paddington towards Oxford on my way home, when I overheard an interesting conversation.

A few seats away from me, sat two young east European women, they couldn't have been older than 25. They were discussing their day, who said what, who did what, etc. Nothing out of the ordinary, except they were struggling to speak in English. I of course assumed English was the only common language they had - they were probably from different countries.

A middle-aged Asian man sat opposite them, ogling at them, wishing he was a couple of decades younger and some 25 kilos lighter. I didn't think he was paying any attention to their conversation, but then he interrupted, "Excuse me, where are you from?" He sounded like James Caan from the Dragon's Den.

The girls weren't surprised, nor did they pull a face and ignore him. Instead one of them replied, "We are from Lithuania."

"Oh, that's nice. Both of you?"


"I'm an English teacher in Reading."

Okay, he wasn't ogling. Nor was he wishing he was younger and lighter. Something had caught his attention - the same thing that caught mine. He continued, "You are obviously finding it difficult to talk in English, so I thought you were from different countries and English was the only common language between you."

I turned my Kindle off and tuned in with my full attention.

"Oh no, we speak many languages - Rashan (Russian), some German, some Polish, and Lithuanian."

"I'm curious, why struggle with English when you can speak in your mother tongue?"

"We try to speak English so it can become better."

"That's very impressive. I wish some of my students would do that. Did your teacher ask you to do that?"

"No, but all Lithuanians coming to London speak in English as much as possible. We try not to speak Lithuanian or we will not learn."

And at that point we'd reached my stop. I got off, smiling at the man I had wronged. I think he suspected what I was thinking because he scowled back.

Walking home I was thinking about this little exchange. "All Lithuanians coming to London speak as much English as possible. We try not to speak Lithuanian or we will not learn."

10 years of working with large numbers of immigrants, living in a community that is so insular and isolated, with levels of integration close to zero, I couldn't help comparing ourselves with the east Europeans. Admittedly, we have a strong work ethic, but it's about far more than that. Adapting, learning, integrating, assimilating have a lot to do with the way you behave, the way you conduct yourself and who your friends are.

I often joke that after 10 years of living in England, I would expect my dog to bark in English. Unfortunately many people I love and care about don't get it. Not because it's hard, but because they don't care, don't need to, don't want to and the laws of the land don't require them to.

Sadly, the only people reading about this little episode and my thoughts on it will be the ones who don't need the lesson contained in it. This more than anything else has led to the fragmentation of society, creation of ghettos and no-go areas and fed the general contempt people have for others not within their culture. A common language is a unifying force for any country. Somehow our politicians and leaders have forgotten that regardless of where we come from, we are one nation, and if we are going to be this one nation, there has to be something that binds us together.

There is a lot more that unites us than what divides us. I wish I could spread this message further.