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Value everyone, and every culture

PUBLISHED: 10:29 26 June 2006 | UPDATED: 11:05 22 October 2010

There is much talk about the importance of learning English for people who settle in this country and I fully agree with that, but I got an interesting other 'angle' on this question when I spoke to a lawyer whose parents had come to this country from the Indian subcontinent.

There is much talk about the importance of learning English for people who settle in this country and I fully agree with that, but I got an interesting other 'angle' on this question when I spoke to a lawyer whose parents had come to this country from the Indian subcontinent.

In the course of our conversation I asked what language he had grown up with. “English is my only language”, he said, with a touch of sadness.

I'm certain that his parents had the very best intentions when they taught him only English, but couldn't they have spoken their native language as well, so that he learnt both?

Of course it's essential to learn the language of your adopted country, but would we not be the poorer in this country, if English was the only language that anyone spoke?

On the other hand, at least the lawyer could communicate with most others in Britain. There are those who never really acquire a working knowledge of English and who therefore become isolated from the rest of the population, who in turn see them as 'outsiders'.

These are the two extremes, either 'ditching' the language spoken in the country of origin or staying in a linguistic ghetto, isolated from the majority of the population. Isn't there another choice?

Yes, there certainly is: That of keeping one's original language and acquiring adequate English. However, learning good English depends very much on contact with English people, as well as the obvious language courses. It also depends on English-speaking people having the patience to speak with the new-comers, while showing respect for their native language and culture.

In my parish in Norwich there is now a large number of people from other countries who work here. Some of these speak excellent English, others hardly any, but they are all part of the parish community, so it's important to try to make contact with them. How does one go about that?

In my case, I try to smile and say hello to the people at church who have as yet only got about 'two' words of English! With the ones who have a few more words, it is surprising how much of a conversation one can have, simply by rephrasing and using a bit of imaginative sign language! Or even asking, “What is your word for…?” and then trying to pronounce it!

Such conversations break down barriers and make for understanding of the other person's situation. I have learnt a lot from talking to a Lithuanian I now see at mass.

On the other hand, it is important to create opportunities for various nationalities to meet together and use their own language, both to talk to each other and to pray together. In the Roman Catholic Diocese of East Anglia foreign language masses include those in Italian, Polish and Portuguese.

These masses, and the meals that often follow, are much appreciated by the various groups, but I think it is also good for the various national groups to attend mass in the language of their adopted country. What is more, the presence of so many nationalities at mass has added a new dimension to our Sunday worship.

Learning English is not only a sign that people from other countries, who have settled here, want to integrate, but an essential means of communication between all people in this country. But integration means fitting in and becoming part of the country you are in, not ditching what you already have.

We cannot expect the miracle of Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit, when everyone listening to the Apostles' preaching heard them speak in their own language, to be repeated in everyday life. But we can let the Spirit of God's Love inform the way we relate to people from other countries. If we do this, then the process of understanding each other will begin long before we have a language in common. We will have laid the foundations not only for a shared culture and a shared language, but also for openness to the different languages and cultures that many inhabitants of this country grew up with.

Such openness to others is at the heart of the message preached at Pentecost and by Christians ever since. The Christian message is not about making everybody the same, as the lawyer's parents had sadly thought, but about valuing everybody exactly as they have been created, and that includes the language and cultures of their native countries.


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