Difficulties with Language

… many new people have come to Northern Ireland. … One of the biggest problems for them is the language barrier – many can’t understand and speak English. … It is very difficult to get necessary information about benefits, legal issues, housing etc. Simple things, such as going to a doctor are not simple because they have to have interpreters. (In emergency cases it is especially difficult.) Helping children with their schoolwork is impossible. Finding a job in a new economic situation is a big achievement. Language problems have also impacted on their mental health and lots of newcomers are experiencing depression. It is not easy to make friends, so many feel very lonely. English-speaking people have treasures in their mouths that are so precious for people who came here recently. Every, even very small, conversation is like an English lesson and an encouragement to learn more.

Aneta Dabek, EMBRACE Development Worker, 2010

Many migrant workers already have excellent English. Other new migrants, however, are likely to be working below the level of their educational attainment and expertise because their English is not good enough. Accents and local dialects can add additional challenges.

In some traditional migrant populations, such as the Chinese communities, the older generations may have little English and this makes it difficult for them to integrate.

‘For some of us we don’t speak the same language as our parents – they speak better Cantonese than English and we speak better English than Cantonese.’ Young Black & Minority Ethnic Communities in Lisburn, SE E & L B, 2010

In 2009, Human Rights Commission researchers were concerned to find that Housing Executive officials using children as translators, although some realised that it was inappropriate.

Northern Ireland now has a regional translation service for the health service, and the equality obligations under Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act have encouraged public services to be conscious of the need for improvement. More efforts are being made to ensure minority-ethnic groups are not prevented from accessing services due to language barriers, and to inform them of the services available.

English Classes

One of the biggest difficulties is the cost of English classes and their content. Some employers run free classes for their employees and local authorities, support organisations, charities and churches also provide language and conversation classes. For most people, however, learning English is expensive and classes are often not available at times that can be fitted in around work. This effects employment potential as well as integration. A report in 2010 on European workers noted that: ‘Many work irregular hours in isolated locations and cannot access classes in universities or town centres, and work-focused language tuition is most likely to improve labour market prospects.’

In order to achieve settlement / citizenship, immigrants and refugees must prove that they have a good standard of English and the non-European spouses of UK citizens must also prove that they can speak English before they are allowed to live here.

Language and Refugees/People in the Asylum Process

For people seeking asylum, language barriers are a serious problem, as they can affect the outcome of their cases.

‘I didn’t understand the interpreter and because I didn’t speak English I couldn’t tell anyone. The interpreter wrote down that I was Ethiopian but I’m Eritrean. This has caused me a lot of problems.’ Submission by Nottinghamshire Refugee Forum to the Independent Asylum Commission

Access to affordable English classes is especially important to people seeking asylum, to assist them in coping with the asylum process. To bring Northern Ireland in line with the rest of the UK, the Department of Employment and Learning (DEL) began implementing a pilot scheme in 2012, allowing the small number of people seeking asylum here to access free classes. In 2016, it was agreed that people who got refugee status by application would (in the same way as the Syrian resettlement refugees under the VSR Scheme) be entitled to free ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Language) classes. There have also been developments in the availability of pre-ESOL classes for people at a very early stage of their learning.

See here to find out more about ESOL classes.