How language discrimination fuels the hostile environment

A hostile environment

In the aftermath of the Windrush scandal (when citizens who’d arrived in the UK from the Caribbean after the war later faced tough immigration rules that left some with no rights in the country) there’s been a great deal of discussion about the ‘hostile environment’ that was purposefully created by the government to persuade illegal immigrants to feel so unwelcome in the UK that they’d want to ‘go home’. The policy dictates that employers, landlords and even staff of the National Health Service (NHS) must insist on scrutinising people’s documentation before they can offer them their services, thus creating a bureaucracy-based surveillance system which uses paranoia as a deterrent.

A hostile environment of this sort isn’t simply restricted to bank checks and paperwork, of course. It’s an ideology that permeates society as a whole, stoked by the pronouncements of politicians and the media. It’s created through the promotion of attitudes which discriminate against others. And as with the actual policy, it doesn’t necessarily make a distinction between legal and illegal immigration – and is now also being increasingly felt by citizens from EU countries who have set up home in the UK legally under EU rules.

Much of the anti-immigration rhetoric that contributes to this hostile environment plays on explicitly racist ideas in the way that it stigmatises certain nationalities, and mocks characteristics which mark them out as different.

One notable way in which it does this is through what’s known as linguistic xenophobia: discriminating against people based on the way they speak or the language they use. For instance, in The Sunday Times at the end of last month, the columnist Rod Liddle wrote an anti-immigration opinion piece following news from the Office for National Statistics that the number of Romanians living in the UK had overtaken Irish and Indians to become the second most-common non-British community. This prompted Liddle to revisit the assertion from a few years ago of UKIP’s former leader Nigel Farage that British people would rather live next to a German family than a Romanian one. Refuting that this should be seen as racist, Liddle argued that “Germans were more likely to be in employment and speak English – both qualities we tend to like in neighbours”.

His central argument here is that it’s fine to discriminate against certain nationalities living (perfectly legally) in the country if their levels of English are poor. This, in turn, is based on the idea that to be a proper part of British society one must, by default, speak English. The trouble with this argument is that it’s founded on the patently false idea that the UK is, and has always been, a monolingual society, and that multilingualism is a problem rather than a boon to a rich and harmonious culture.


Some very basic facts show how misguided this is. The English language is not native to England, nor to the UK. It was imported from northern Europe in the 5th century, and it wasn’t used for government documents until 1430. The first British monarch to have English rather than French as his native language was Henry IV, who came to the throne in 1399. And as with a language such as Romanian, English has been greatly influenced by Latin, via the French. At present, the only official language in any part of the UK from a legislative point of view is Welsh in Wales.

This history of multilingualism in the UK continues to be the norm. 8% of the population in England and Wales reported in the 2011 census that their main language was something other than English, with a total of over 100 languages being spoken through the country.

Widening the context further, societies which have a single language are very much the exception around the globe. A report published by the British Academy in 2013 recorded that two-thirds of the world’s population are raised in multilingual environments. Although English is, today, the pre-eminent global language, it’s still only spoken by 6% of the world population as a native language. So the idea that a single language is a prerequisite for a harmonious society is simply wrong, and such remarks are thus a clear case of linguistic xenophobia.

There is a lot of evidence that there’s been a spike in this type of discrimination post-Brexit. There have been several reports of people being abused on the street simply because of the language they were speaking. There is also evidence that this sort of discrimination is particularly aimed at people from Eastern Europe.

The rhetoric in The Sunday Times opinion piece may not be an overt form of discrimination, but the purpose is still to mock and disparage. For instance, Liddle quotes the first economic migrant to arrive in the UK from Romania when EU regulations changed in 2014 as saying ‘I haf not come to rob your country’. Transcribing the speech in this way uses what’s known as ‘eye dialect’, a way of representing regional or non-native dialect by spelling words in non-standard ways. For example, you can write ‘I woz’ (meaning ‘I was’) or ‘he sez’ (‘he says’) – or in this case ‘I haf’ (‘I have’). In most cases, the non-standard spelling would be pronounced in exactly the same way as the standard spelling. But it flags up the fact that the speaker’s accent is different from the norm. As the linguist Mark Liberman writes, it’s not necessarily a racist technique for describing people, but “there are a lot of racists out there; and many of them use eye dialect as a focus for their feelings of disgust and hatred”.

In the end then, this is a form of discrimination against a group based on culture not behaviour, and carried out by means of mockery. And as rhetorical strategies go, this doesn’t help to advance the debate around immigration, but instead simply normalises a crude from of prejudice.


Dr Philip Seargeant, Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics in the Centre for Language and Communication at The Open University, Milton Keynes. @philipseargeant
Photo via Pixabay.