Tuesday, December 1, 2020
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Mark Ellse: Language is key to healing our society

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In 1881 Eliezer Ben-Yehuda immigrated into Palestine. As a linguist, particularly as a Hebrew scholar, thinking of the Jews scattered around the world, he realised that the defining characteristic of a nation is language. He developed modern Hebrew, the language that binds residents of Israel and Jews around the world together.

Such a view is obvious as soon as one thinks about it. The Welsh have, and really want, Welsh. The Basques are conscious of their separate identity because their first language is not Spanish.

One can see the reasons for the lumping of Sudetenland Czechs with the rest of Germany because most spoke German. Why does Russia lay claim to parts of Georgia and the Balkans? Because these areas have large Russian speaking populations.

Now, with both alacrity and perspicacity, our lords and masters think that this observation might have relevance to England (if I might use that name for the country I live in without being labelled loon or fruitcake). According to the Telegraph, imams are to be encouraged to deliver their sermons in English under measures being prepared to rid Britain of hate preaching.

It’s amazing when we think of it. How did they come up with the idea so quickly? But it’s not the first thought that is breathtakingly wise. Before long we could have a whole society in which we all know what each other is saying. No longer will we have problems like there used to be with Yasser Arafat, who spoke peace in English and war in Arabic.

Yes, we should define Britishness partly in terms of language spoken, not in nominal promotion of some ill-defined equality rights.

One can see it developing. If anyone comes here, they will have to demonstrate proficiency in English. The precedent has already been set. Uber drivers are required to have proficiency in English before they can do that job.

Of course it will cause problems. I love Italian opera and translations will be obligatory. As for Russian songs, I’ll have to know what Rachmaninov was setting.

The lycée and other language schools will be required to have most of their lessons in English. A reasonable figure might be 70 per cent. That leaves a perfectly adequate time for becoming fluent in another language.

We will need interim teaching of English to some for a few years but then, a decade down the road, anyone who wants to move to England will have to have a good standard of English. No more courts, doctor’s surgeries and citizen’s advice bureaux struggling to give advice in every language under the sun. Everything will be in English. Language, which at the moment divides, will soon unite us.

We don’t care what colour you are, whether gay or straight, what your religion is, the only thing that matters is that you speak good English. If you want Latin mass or Arabic Friday prayers the translation must be both spoken, projected and a written copy provided, with that and an audio recording submitted to Ofsted. (That will keep them off the teachers.) It will be a bit of a fiddle but in essence it is so simple, so clear and the benefits are so obvious.

If this is to be government policy, it needs our full support, for without doubt there will be opposition. One can only guess at the social media storm it would stir up.

(Image: Kirsty Hall)

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Mark Ellse
Mark Ellse is a physicist and author. He is a former headmaster, independent school inspector and A level chief examiner.

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