Vietnamese can easily learn English fast and become fluent speakers
There are plenty of people in Vietnam for whom even basic English is a problem. This is also a problem in United Kingdom. According to the Census, 726,000 people in England and Wales said they could not speak English well, and another 138,000 said they did not speak it at all.
Ling, 40, who arrived five years ago from China, found it difficult to learn English. “When I came here I was pregnant and so I was at home for the next three years. It took me longer to learn as I was very busy with the children.”
Eventually she was able to begin taking classes and now speaks good conversational English.
But even with classes, it can be a long process to pick up the language.
There are a number of systems for grading English. The government expects immigrants to reach “ESOL Entry 3” or “B1 level”, also called “Intermediate 1” in Scotland, before they can be granted citizenship. It’s equivalent to being able to hold a confident conversation and – although the government does not have a target figure – it might take 360 hours of study to achieve.
George Osborne said in June following the spending review that welfare claimants who don’t speak English will have their benefits cut if they fail to attend language courses.
On Tuesday, a Channel 4 documentary – Why Don’t You Speak English? – looks at four immigrants who have struggled with English since arriving a year ago spend a week living with a family in the UK.
Pub manager Freddy Sipson who hosted Fabian, a Colombian immigrant for the Channel 4 programme, says his charge made progress but it would take much longer than a week. “When he came he spoke pidgin English. He improved over the week. In two or three months, if he was in the right environment I’d say he’d be capable of having a good conversation and getting himself around.”
Huan Japes, deputy chief executive of English UK, a trade body for language colleges, says a rule of thumb is 360 hours – 120 hours for each of three stages – to get to the standard the government expects benefit claimants to reach.
But many of the people who attend courses are visiting students rather than people settling in the UK. Immigrants tend to have very varied levels of education.
“Using 120 hours [for each stage of English fluency] is a rather traditional approach to course book learning,” says Dr Elaine Boyd, head of English language at Trinity College London. “If someone is really highly motivated, they can learn really quickly. It’s common for children under the age of 11 to be very immersed and be fluent in about six months.”