Following the announcement that jobseekers will have benefits cut if they don’t learn English, Professor Peter Kruschwitz debates the essential role of linguistic skills
Jobseekers who don’t learn English may have their benefits cut, David Cameron and work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith announced this week. Cameron is quoted as saying: “We’re saying that if there’s something you need to help you get a job, for instance being able to speak English and learn English properly, it should be a requirement that you do that study in order for you to receive your benefits.”
Whether or not one agrees with Cameron’s punitive rather than rewarding measures to enforce employability, this is a remarkable statement. The media have largely focused on the impact of this statement on migrants. However, it would appear that this policy also covers natives whose language skills are not up to scratch.
It would be perverse to argue that, in a modern society, one could leave it at individuals’ liberty to learn the majority language. It is an essential skill, enabling individuals not only to survive, but to participate and engage constructively in political, social, cultural, and economic life. In that respect, the measure seems politically reasonable, even if the form of enforcement may seem questionable.
However, there are further issues at stake here, and these tend to get lost in this important debate. It may be a commonplace, but it is true regardless: language means power. In this case, the debate at first glance focuses on the fact that a lack of language skills means a lack of economic power – poor language skills mean a reduced employability. Read more.