20 Jan 2014

English lessons for immigrants – too slow, too expensive


Should immigrants be forced to learn English? Somali-born reporter Jamal Osman’s struggle to understand our language saw him engaging with some unlikely allies to make his way in the UK.

Lesson in progress (Getty)

“Speak English or lose benefit,” is the latest policy in the increasingly strident immigration debate.

It seems politicians enjoy talking about immigrant communities.

For me, all the talk about learning English brought back some old memories.

When I came to this country in 1999, my English wasn’t up to scratch. Communicating with the British public and working in an English-speaking environment was really tough.

So I developed a strategy in which I would answer “OK” or “yes” to anything people asked me. Simply, I didn’t want to sound negative or refuse orders from my bosses, and end up losing my job.

The dangers of saying ‘yes’, prime minister:

However, it was a risky approach.

There were several incidents that put me off using the words eventually. Here is the most memorable one.

I used to work in a furniture warehouse in West London. My job description was picking, packing, loading and unloading. English language was a minor requirement.

It was one of my first jobs in the country. And as a newly arrived asylum seeker with families to support back home, I was desperate for money. My work ethic wasn’t an issue.

But my colleagues, who were mainly British boys, were giving me hard time. Due to my lack of English, I became their laughing stock.

I say boys because they were teenagers, school-dropouts and ill disciplined. They were badly behaved towards others. They were not the best representatives of British society.

One afternoon, one of the bad boys called Scot, crashed into railings while driving a forklift. He didn’t have the licence to operate the machine. As a result of the crash, he damaged expensive chairs and tables. Three of us saw the incident, including two other British baddies.

Poor pensioners were desperate for someone to talk to them and I was happy to learn the language Jamal Osman

As we were finishing our shift, the manager checked around the huge warehouse, as he did at the end of everyday. I saw him walking around but I carried on my work until I heard Scot calling my name. He said something but, though I wasn’t very far away, the only thing I understood was my name. But anyway my answer was the usual: “yes”.

Once I finished the shift, the manager called me and said something to me. I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about, yet my answer was “OK”. The manager and I never had a thorough discussion. That would have exposed my language skills, or lack of them.

I came back the following morning and started my shift as normal. Despite being there for few months, the manager didn’t realise how bad my English was. Perhaps, my self-imposed quietness and my positive attitude policy, to say okay and yes to anything and everything, gave him a false impression that my English was okay.

But while I might not have understood him for certain, I suspected he was somewhat angry with me. And I made the effort to double and triple the OK-yes to please him. But this time OKs and yeses were not enough to make him happy.

In my spare time I would get the yellow pages book and call the free numbers Jamal Osman

“Jamal,” he said, as he ordered me to follow him to his office. Even at this stage, I was not sure what was wrong.

He went back into the vast warehouse and few minutes later came back with Andrew, a Zimbabwean colleague, who worked in a different department. My then manager was one of those people who think all Africans speak the same language.

Andrew was certainly good at non-verbal communication.

They led me to the aisle where Scot had caused the damage. “This,” Andrew said, pointing to the railings, “you,” pointing to my chest and moving his hands to simulate driving “booommmm?”

“No, no, no…” I replied without hesitation.

“Ahhaaaa,” said, the manager.

Andrew repeated the same instruction and this time I said: “Wallaahi,” meaning “I swear to God”, as if I was talking to a fellow Somali. In the end, they got my message and after an internal investigation Scot was sacked.

Too slow, too expensive

That experience taught me to work hard on my language skills.

But doing through conventional ways and sitting in a classroom was not ideal. I could not afford the time commitment and the cost of good English courses. It would have meant working less, earning less and spending more. That was not a reasonable option. Sending money to my family in Somalia was the priority.

I found a solution to improve my English, with very little interruption to my life.

I my spare time I would get the yellow pages book and call the free numbers. Often, the sales people, keen on selling products, would talk as long as you kept the conversation going.

Different businesses use different terminology and that helped me learn a few more words. There were many mistakes on the way, but if the person was not face-to-face then it was easy to deal with them.

When I ran into unknown territory, I used to say: “sorry, I must go.”

I learned that phrase from an insurance sales person, who realised he was getting nowhere with his attempt to sell.

Talking to to charity fundraisers on high streets was another way of improving my English (now I cross onto the other side of the road when I see them). Again, everyone is a potential donor and they will do their best to convince people to donate money. This offered me face-to-face conversation and I was able to ask lots of questions.

Proper English

Elderly people at my local library were also very useful.

Poor pensioners were desperate for someone to talk to them and I was happy to learn the language. They used to read newspapers for me and explain in detail. Some were telling me their younger days.

What I liked about them was that they speak proper English – much better than the British teenagers at the warehouse. It was a win-win situation.

A few years later, I was able to pay the course fee and was ready to sit in a classroom. My circumstances had changed.

Remember immigrants have priorities in life, like everyone else.

If, for some reason, learning English language isn’t possible for them at them moment, then they should not be forced. It’s just putting more pressure on people who already have enough problems to deal with.

Let them do it in their own time.

Follow @JamalMOsman on Twitter