By Dr Smita Ray
Challenges and opportunities for Gujarati women learning English is my research which focuses on the language learning experiences, aspirations and changing identities of South Asian women in the UK. It was an attempt to understand the complexities of language learning, power and difference underpinned by race, gender, age and class by exploring language learning experiences of a sample of Gujarati women in London. It explored how South Asian women struggle to reshape the patriarchal relations, racial discrimination and ethnic divisions and transform their identities through and while learning English. One aspect of this study was to examine ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) provision in the UK against the backdrop of gendered access to linguistic resources, as well as gendered agency and probe whether the policies understand and address linguistic socialization and identity transformations to impact learning and teaching. The data revealed some specific examples of access barriers such as eligibility requirements that exclude many women who are classified as dependants, lack of programme supports (e.g. child care), funding sources for training, lack of awareness of such support programmes and personal barriers such as low self-confidence and/or lack of study skills. Social class emerged as an important theme but the study also highlighted how the journey from margin to centre can be achieved through agency.
ESOL learners have different and specific needs which relate to their educational profile, oral proficiency and their specific language and literacy levels in English. The Home Office has adopted a reinvigorated policy of citizenship education and integration where English is seen as a key tool for the successful integration of Britain’s diverse communities. (Migration Observatory, 2011) However, under the new rules for funding for ESOL, introduced in September 2011, thousands of vulnerable women face being deprived of English language lessons. This move now questions the government’s commitment to ‘integration’ among migrant groups.
The current funding cuts in ESOL provision, reflecting the neo-liberal shift away from state responsibility to that of the individual in a market economy, implies that individuals, i.e. ESOL learners in this case, are expected to adapt to these ‘new times’. The new funding rules for ESOL courses are extremely complicated and make it harder to access funds for the participants. According to FE Week (2015) “By wiping out funding [for most adult skills courses], the government will be risking recreating an underclass of poorly educated adults. They will effectively be withdrawing the opportunity to train or retrain for the least able.” This act of denying citizens their basic right to learn English will impact the marginalised communities who desperately need these courses.
It is a general view that language learning is beneficial for society and the individual; however, according to Leathwood (2006), although this is presented as the logical choice for individuals, there is no acknowledgment of the ways in which the choice-making individual of neo-liberal economic policy is a gendered, classed and racialized one. The policy discourse surrounding language learning is constructed in a way that the learner has to take full responsibility for their own learning. It can be argued that the social mobility is on decline in the UK over the past few decades leading to further structural inequalities as a result of negligent policies of the government. The onus is on the government to improve this situation by reviewing the funding cuts to ESOL.