The ESL Sector and Why Labour Should Support It

Will Barber-Taylor makes the case for English as a Second Language (ESL) to be supported by the Labour Party and the next Labour government. 

There are some people in Britain on both left and right who have a negative view of the country. This isn’t to simply say that they simply dislike the current government and want it removed – they proudly and actively state their dislike of the United Kingdom. 

This isn’t a particularly bold claim to make. The majority of people in the Labour Party and other centre-left parties do like Britain; they want it to be better for everyone by electing a government that will stand up for ordinary people. Yet there are still people who see Britain in a negative light and who think that the rest of the world shares their damning opinion. 

This isn’t the case. You can say this statistically – according to YouGov we are the second most popular country in the world after Canada and even despite the negative view many had of Brexit from around the world, Britain is still looked upon favourably in comparison to other countries

There is a reason that I bring this up. In politics, we often suffer from confirmation bias; the belief that whatever information we see merely proves our point and that anything that contradicts it is wrong or should be ignored. 

Britain also has people who view its negatively and in particular, have done so since Brexit – it would be starkly wrong to fail to point this out, particularly given how extensively the Guardian and others have covered over the past few decades less than positive views of Britain from people in other nations. 

Yet the one thing I have found over the past sixth months teaching English as a second language to a variety of students, predominantly from Southeast Asia but also the Middle East and Turkey is that there are many people who not only want to learn English but use the English language in order to visit Britain. They want to come to the UK because it is seen as a land of opportunity and growth. 

They want to actively engage with English not simply because it is a language that has spread around the world but because for them it represents opportunity, both in the nation of their birth and internationally. 

It is particularly striking how many of these students prefer English teachers to American teachers as well – an associated sense that Britain and British English is the destination and variant of the English language that they are particularly attracted to. 

Due to the pandemic, this sector has taken a ferocious series of hits thanks to the inability of students who want to come and physically study English in the UK to be able to travel. The ESL sector is one that has helped millions of people across the world and has helped to spread Britain’s popularity, but also its status as a leading world power. 

We live in an era which has seen Britain’s major manufacturing sector decline; one in which thanks to Brexit we are seen, rightly or wrongly, as a peripheral figure on the European and World stage. Our trade has suffered thanks to both COVID and Brexit. 

One area that has not been as hardest hit in terms of demand is Britain’s culture and British soft power. Britain’s music, its films and TV series are still in high demand as is perhaps its biggest export – the English language. If we are to promote Britain as a place not only to come and live in but a place to trade with then it makes perfect sense to support Britain’s English As A Second Language sector as much as possible. 

The Labour Party is one that values and promotes internationalism. It is a party that was founded thanks to the work of people from America, Germany, France, Italy and many other countries. It is as a party uniquely placed to be able to understand the benefits of the ESL sector and a party that can understand how to utilise it as a means of promoting a progressive national identity. 

The ESL sector not only promotes a national identity of a nation that is open and welcoming, but it is one that can help with the promotion of British culture, British trade and British values. 

English as a language is one that binds the United Kingdom together and one that is recognized around the world as being the tongue of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Shelley, Austen, the Brontes, Orwell, Eliot, Behn amongst many others. Therefore, encouraging the sector which helps to give people around the world the necessary tools to be able to use this language to gain opportunity can be only a good thing and it helps to promote an image of Britain as an outward looking nation, one that is engaged with the rest of humanity and doesn’t shrink back away from it. 

The Labour Party is a party that promotes fairness and equality, a party that is dedicated to ensuring the best possible life for all the people of Britain. Its values are clearly in step with a sector that needs support at this difficult time. A sector that can help to improve Britain’s economy and reinvigorate Britain’s international image. 

Languages are the key to our world – they are core to how we communicate with one another, how we break down barriers, how we fall in love and their importance can never be understated. We as internationalists, as Fabians and as members of Labour must ensure that a sector that enables all of that and more can be given as much support as possible. 

Will Barber Taylor is a member of the Labour Party and a writer who is currently reading History at the University of Warwick. He tweets at @WBarberTaylor.

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