More than half of the foreign-born population of the UK now speak English, “as their first language at home,” and most perceive their English proficiency as improving, according to a recent study by the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford.
The term “first language at home” comes from the 2018 Labour Force Survey (LFS) of 39,000 migrant households, according to Mariña Fernández- Reino, author of the report.
“This is just the language that respondents used most frequently when they are at home,” she told the Gazette, adding, “Unfortunately, the LFS does not specifically ask respondents about their mother tongue.”
According to the report, some 55 per cent of migrants in the UK speak English as a first language at home. This isn’t necessarily a sign of proficiency, but the report notes it may be seen by native speakers as a sign of integration. In terms of educational outcomes, however, research on English language learners in schools suggests using L1 at home may improve results.
Dr Fernández-Reino agrees. “What the general public perceive as an indicator of integration might not actually be ‘good’ for migrants in other respects.”
The group who use the most English at home are those born in the ‘EU 14’ – the original member states from Western Europe, around 70 per cent of whom now use English as their main home language. The group with the lowest use, just under 25 per cent, are migrants born in the more recently-joined ‘accession 8’ EU member states in Eastern Europe.
Note, however, that migrant figures for the UK are based on country of birth. Some 13 per cent of migrants identify as White British. This includes foreign-born Britons from the 5 million strong British expatriate community.
Unsurprisingly, the age a migrant arrives has an impact on the amount they use English. Some 88 per cent of those who arrived as infants use English at home. Among those who arrived aged 30 or over, the percentage drops to 39 per cent.
Adult use of English may be hampered by the lower number of migrants aged over 19 in funded courses in ESOL, as adult migrant English is known. The report found a 30 per cent drop in enrolments in the last eight years. This seems to be mostly due to funding constraints, “lack of provision,” and long waiting lists which are particularly common in England.