British PM's push for Muslim women to learn English criticized online

British Prime Minister David Cameron says that immigrant women who fail to learn English risk deportation, while singling out Muslim women in particular as a group needing instruction. Whatever the intended sentiment, many on the internet did not take the announcement well.

Many on social media websites object to the threat of deportation

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, centre, meets women attending an English class during a visit to the Shantona Women's Centre in Leeds on Jan. 18. Cameron told the BBC that Muslim women must improve their English skills to better integrate into British society, or else some could face deportation. (Oli Scarff/PA via Associated Press)

British Prime Minister David Cameron announced Monday that immigrant women who fail to learn English risk deportation, while singling out Muslim women in particular as a group needing instruction. Whatever the intended sentiment, many on the internet did not take the announcement well.

The announcement comes with a £20-million fund for English classes for immigrant women, who would have to show an improvement in language skills over five years. The U.K. currently asks for foreign-born spouses to have a primary level of English when they enter the country on a spousal visa, but this new program would go beyond that. 

"There are … obligations that we should put on people who come to our country, and chief amongst them should be obligations to learn English, because then you can integrate, you can take advantage of the opportunities here and you can help us to build the strong country that we want," Cameron said.

The plan has also been explained as a way of helping to curb Muslim extremism in the U.K.

Backlash was swift, both online and from people within Cameron's Conservative Party

Sayeeda Warsi, a Conservative member of the House of Lords whose parents immigrated to the U.K., told the BBC, "My parents came to this country with very little English."

Cameron accused of hypocrisy by locals and politicians

They argued that immigrants might have had an easier time learning English had the Conservative government not cut funding for English classes in 2011.  

That cut took away £400 million of the adult skills budget, which paid for classes that taught English to speakers of other languages.

Many were also concerned with the exclusive focus on Muslims, when different kinds of immigrants face integration problems


Additionally people had problems with the tone of the announcement, which to many felt like a threat

No one reacted poorly to the premise that immigrants should be encouraged to learn English, but some suggested that the way the announcement was presented may have been unnecessarily antagonistic.

People pointed to the British living in Europe, saying that if the same standards were placed on English speakers in another country, they might be required to leave

Germany, Austria and the Netherlands already have similar language requirements for immigrant spouses, where they must show some degree of increased proficiency after landing. 

Although one argument placed an accusation of poor English elsewhere.

In Canada, citizens or permanent residents may sponsor their foreign spouses to immigrate through an application process that includes medical, criminal and background checks, among other things.

While no language requirements are listed for sponsored family members to apply for permanent residency, those who wish to apply for Canadian citizenship must have "adequate knowledge" of English or French.

The government of Canada's website defines this as "having the equivalent of Level 4 for speaking and listening in English or French using the Canadian Language Benchmarks," and provides the following examples of what people who speak one of Canada's official languages at that level can do:

  • Take part in short, everyday conversations about common topics.
  • Understand simple instructions, questions and directions.
  • Use basic grammar, including simple structures and tenses.
  • Show that you know enough common words and phrases to answer questions and express yourself.