It's become clear from the Pushing the Boundaries community conversations we've been having that language is an important part of how we think about identity. Migrants in Northfield were telling us the other day how important they thought it was for them to learn English - not just so they could work, but so they could fit in and not embarrass their kids. But in Hall Green recently we had a discussion where a local resident - who had lived in the area for years - gave a different take.
Basically, we were talking about how the makeup new populations that had come into Hall Green. This participant said she didn't mind new people coming in, but she did have an issue when she went into a shop or was on a bus and people talked a different language. It's a bit awkward, she said, and made her feel uncomfortable.
Some of the other participants in the discussion fessed up and said that they had done that themselves. They said they didn't mean anything by it and they were glad the other participant had said she felt it was rude because now they'd be more wary of doing it. We were interested to know, though, what exactly the issue was, so we pressed a little further. We talked about her worries and concerns, and asked why it was so disconcerting.
'How do I know they're not talking about me?' she said.
Lightbulb moment. The realization hit her - and others - that she was worried about what other people were thinking of her. Perhaps that they were looking down on her.
It's interesting to compare her experience of language with that of migrants in areas like Northfield. For both sets of people, how we communicate with each other is massively important. For migrants, it's a passport into society, an integral part of making friends, engaging with their children's teachers, and getting on with their neighbours. And this is amplified when we think about what language can hide. As the Hall Green resident so eloquently put it, we can worry a lot about what people are thinking when we can't ask them.
Luckily in this case there was a space for people to have a conversation and ask questions and say things they wouldn't normally ask or say. But what if there wasn't? Can we really ask our neighbours what they're talking about if they speak a foreign language? If not - why?