Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

I’ve just finished watching the BBC Three programme ‘Young, Foreign and Over Here‘. If you can access it, it is available on BBC iPlayer until Wednesday 2nd November 2011. This is the description from the BBC Three webpage:

Five young Eastern Europeans reveal the harsh realities and culture shocks of life as an immigrant coming to Britain and hoping to stay. They think they know what to expect, but have they got it all wrong?

These people in their mid 20s have left their countries with no idea what to expect when they arrive in the UK. When they get here, they face a real drop in their standard of living. Many of them come from well-off families in their own countries, then end up sharing houses and flats with many other people, often in very poor conditions. They have to do everything in a foreign language that they have worked hard to learn. They have been led to believe that the UK is a form of paradise, which will mean good jobs, good money and a better life.

One part of the programme shows interviews with British people saying that they should have been kept out of the country, with statements like:

We don’t see other countries, like Australia, you don’t see them turning up in boats with 200 fucking weird people.

England is England, right. It should just be English.

One of the depressing things about that segment was the fact that many of the students I have met could express themselves in a much better way than these two people. It also showcases the ignorance of other cultures which some Brits suffer from.

Quoting from one of the subjects of the programme (Norbert):

I wanted to be a German speaker. Show me any British person who can speak another language. I speak English, German and Hungarian. I can’t even get a job as a street cleaner.

And from Anthony:

I don’t think the guys here would be able to go abroad, learn a different language, communicate in it freely. It’s not easy, so I think that most British people have an idea how difficult it is for immigrants.

Norbert and Anthony have really made my point for me. As many of you already know, I think it should be obligatory for people in our country to study a foreign language, at least until the age of 16. The three years between 11 and 14 when it is currently obligatory is nowhere near enough, not only for cultural awareness, but the future of our economy. People all over the world are learning English. They speak their own language too, so automatically have an advantage over the monolinguals of the Anglo-Saxon world. Even a low level of another language can open doors and offer an insight into how difficult language learning is.

Another thing which should be in some way compulsory is spending at least a week abroad alone. That way Brits might begin to appreciate how much effort all of these people have put in and how difficult it is for them to come to the UK and ‘steal our jobs’. The jobs that they are stealing: working in warehouse on a minumum wage, driving a dangerous rickshaw in London.

When British people stop being so introverted and start to look at the world around them as an opportunity instead of a threat, I will be much prouder of my country. As it is, I prefer to be abroad, where multilingualism is the norm, not rare, where other cultures are more appreciated (I write this knowing that there is still racism in some of the places where I have worked) or at least tolerated, and where if the jobs are available, you can get work which reflects your experience.

Throughout the programme, all I could think was how lucky I am to have a British passport and to be able to be an English teacher, with the ability to travel and work around the world. I have lived in a few countries now, and I have been lucky enough to always have a job and a place to stay when I arrive. I have always been made to feel welcome, and I have always had enough money to live comfortably, even if I’ve had some jobs I’ve hated (factory work, cleaning caravans).

I love my job, and I think one of my responsibilities as a teacher is to show my students the realities of life in the UK. I know that I come from a comfortable working/middle-class background, but then so do almost all of my students. If they only see the ‘best’ parts of my country, it is no wonder that they have this image of life here.

I wish all of those in the programme luck and the fulfillment of their dreams.


Comments on: "Young, Foreign and Over Here" (17)

  1. fabulous post! I SO agree with what you say and applaud your ideas. It is hard to live in the UK and be surrounded by the sort of lazy comment from people like those in the programme. The dignity and hard work of some of the refugees and asylum seekers I have worked with teaching ESOL has truly humbled me. I hope to carry on the work that I do which makes a big difference to people who are desperate to learn and improve their work prospects.


  2. Ty Kendall said:

    I just watched it Sandy!
    It’s unfortunate but there will always be xenophobes blathering on about job stealing and other such nonsense.
    It was a really interesting programme. It was no surprise to me that Anthony and that nice couple were the ones who made it work. They seemed to have their heads screwed on and most importantly, were realistic about expectations.
    I think Norbert was courageous for trying, but like the others said, a bit immature and ill prepared (turning up to a job interview looking like he did – I was embarrassed FOR him!)
    And then that Russian girl, I think she missed the point when she just went straight back home after failing to get the one very specific job she wanted. The problem in her case was English, did she not think that maybe by staying her English would improve exponentially better than by returning to Russia? (I have the feeling she was a bit of a spoiled princess).
    Anthony hit the nail on the head when he said right at the end that the jobs they are doing wouldn’t be taken up by native Brits because they’d rather stay on benefits that do those jobs. I’m glad he managed to start Uni. I also hope the couple make a go of things too, they were so sweet.
    I wish they hadn’t ended on Norbert’s rather bitter last line “it seems Britain let me down” as I think this misrepresents his experience somewhat, in his case, he let himself down. Even if they had let his dress sense slip given his situation, his German clearly wasn’t up to scratch to do the job (he didn’t know the word for ‘carpet’? Even I remember that from my GCSE days). – This isn’t to take away from his overall abilities or his quote in your piece (where he has a point), but it does justify his experience here and reveals his lack of maturity and preparation.
    I think it was interesting to see how many (foreigners) actually pretty much go straight back. (I can understand that! lol). What was weird was that they perceive the UK as some kind of Mecca for making money – a definite miscalculation.


    • Thanks for your comment Ty. There’s not much that I can add, except to say I agree!
      One of the strangest ideas for me from the programme was the fact that so many people perceive the UK to be the places where all there dreams will come true. It seems to take the “grass is greener…” mentality to a whole new level. I didn’t realise until I started to travel how the UK is perceived by outsiders, and it makes me wonder what image of our country is presented to the outside world. It can’t be a particularly well-rounded one. At the same time, the point that one of the Brits on the coach tour made about the UK undoubtedly being better than wherever they came from made me cringe a little. He meant well, but many people don’t seem to realise just how far these ‘Eastern European’ countries have come in the last 20 years. Although I know there is still poverty, especially i rural areas, the cities I visited while living in Brno could all proudly stand next to British cities and in some cases I felt safer and more comfortable abroad than here!
      Hmmm.turns out I had more to add than I thought!


  3. The programme was very interesting to watch. I think the Hungarian lad should’ve assesed his skills properly. He may speak those languages at conversational levels as he said he learned them from watching tv but that’s not nearly enough for a serious job as a translator.
    I had to go through a similar journey as I was “lucky” enough to be born in pretty unfavourable conditions in a Soviet occupied country; so I know what they’re going through but I think their expectations were unrealistic. It’s a dreamy trait that many of the young and unexperienced share.


    • I agree with you about the fact that he should have assessed the level of his languages, but then if he had teachers (rather than learning purely from films etc), perhaps they could have helped him to realise what level of language is necessary to be a translator. Well done for getting where you are today!


      • I had very capable foreign language teachers in a smaller town and a poorer country and somehow I doubt that Norbert didn’t have them. I used the foreign tv channels, magazines, books etc. as a bonus while I was studying.

        Personally I don’t see the UK as a “Mecca fo making money” as I was better off living there as the rent was about half of what I’m paying here and my job was and still is abroad (US). But I like the people much better over here, they’re more polite and have a sense of respect and as a consequence I find the service considerally better. And I love your pies, crumbles, cider, vinegar crisps etc. amazing stuff! 🙂

        I agree with you, most of these countries have come a long way in the last 20 years or so and the standards of living have gone through the roof in some areas but I’m afraid that’s just one side of the story.


      • What I meant about language teachers was that I have had students in the past who have never been to classes, but have managed to get a fairly good level of comprehension and vocabulary from constantly watching films in English. Not sure how diligent he was about going to classes! I didn’t mean to put down language techers as I know a lot of very capable teachers around the world!


      • As a travelling English teacher I’m sure you have a much better picture of the level languages are being thaught throughout Europe or the rest of the world. Didn’t mean to insinuate otherwise, sorry if it looked like I did. Thanks again for the great article and wish you the best with your linguistic adventures.



  4. I really want to know if the young guy who got into Oxford if he was able to fund his studies beyond term 1… Does anybody know?


  5. Charles DP said:

    Thanks for the link, as an Englishman living in the Czech Republic it was an interesting programme. However, as usual, I get the impression the makers had an angle and chose the best participants to reflect that. As we know there are many Eastern Europeans who have excellent English, prepare well and have jobs accommodation etc. lined up. In addition, any pub will provide some english men(note usually men) who will express racist attitudes.

    I wish, however, to comment on your comment regarding the learning of languages and the introverted nature of the British. I think I had my eyes well and truely opened to this while wandering around Bolzano. This is a town in Northern Italy where, because of history, most people speak German. For me the whole concept of Italians speaking German was a shock. I think that introverted is better put as insular; Britain is an island and as such (even with the channel tunnel) travelling to Europe is a trip ABROAD; a journey to somewhere foreign; with a different language; with different food and different culture. There is probably no other country in Europe where travelling to the next door country is so completely different. Living where I now do , I think people revel in the almost abstract nature of borders in Europe.

    As to your comment about languages in schools, I completely agree; it is so short sighted.


    • Last night I had a conversation with the people Im staying with in Paris at the moment, during which I said that I prefer living in Europe to the UK. This resulted in a five minute discussion about the fact that most Brits (even me!) think of Europe and the UK as two separate places. It was so great to live in Brno and see just how easy it can be to go from country to country, especially now that Schengen exists and you don’t always have to show your passport (though some would argue this a bad thing).
      I know what you mean about the agenda of the programme makers, though I would say that at least they made a programme. it was good to see some positive stories in there too.
      Thanks for your comment Charles,


  6. Sadly, I think this situation is true not only in England.
    What a powerful post, Sandy!


  7. Sandy, this is a brilliant post and thank you so much for writing it. I couldn’t agree with you more about what you are saying and I feel similarly dismayed at the direction British culture is taking in this area.

    It was recently brought to my attention that the pending increases in tuition fees in Britain could very well force many students to look abroad to get a degree. At the moment, the Netherlands is looking very popular since many of their university courses are taught completely in English. However, it is a start.

    To add to this, a chat I had with a Spanish friend of mine today highlighted that actually, the Netherlands would soon feel the strain of the economic burden of so many English university students and that other European countries might become increasingly inviting for English wallets.

    My first desire from all this would be that foreign languages become popular and more accessible again as parents and schools encourage children to study one or more of the European languages so they can successfully apply to universities in mainland Europe – which has the potential to soon be a much cheaper option. A more enlightened generation of graduates could help to turn our cultural problems around.

    My second desire from this would be that the need for foreign languages would bring about something that is sorely missing in Britain – bilingual schools! Now that, that would really help to turn things around, raise awareness and understanding.


    • I was really surprised when I arrived in Paraguay and sicovered that some of my students had done all of their schooling in French or German rather than their native Spanish. I definitely agree that bilingual schools would be a step in the right direction, but I’m not sure many parents would. Unless it were a boarding school, I think they might struggle to find enough pupils.
      I loved my university, but I wish I’d known about the possibility of studying abroad. I’m not sure how many school leavers realise that this possibility exists for them. I’m sure it would make a difference. It might encourage the government to think twice about keep raising fees and loans. I know there is little chance I will ever be completely free of my student loan, and that was under the old, slightly cheaper system!
      Thanks for your comment Gordon.


      • Sandy. Yes, the idea of studying abroad wasn’t mentioned or even considered by anyone at my secondary school. It was really like the option didn’t even exist but perhaps even more than that it was like the option wasn’t within anyone’s conceptual framework! How odd now that much of my work revolves around those from other countries and languages coming to Britain to study here.

        Earlier this year I was working in Argentina and in a small city of only 100,000 I know there was a Spanish/English bilingual school but I’m pretty sure there was a Spanish/French one as well. On top of this there were at least 5 English language schools (and many private teachers on top of this) and I used to walk past an Italian language school on my way home each night. Yes, Britain is very far behind in this respect and our laziness in this field will be our undoing if we’re not careful.

        The student loan is nothing much to worry about in my opinion. The debt gets cancelled when you shuffle off this mortal coil and I don’t think it even really affects your credit rating like other such loans and debts would. For me, it’s basically an additional little tax which shows up on the payslip every month… so since I never actually see the money, it never really bothers me. 🙂


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