Image: Theresa May
Dominic Lipinski  /  AP
Britain's Home Secretary Theresa May, shown in May with Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson, said in a statement Wednesday that she believed that being able to speak English should be a prerequisite for anyone who wants to settle in Britain.
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updated 6/9/2010 6:29:09 PM ET 2010-06-09T22:29:09

Love may have its own language — but that's not good enough for the British government.

It wants English, too.

Starting this fall, the spouse of a citizen who is coming from outside the European Union and wants to live in Britain will have to prove he or she has a basic command of English.

The move, announced Wednesday by the new Conservative government of Prime Minister David Cameron, comes as countries across Europe tighten their rules on immigration amid rising unemployment rates and concerns about the ability of newcomers to integrate.

The famously tolerant Netherlands held an election Wednesday in which a far-right party that wants to ban all immigration from nonwestern countries appeared to more than double its seats in Parliament.

In Britain, the government is casting the new policy as an effort to promote integration — not to keep out foreigners.

"I believe being able to speak English should be a prerequisite for anyone who wants to settle here," Home Secretary Theresa May said in a statement. "The new English requirement for spouses will help promote integration, remove cultural barriers and protect public services."

Meeting other criteria
Couples already have to meet other criteria, like proving their marriage is genuine and demonstrating they can support themselves financially. And language tests are required for skilled workers and people applying for permanent residency or citizenship.

The changes to Britain's rules follow a hard-fought general election campaign in which immigration policy was a key, and contentious, issue.

The new measures have been criticized by civil libertarians, lawyers, and activists. Some say the changes discriminate against people from countries with few English speaking traditions, such as in Africa and Asia. Others call them an intrusion into citizens' private lives.

Some also argue that English is best learned in a country where it's spoken everyday, rather than forcing people into classrooms abroad, which could be of varying standards and potentially costly. Spouses will have to show evidence to British authorities that they've passed an English test with a government-approved provider.

Language as politics
Language requirements vary across Europe.

Some nations, such as France, require basic proficiency before arrival, while others, such as Italy, are in the process of phasing in a system in which an immigrant will have to achieve a certain number of points through language and culture tests.

In bilingual Belgium, where language is a hot issue, Flemish political parties argue loudly that language skills should be tested, especially for North African immigrants who may manage to learn French — the language of former colonial masters — but not the country's other main language, Dutch.

In the United States, despite an increasingly vociferous movement to stem the influence of Spanish and make English the only official language, there is no requirement for a spousal visa applicant to speak English.

Indeed, such a move would likely go against the grain of even the more conservative elements of American society, where the diversity of languages has widely been seen as a sign of cultural vibrancy.

Demetrios Papademetriou, president of Migration Policy Institute, a non-partisan Washington, D.C. think-tank, said different viewpoints in Congress would make it highly unlikely a move like Britain's could ever be adopted in the United States.

"We also don't focus purely on integration, the way Europe seems to have latched on integration," he said.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada spokeswoman Kelli Fraser said Canada only requires economic immigrants to prove their language ability. Language is not a selection factor for any other immigration category, including those applying in the family class.

But some Britons argue that it's only natural for newcomers to learn the language of their host nation.

Dennis Weeks, a 38-year-old civil servant from east London, said he wouldn't be able to participate in another country's culture if he didn't speak the language, so it seems fair that immigrants to Britain learn some English.

"I don't think it is a bad thing. I think to be able to properly partake in a society and be involved with things with society, you're going to need to communicate," he said. "So having a basic understanding of English must only be a good thing, surely."

Currently, spouses are granted visas which allow them to come to Britain for about two years, after which they can apply for permanent residency — which requires a citizenship and language test.

"Forcing husbands and wives to take language tests before they even arrive in the U.K. will rip families apart," said Hina Majid, the policy director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, a London-based advocacy group.

"These new rules are likely to hit people from South Asia and Africa where English is not the main language. It may also hit women harder and discriminate most against the poorest."

Besides, cultural integration is dependent on far more than just understanding certain words, said lawyer Danielle Cohen, whose London practice focuses on immigration and human rights.

"Being part of a culture is a gradual thing," Cohen said. "Cultural barriers are not going to be lifted immediately just with the command of basic English."

The measures were first tabled by Britain's Labour government in 2002. Last year, about 38,000 spousal visas were approved, and another 21,000 people were granted permanent residency.

Cohen called the changes to the rules an intrusion into the personal lives of citizens.

"The problem for me with this measure is that I don't think the English language is a prerequisite for love," Cohen said. "If you can communicate in your own language, what business is it of the state to interfere?"

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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