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Linguistic double standards do exist in immigrant integration

It's a familiar scenario in downtown Dublin. The menu sounds delicious, the food looks delicious, smells delicious, and no doubt it all is delicious, but trying to tell the waitress taking your order or the man behind the counter what you want is like trying to play badminton underwater. Pointing only gets you so far when their grasp of English is sketchy at best and your facility with their native tongue, whatever it happens to be, is non-existent.

As often as not, you end up with the wrong food, but you daren't complain because, firstly, you're a nice middle class person who wouldn't dream of saying or doing anything which might, under any circumstances, be construed as racism. And secondly, because wise people never complain in restaurants, knowing that the staff will only get their own back by spitting in your food when you're not looking. It's not worth the risk.

So when research conducted under the Anti-Racism and Diversity Plan comes back with the finding that language is the biggest barrier immigrants face when seeking to integrate into Irish life, one's first response is to emulate Molly Bloom and cry yes, yes, thrice yes.

But wait, it's not as simple as that, because it seems that, when they say immigrants' lack of language skills is holding them back, it's all our fault.

Our fault for being so discourteous as to speak a language they don't understand fully? Our fault for not conducting our affairs in the languages of their choice? The nature of the blame is not entirely clear. But there's a definite sense in the pronouncements of the well-meaning people from the National Action Plan Against Racism that we must be doing something wrong somewhere.

It's a strange thing. Tell a white middle class expat who has retired to Tuscany or Provence that they really need to learn the local lingo to integrate and get the most out of the experience, and everyone accepts it as a truism. Tell a 19-year-old coming to Ireland from another country that they need to do the same thing, and you're accused of making a difficult situation for them even worse.

Immigration has done wonderful things for the country. There will always be rednecks who think that, between the influence of our neighbours turning us into "West Britain" and the influx of those from farther afield turning us into a mini United Nations, that Ireland is losing its national character.

But all things have to change. You can either embrace it or grumble, and, on any sunny day in Grafton Street, the first option feels far more attractive, as, between Stephen's Green and Molly Malone, you hear a dozen languages being happily spoken. But this is still a country which functions in English.

There's no point being embarrassed about that in a cringing, post-colonial way, or pretending that it isn't so. It's just the way things are. In Italy they speak Italian; in Ireland we speak English.

Immigrants coming to Ireland will have to learn English or they will never make a mark. (And that's not just true for immigrants either. It applies as strongly to some of the gurriers from certain parts of Dublin, who seem to find it unfair that their inability to put a coherent sentence together prevents them getting on).

Most immigrants actually understand that instinctively. The experience of migrants the world over has always been the same. It's a tough existence. So much can be done for them, but beyond that, it's up to individuals to gain the edge that helps them maximise their chances to thrive. Last time I was in Amsterdam, I was driven from the airport by an Indian taxi driver who, besides his native tongue, spoke fluent English, French and Dutch. For him, moaning about it would've been like a fish complaining that it had to swim.

Of course, we should do everything we can to facilitate the process of integration, and the current row over whether Sikhs who join the Garda Reserve should be permitted to wear the ceremonial turban -- with Minister Conor Lenihan declaring clumsily that the man in question should "fit in with our culture" -- is a prime example of how not to do it.

By being so pig-headed about this issue, the Government has effectively told Sikhs not to bother joining the Irish police -- and this slap in the face is being given to a group whose attitude, as immigrants, to the host countries in which they settle has always been marked by positive and active engagement with the new culture. The process has not been without tension, but by and large Sikhs have been a model for other immigrant communities.

The official stubbornness on this issue is a poor repayment. It wouldn't open Pandora's Box to allow Sikhs to wear a turban since each case should be judged on its own merits. Seen that way, Sikhs as a community have earned the right to a little leeway. The effect of a turban ban, what's more, would be to make it impossible for any practising Sikh to become a police officer. For no other religion do those exact circumstances apply. Muslim women do not have to wear the burqa.

Catholics are not required to wear crucifixes.

All of them can freely join the police under the present rules. The only community effectively barred is one which is overwhelmingly law abiding and tolerant. To put it another way, the July 7 bombers in London, had they moved to Dublin, would have been welcome to join the Garda Reserve, whilst England spin bowler Monty Panesar would be barred.

Shurely shome mishtake?

Being able to speak English, however, is a different matter. That is something on which there can be no compromise. So when the National Action Plan Against Racism says there should be "economic inclusion and equality of opportunity" for immigrants, the heart warms to the sentiment while the head says that's all very well but in actuality there can never be true equality between those who speak the language of the country in which they live and those who do not.

Therefore it is up to immigrant groups, surely, to bluntly tell potential newcomers to Ireland that they need to brush up their language skills or they will have no one to blame but themselves when it all goes pear-shaped. This is supposed to be the communication age, after all, not the lack-of-communication age.