All the voices of the NUJ
AT THE JUNE MEETING of London Freelance Branch we launched an initiative that aims to help freelance members who have recently arrived in the UK - or who have already lived here for some time but are short on confidence in their English language skills. The initiative already has support and input from the NUJ's Freelance Industrial Council.
All The Voices of the NUJ is a plan to set up a group of member volunteers to be on hand to advise colleagues who share their mother tongue and to be go-to people for advice, particularly on navigating the peculiar culture, conventions and institutions of the UK media industries. It could develop groups of members who share the same languages and/or nationality for collective self-help when needed.
At the meeting we heard from freelances who came to UK from countries including Italy, France, Nigeria and Germany.
Francesca Marchese, who came up with the idea, told us of arriving in London from Italy eight years ago and suffering "culture crash": "it was like slamming into the UK". With the help of NUJ members she has been able to establish herself.
The proposal, she said, is to offer members somebody to speak to about work matters in their mother tongue. "If I meet an Italian colleague whose language skills are not good enough to get much work as a journalist, I am willing to help them re-start their career."
"London and the Branch are so rich and diverse in languages and dialects," she noted: "let us use this to help expand union organisation."
Francesca was a founder of a group of Italian-speaking journalists in London that now has 118 members. Before covid it met several times, for example holding a meeting with successful Italian-speaking journalists in London, and one on how to report in English from an Italian perspective.
She clarified that the proposal is to "put together colleagues who share a mother language, not only so that they can talk with each other but because they may have needs in common." She stressed that All the voices of the NUJ is about languages not nationalities. Nationality is more complicated and would involve different politics.
Being able to communicate in your birth language "is a human right," Francesca said. (The UK Human Rights Act makes it illegal to discriminate on a wide range of grounds including ‘sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status’.)
With that Francesca welcomed John Worne, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIOL), "to explain why it is important". He opened by saying that the CIOL seeks to enhance language skills in the public interest. He is a former director of strategy at the UK's international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities, the British Council. He has lived and worked in many different cultures, in Europe and globally. He speaks French and is learning Italian.
CIOL represents linguists as a profession: "our noble purpose is to make our contribution toward international goodwill by promoting the study of languages." It offers qualifications to recognise the language skills that people have.
John recognises "that there are linguists everywhere". Arguably "everyone is bilingual - even if you formally have only a first language, you also speak your home dialect or slang." But sometimes in the UK "we see having more than one language as being rare or unusual or special." There are "linguists who are bilingual through background; and those who have migrated; and those who have trained".
Members of CIOL include "translators, interpreters and teachers - and people such as journalists and those in the armed forces who use languages professionally". They are "concerned that languages are becoming less of a priority in UK schools and universities" - and they are "worried whether there will be enough professionals in the UK in the future to provide interpretation and translation needed for trade, and indeed defence".
John mentioned "Artificial Intelligence" translation tools and suggested that we "not fear these, but be aware of their problems and inherent biases". Human translation remains a necessity.
"Languages," he declared, "are a lifelong source of joy and inspiration." In London, within a mile of Wood Green tube you'll find 250 languages being spoken - "we have an enormous stock of linguists and the problem is to harness this experience."
Francesca asked John: "why do you think the mother language is so important? It is a fundamental right to speak my mother language as well as being a joy to speak Italian with colleagues... if I have the opportunity to speak it in my language it will be more true. English is the language of rationality, whereas if I am very angry I will speak my language..."
John responded that "everyone would feel that culture is embedded in language - though everyone has linguistic ability." The way that you develop language as a child means that everyone will always have a strong natural bias to the language they used up to the age of 12, say, and a different approach to languages learned after that.
He added that there are cases, such as court interpreting, in which people's lives are at stake. A proper command of both languages in use has to be a requirement for such work.
Undoubtedly being able to discuss issues in your mother tongue is enormously important. But people are sometimes more expressive in other languages: "when I arrived in France I had almost no English - and now everyone who speaks to me says I am more fun and more expressive in French."
Francesca added that many Italian-speakers in London love to speak English - but it is not very well taught in Italy. As with Spanish-speakers, their English is not as good as the English of, say, German-speakers. "What we want to do is to help our colleagues develop their English. There are lots of people who arrive in the UK and have to do other work to support themselves and do not have the time to develop and re-find their seats in this career in journalism."
John observed that "in the UK we have an obsession with 'fluency' in languages. What's most important is to be functional. If you can get the job done, for most people that's good enough."
The belief that you have to have a perfect accent and make no grammatical errors holds people back. For example "we are taught in English never to use a double negative - but every ideolect of English and every other European language uses these". They're not nonsensical.
So "we need to help people to overcome being acutely conscious of making a mistake." And "this is where the kindness of your initiative can help."
The meeting then heard from members who are working in second or other languages.
Romana Sustar is "a passionate linguist". She "tells people I come from Central Europe, because I don't know where I come from. My father is Austrian." She had stopped working as a journalist in 2011 - and joined the NUJ in 2019 and the Committee this year. "The NUJ has really great workshops - Phil Sutcliffe is legendary and his Pitch and Deal course is something you need if you want to work as a journalist here."
"Each country," Romana noted, "plays by its own rules". Having its language per se is not enough: "you need, for example, to speak the specific language of networking. When you go to embassies and interview ambassadors you can use any language that you share with them - the biggest problem is networking talk..."
That said, Romana finds that the UK "provides ore opportunities than any other in the EU".
Francesca relayed apologies from Safiullah Tazib who had been due to speak on his experiences coming to the UK from Afghanistan several years ago. He had work that evening - he now works with several newspapers. She mentioned his work putting Afghan journalists' organisations in touch with UK colleagues.
Federica Tedesci recalled the time she spent a few months in London, coming from Italy to do an internship some time ago. She saw people of many ethnicities working together in many different sectors. Later, she moved to London and discovered that though a "foreigner" can be welcomed when people bump into them, the same doesn't apply to the job market. "When did journalism in the UK become elitist?"
Usually, we discuss discrimination on the basis of origin in terms of BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) experience: "and at least many people are dealing with this. But sometimes not being British or not having English as a first language can be a good enough reason to be discriminated against." Federica asks to hear from other union members who are willing to share experience of this.
She would say that discrimination she has faced "is about being non-British," rather than on the basis of language. "Arriving in the UK was very, very difficult - all my certainties were overturned. The union has been really important to helping me cope and to improving my confidence."
Pierre Alozie was introduced as someone who "speaks French with a Nigerian influence". He has lived in Sweden, the US, Germany and Italy; and now in the UK for a decade.
"When I moved to Berlin in the late 1980s I came up against a wall with the German language. It was so different from the Latin-based languages, and it took me two years to come to grips with even just the sound. Grammar was also very difficult."
Eventually Pierre got to the point where "I could play with the language" and for example form new German words as he needed them. Then "I was more comfortable with it at a deeper level. I agree with John on perfectionism - when I let go my narrow focus on learning German I was able to focus on using it."
"I made the decision to come to the UK based on language," he reports. "Having lived in Germany for eight or nine years I was missing the spontaneity of, say, going into a bookshop and not having to worry about translating all the titles. English is my father tongue - but I had never lived here and had a few preconceptions which turned out to be false." He was faced with learning "the intricacies of the British language and the ways it is tied in to the class system". Learning a language, it is really important to be in the cultural environment. And "it can be such an enriching thing."
Dapo Ladimeji wondered: what is it useful to say for someone who's new in the UK from Africa? The first thing is that "the UK is a continuously-changing environment. People think of the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben" and think they're changeless. But if Dapo goes out to Europe, colleagues are constantly updating him: "what's going on in Milan now, what's the gossip from Paris?" But if he goes back to Nigeria and starts saying what's happening in London, some answer "you can't tell us about London we know about London - The Beatles!"
As a journalist, Dapo said, "if you find a niche - especially something unusual or risky - in which there are no ground-rules," people may let you learn as you go. You're more likely to succeed than if you follow a well-trodden path.
As an example of change Dapo recounted a young relative going to the US and being advised by an uncle who had been there in the 1950s: "if you see a policeman, avoid eye contact, and if you see any white people." The nephew indeed saw a policeman at 42nd Street bus station and avoided eye contact - and ended up being arrested.
And prejudice can be complicated. Dapo recalled a friend asking after a visit to the North of England: "is it that they don't like Southerners, or they don't like public school boys, or they don't like Africans - or is it just me?"
Matt Salusbury has taught English as a Second or Other Language (ESOL) to journalists - and is now, as a side gig to journalism, teaching English for academic purposes. Some of his current students are doing "media".
He mentioned some special journalistic phrases: "Is expected to," "Is due to," "Is set to" - "you never use these 'journalists' friends' in conversation or read them in literature or anywhere outside journalism. As my editor at the Freelance says when we're editing on a deadline: 'envaguen until true' - that is, protect yourself against being wrong by saying something that's imprecise enough to be true."
Matt agrees with John and Francesca about having different personalities in different languages: "the Dutch Matt is much more socially confident than the English."
Anyone who is interested in getting involved All the voices of the NUJ should send an email to Membership Secretary Phil Sutcliffe at email@example.com.
The first task for the Branch is to find an experienced NUJ member who speaks a given language - for example, Phil noted, "if we have a Farsi native speaker who volunteers to be a point of reference to speak about work matters in Farsi..."
Member Deborah Hobson said it is important for people have English as a first language to explore learning other languages for themselves - and asked John why language courses are prohibitively expensive.
John replied that language professionals also need to earn a living and they need a Rate for the Job. He recommended courses from the modern language centres at University College London (UCL) and King's College London (KCL). When he last checked, both were open to the general public.
Stuart Smith reported that he is now in Russia and lucky to be working in English - and learning Russian for the first time: "if I could find an initiative like All the voices of the NUJ in Russia I'd be delighted."
Mel Lambert, joining the meeting from Burbank, California, observed that there are major cultural differences apart from the name of the language - "I don't think it prevents communication: you just have to learn to spell and you'll get the commissions."
Zine Fethazzar advises people "just jump in to it: speak English as much as possible and read a lot of news." He warned, though, of the need to learn about regional accents in the UK.