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Book Review | Becoming A Citizen lays bare covert racism of UK’s citizenship test

As he chronicles the journey of ‘W’ from being a Yemeni migrant to a British citizen, Kamran Khan says the language test lets the British practice xenophobia while insulating them from accusations of overt racism.

March 21, 2021 / 07:25 AM IST
Representational image (Shutterstock)

Representational image (Shutterstock)

What doors does English open for migrants seeking education and employment in foreign countries? How is language proficiency framed as a scientific measure to sift the desirable migrant from the undesirable one? Why does the ability to listen, speak, read and write get linked to the race and ethnicity of migrants and subsequently their access to citizenship? If you are interested in these questions, read Kamran Khan’s book Becoming A Citizen (2020).

The author is a postdoctoral fellow at the UniversitatOberta de Catalunya, Spain. Published by Bloomsbury Academic, this book is a fine example of scholarship that is informed by contemporary developments in politics and policy. Khan engages with questions of immediate significance to enterprising young people who aspire for a life of economic opportunity and social mobility. Greener pastures come with their own set of challenges.

Khan calls out the “political rejection of multiculturalism in favour of more assimilationist approaches to incorporating migrants”. He sees the “introduction of citizenship testing within redefined naturalization processes” as characteristic of the “assimilationist turn” in “several European and Western countries”. The state designs bureaucratic procedures to “dispel suspicions” about “the capability and willingness of migrants to join the national community”.

The book is divided into seven chapters. It combines skilful storytelling with academic rigour. Khan’s ethnographic research revolves around one particular individual’s “linguistic trials and negotiations” in the United Kingdom. His subject’s real name does not appear in the book but the man is referred to as W. The book describes W’s journey from being a Yemeni migrant to a British citizen by focusing on his ambition, perseverance, ingenuity and adaptability.

The citizenship process requires successful completion of the Life in the UK (LUK) test. According to Khan, it “provides an evidential basis that the applicant has a ‘sufficient’ knowledge of life in the UK and English”. The application of the aspiring citizen is assessed by the Home Office. Selected applicants are invited to a local citizenship ceremony, where they are initiated into “a new set of rituals associated with becoming a citizen”.


Though W is not an Indian, his experiences would offer a reality check to Indians who might be under the impression that everything is hunky dory once people move to technologically advanced countries. Khan’s book shows that the colonial mindset of the British continues to find newer forms of expression. The objectivity associated with language testing helps them practice xenophobia while “remaining insulated from accusations of overt racism”.

The book draws on Khan’s doctoral thesis titled Becoming British: A Migrant’s Journey (2013), submitted for a Joint PhD between the University of Birmingham and the University of Melbourne. In the thesis, he writes, “As a British-Pakistani Muslim, I have held a long-standing interest in issues of race and exclusion.” The book uses this lens to investigate how migrants from multilingual backgrounds relate to the hegemony and the promise of English.

Cover Image_Becoming A Citizen

Khan provides a richly textured account of W’s test preparation. Apart from the official test materials—study guides and YouTube videos—available in English, W used his multilingual repertoire as a resource.

Khan met W in the UK through classes meant to teach English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL). Though Khan wanted to undertake a classroom-based study at first, he eventually decided to follow W’s life outside the classroom.

“Perhaps the most striking thing is that we are both Muslim and male.This allowed me the possibility to go to the mosque for example with little disruption to my normal Friday afternoons when prayers take place,” Khan writes.  Khan was also invited to chew khat (a leaf that works as a stimulant) with W and his Yemeni friends. These informal sessions, where W was viewed as a prominent community member, also fed into Khan’s fieldwork.

The book also examines W’s role as a teacher in addition to being a test-taker. As “the first man in the Yemeni community to pass”, he had a position of responsibility. When the state did not provide multilingual support, W “made content accessible” to fellow community members whose “level of English” was “below the intended level.” Khan writes, “That five people who W taught passed is a testimony to W’s successful teaching and test preparation.”

W’s passionate desire for educational attainment–along with his day job at a factory and head of a young family– makes for an inspiring story but it is incomplete without acknowledging his struggles.

Khan describes the agony W goes through on failing an exam “that he should not have been doing”. The college W was enrolled in had placed him “at the wrong level”. The setback shakes W’s faith in English as a pathway to all possibilities.

When W realises that English can hamper rather than enable his future, he starts exploring science and mathematics. His knowledge of Arabic is no longer an impediment.

Khan documents his shift from the “asphyxiating influence of ESOL English to a free use of multilingualism aligned with the shared discourses of science and mathematics which may be as equally universal as English without the punitive pressure of English.”

In a nutshell, Becoming A Citizen is a study of how an openly hostile environment towards migrants is institutionalised through language testing in the UK. Having British politicians of South Asian descent at the helm does little to improve the situation in a country that still takes pride in its colonial history. Indians who wish to move to the UK will have to contend with this reality because things are unlikely to change anytime soon.
Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, educator and researcher who tweets @chintan_connect)
first published: Mar 21, 2021 07:25 am

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