Language was a key issue for the group of migrants interviewed in the SSAMIS project: it cut across every sphere of life and had a significant impact on migrant experiences of moving to Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire. Language affected what kind of jobs they were able to access and their ability to connect with the local community. Language difficulties caused problems on an everyday basis for those with low levels of English, and different people struggled with different aspects of English. For some, writing was more difficult, whereas others found it hard to communicate on the phone. Knowledge of English also played a big role in how confident migrants felt in Aberdeen/shire, and thus to their wider emotional wellbeing. Low levels of English could compound social isolation.

Those who did not manage to gain English language skills faced difficulties in occupational mobility and tended to be limited to low-skilled, low-paid sectors of the local job market. If individuals worked in industries with many other migrants (e.g. fish processing), the default working language could be Russian or Polish. Many participants learned a new Slavic language at work, which could mean they had few opportunities to improve their English.

Although many migrants attended ESOL classes, ESOL provision did not always meet their needs. For example, many shift workers’ irregular hours prohibited them from attending the classes available, or meant they were too tired to do much outside of work, and others had issues with childcare. ESOL provision was also a particular issue for migrants living in more rural villages and on farms, where public transport was not always regular or reliable. Local authorities and third sector organisations sometimes had problems sourcing ESOL teachers to work in rural Aberdeenshire.

Free classes run by the Workers’ Education Authority (WEA) were popular for those in employment, and church groups also provided informal English lessons which helped build social connections locally. Some migrants were able to access free English lessons at work, and when the majority of a migrant’s work colleagues were Scottish, this helped them to improve their language skills.

Many migrants who had a good level of English when they moved to Scotland initially had difficulty understanding the Scots/Doric spoken in the area. Many migrants – even those with only conversational English – acquired local Doric/Scottish phrases and ways of speaking. A minority acquired a very good local accent, most commonly through marrying into a local family or through work. Migrant children were found to adapt well to speaking English at school, and parents appreciated the extra help their children were given. However, if parents retained a low level of English, this could put pressure on children as the only fluent English speakers in the family.

The widespread issue of low levels of English language amongst migrants had led to several private interpreters working in rural Aberdeenshire, charging a fee (generally around £20) to accompany migrants to medical appointments or help them fill in welfare or mortgage paperwork, for example. Similar individuals existed in Aberdeen. Some worked very informally, whereas others set up an
office in local towns. There was also a crossover with interpreters providing services for Police Scotland and the local courts. On an informal level, migrant volunteers and local community workers also provided free ad hoc help via services such as Citizens Advice Bureaux and community cafes.

Language Line was also used at medical appointments, though this was not always available on short notice. Migrants who had been hospitalised (e.g. for injury or on maternity wards) were generally happy with having been provided with suitable NHS interpreters. However, it is important to note that language was a complex issue, and even advanced proficiency did not mean that migrants
would not encounter difficulties being or feeling understood: cultural knowledge and differences were also part of this.