Zulfi Hussain couldn’t speak a word of English until he was 12.
He spent a year in an immigration centre after arriving in Bradford from the small village in Pakistan where he grew up.
It wasn’t until secondary school that Zulfi began to learn English. His father, a military man, had instilled in him that education was the key to his future, something Zulfi has never forgotten.
He studied systems and engineering at university and worked at the military research centre at Porton Down. From there he worked as a systems engineer for Vauxhall Motors and, 20 years ago, arrived at BT as a senior design engineer. He is now one of the company’s board members for Yorkshire and Humber.
Zulfi also runs Global Promise, a charity he set up in response to the South Asian Tsunami. He has also set up a restaurant in Farsley and has an MBE for his services to business.
Since Zulfi’s arrival in Bradford in the 1970s, initiatives have been put in place to encourage the integration of immigrants into British society, but it appears there are many youngsters still starting school unable to speak English.
Compulsory English-language tests for all non-European migrants applying to come to the UK to join or marry their settled partner began last November, but there are fears that this won’t tackle the problem, as parents speak in their mother tongue at home, and their children don’t learn English before starting school.
Zulfi, who used to speak Punjabi at home to his parents, said being multi-lingual has benefited him.
“I have a rich cultural heritage of being British and Asian, and that is important,” he says.
He says it is important for youngsters to learn English to be part of an integrated society, but doesn’t believe that language is to blame for lower educational attainment.
“I think things have moved on,” he says. “Things are improving but more needs to be done. There needs to be a better partnership between schools and parents because education does not just stop when the child leaves school.
“There is growing evidence that children do speak English among themselves at home, and more and more parents are speaking English to them and more of the teaching at mosques is starting to be in English.
“More needs to happen, but we cannot blame the poor educational attainment purely on that and target one group because their English is poor. If that was true, then in other deprived areas where there isn’t an issue of a second language, those children would have done a lot better,” says Zulfi.
He adds: “I would agree that people coming into the country do need to learn the language in order to contribute to society and enrich their own lives.”
Jill Dearden, pre-school development worker at Shipley and Keighley Pre-School Learning Alliance, says: “Within the Keighley area there are pre-school settings that are working on developing English language skills alongside other social skills in preparation for children moving on to Reception.
“Many pre-school staff are dual-language speakers who use all available resources, knowledge, skills and experience to engage young children to give them confidence in using what is their second language.
“They also provide tools to families to support this, such as posters to put up at home that have key words in both their first language and English to help to reinforce their children’s learning and use of English, as well as their first language.
“Pre-schools keep comprehensive records on expressive language, both in the child’s home language and English to help identify needs and activities are planned accordingly. The Every Child a Talker initiative is currently being rolled out throughout the district and is being use within both pre-schools and baby and toddler groups to encourage parental engagement.”
She says further activities are also being planned this year, as 2011 is the Year of Communication.