Sufficient knowledge of the English, Welsh or Scottish Gaelic language, not.

It is no secret that I have aspirations to naturalise as a British Citizen in the near future. I’ve lived in the UK for the past 8 years, and apart from my family back in Germany my life is pretty much based here. Also, I like it here, and I’d like to stay.

One of the things you have to do to get naturalised in the UK, apart from paying a rediculously extortionate fee, is to satisfy what is known as Sufficient Knowledge of Language and Life in the UK (KoLL). This requirement is based on the British Nationality Act 1981, which says that two of the requirements for naturalisation of an applicant are (i) “that he has a sufficient knowledge of the English, Welsh or Scottish Gaelic language; and” (ii) “that he has sufficient knowledge about life in the United Kingdom”. It seems pretty clear from this that the law intends to give an equal status to English, Welsh and Scottish Gaelic, the last two being officially recognised as equal to English in one way or another in Wales and Scotland respectively.

For some time now I have planned to be the first person to satisfy the KoLL requirement through Welsh, something that I see as a personal challenge as well as a very important exercise in making practical use of the rights given to a language community and paying due respect to the other languages of the UK.

Until October 2013 satisfying the KoLL requirements was straight forward. You take the Life in the UK test in either English, Welsh, or Scottish Gaelic (though it appears no-one ever took it in a language other than English). The Home Office took your passing of the test, which in English is written at an intermediate level, as evidence that you spoke the language well enough. Since October 2013 however, some legislation has been introduced to toughen that requirement, and the The British Nationality (General) Regulations 2003 and Immigration Rules, which are the legal documents that set out how the Home Office deals with naturalisation cases, now require applicants to satisfy the knowledge of language and knowlede of life in the UK portions of KoLL separately, reputedly to toughen up the standard of English language required.

To satisfy the language requirements, applicants now have to show that they have an English language qualification at CEFR level B1 or above from an awarding body recognised by the Home Office, such as Cambridge ESOL. However, with the same revision of the Immigration Rules and the accompanying internal guidance notes, reference to Welsh and Scottish Gaelic has all but vanished from these documents. Likewise, the new version of Form AN (the form you need to submit to apply for naturalisation) and the accompanying booklet only contain sections about how to satisfy the English language requirement, and very clearly give the impression that the requirement must be satisfied through English and English only—in fact, there is no option to indicate knowledge of Welsh or Scottish Gaelic anywhere on the form. The only point where reference to those languages is made is where these documents say that you can request to take the Life in the UK test in Welsh in Wales and Scottish Gaelic in Scotland, but with the split requirements that is now meaningless for satisfaction of the knowledge of language requirement. This is bluntly against the spirit of the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages (which the UK is a signatory to) and the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights, both of these make it clear that discouraging the use of one of the recognised languages (recall the explicit mention in the British Nationality Act 1981), a governmental body may not unjustly discourage or disadvantage one language or language community.

Note that the British Nationality Act 1981 has not been amended in this respect, and still reads “a sufficient knowledge of the English, Welsh or Scottish Gaelic language”; and the British Nationality (General) Regulations 2003 only make reference to “a language” in respect of this requirement. From this one would assume that you can still satisfy both KoLL requirements in Welsh or Scottish Gaelic, for instance by passing the Life in the UK test in Welsh and taking the WJEC B1 Canolradd or B2/C1 Uwch exam, or having a degree that was taught in Welsh. So at the beginning of this year, Lord Roberts of Llandudno put the question to Lord Bates, one of the Ministers at the Home Office. He asked if an applicant would be exempted from the English language requirement if they have a Bachelor’s degree in Welsh or Scottish Gaelic. Lord Bates replied that the British Nationality (General) (Amendment) Regulations 2013 specify that that requirement can only be met by English. This is factually incorrect, as it merely adds a list of approved English text, but does not modify the reference that knowledge of “a language” be proved, and says that for English the procedure to prove this is such-and-such. The reasoning he gives is even more appalling and completely in the face of minority language rights. He reasons that “[a]s English is the language spoken throughout the UK, an ability to speak English enables interaction wherever an individual chooses to live. Therefore, a person can only meet this part of the knowledge of language and life requirement by demonstrating speaking and listening proficiency in English.” First, this of course is not backed up by the law, and in fact questions the equality of the other recognised languages. Second, it is an insult to non-English-dominant indigenous speech communities in the UK. When I do fieldwork in Wales, I regularly have participants who have spoken very little or no English at all in the preceding week (it’s one of the questions for the background questionnaire), and it is perfectly possible to live your life in the heartlands without using English if you really don’t want to; there even were days on my last trip there where I didn’t speak any English all day, only Welsh. Last, the statement is also blatantly untrue: Children with two Welsh parents in a Welsh majority area often don’t encounter English until they enter the education system, and the deaf communities who use British and Irish Sign Language can hardly be said to use English, but that is perhaps another point. The fact remains that the law says that Welsh and Scottish Gaelic are sufficient, and that the view espoused by Lord Bates cannot be reconciled with the spirit of the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages or the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights.

I have today sent out four letters with regard to this matter. The first is to the Home Office, describing the above situation in more detail yet, and also asking questions about the status of the other recognised minority languages: Irish, Ulster Scots/Scots, Cornish, BSL and ISL. I asked them to clarify whether the requirement can be met with any or all of those languages, and what evidence is accepted as sufficient proof. I then called for them to commit to living up to the government’s responsibility toward those language communities, and amend their documents to include Welsh and Scottish Gaelic, if not the others, as was the case before the 2013 changes.

I also sent a letter to my MP, Jeremy Corbyn, telling him about the important role Irish and Welsh communities have historically played in the area in and around the constituency, and asking him to push the issue of giving full and equal recognition to all the minority languages with the relevant people, especially at the Home Office and UK Visas and Immigration.

I sent another letter to The Rt Hon Stephen Crabb MP, the Secretary of State for Wales. I wrote it in Welsh, though I’m not sure he speaks Welsh, but I think he should be able to deal with this. I described to him my predicament, and my desire to achieve naturalisation through the Welsh language. I then asked him if he can push for clarification on the use of Welsh for this purpose from the Home Office, and if he will be a champion for all the minority languages of the UK.

Lastly, I sent an email to Lord Roberts of Llandudno, briefly describing my situation, that I read his question to Lord Bates, and that Lord Bates was factually wrong on his point of law. I asked him if he would consider putting the question to Lord Bates again, this time specifically with reference to the section of the British Nationality Act 1981 that says that Welsh or Scottish Gaelic is sufficient.

I will be curious to see what responses I get, if any, but I feel now quite determined to push this point further if necessary. But I hope it won’t have to come to a situation where I will have to submit an application as-if and then challenge a possible negative outcome in court. Wouldn’t it be nicer if we could all just be nice to each other and respect each other’s linguistic rights, for what is the worth of minority language rights if we find ourselves unable to in fact exercise what is both our legal and human right?

I will post the letters and responses when/if I receive them.


  1. Well done, completely agree.Residents who previously lived in England move into our area and have no regard for the way of life and the Welsh language spoken in our area. 40 percent of the residents speak Welsh but are expected to change their way of life to the incomers previous way of living. Principally the fault lies to a great extent with the Welsh speaking community who are subservient and allow this to happen. In many other areas this would not be allowed to happen. It will be very interseting to find out what the contents of the replies to the letters will be.


    1. It’s a tricky thing sometimes I suppose. It seems to me that when the number of Welsh speakers in a town goes down to a certain level, perhaps 3/4 of the population or so, then English becomes the default language to speak to people you don’t know. It’s understandable why, it can be very socially awkward to speak a language to someone who you’re not sure will understand it. I agree though that it doesn’t have to be that way, and that beginning conversations with people who move to Wales in Welsh regularly might just show them the language is common enough that it is worth learning it.
      I’m always amazed at the people of Luxembourg in this respect when I’m there. It seems like people just start talking to strangers, say on the bus (big no-no in the UK, I know), in whatever language they feel most comfortable as a matter of course; it looks like they only ask to confirm whether the other person even speaks that language when they get a stare or something.
      In comparison, in North Wales at least, I know many places that have a “Dechrau bob sgwrs yn Gymraeg.” sign on their reception desk, yet I’ve still to experience a single receptionist speaking Welsh to me of their own.


  2. Very interesting.

    I’m recently back from a wonderful holiday in Wales. I speak Gàidhlig to a decent level, and opted to learn a few key phrases for visiting Welsh majority speaking towns, although I probably sounded out of shape – the smiles, goodwill and enthusiasm from Welsh speakers made it worthwhile.

    If I ever end up living in a Welsh speaking majority area, I think it’s only natural to learn the language of business. Speaking to many locals, some concerened about the plight of the language in the Heartlands, I noticed from my untrained ears/eyes that Cymraeg was alive and very much well – I heard it all major towns and villages in the north of the country.

    It does not take much for settlers to learn a few basic phrases when moving in to a new area – even if they aren’t fluent – surely it’s just basic manners to learn when deciding to move to a new place.

    I’m enjoying your blog, agus le deagh dhùrchadan á Alba,


    1. Thank you for sharing what sounds like a very positive experience Faltdubh (Gwalltdu? ;-)). I couldn’t agree more with your view on learning at least a little bit of the language when you move somewhere, and the fact you can meet people of all ages and from all over the world in Welsh classes makes me hopeful that people can see that for minority languages too, not just for the majority language. Hwyl!


  3. The information they gave you under FOI is wrong. I sat the Gaelic test in Glasgow in 2010 (I still have a copy of the cover letter saying I passed, would be happy to share). A bit of a saga in itself, when I called and asked to sit the Gaelic test it was a case of “No you can’t” – “Yes I can” until some line manager said I could but I’d have to wait for them to arrange for an “interpreter” (sic). When I queried the interpreter bit, they clarified they meant a translations of the questions I’d get as the digital system only does English. Fair enough. Test day I show up (actually with a film crew waiting outside for a Gaelic documentary). They give me a stack of paper and my jaw drops because in all my years as a translator and proofreader, I’d never seen the like. Google Translate didn’t do Gaelic at the time so my guess is they asked around the office and someone was a lower-intermediate learner or had done a Gaelic (Learner) Higher in their youth. It was so dire I had to look at the answers at times to figure out the questions… When I was done, I handed it back and told them that if I’d failed it, I’d raise one heck of a complaint because the translation was substandard. Fortunately I’d passed… I was told they’d pass my feedback on but my guess is, nobody ever bothered. I certainly never heard back.

    I was told (not by the staff) that the Welsh option was brought in by some Welsh MP or Lord who argued at the time that if a Welsh Patagonian wanted to apply, this would be unfair as their two languages would be Welsh and Spanish. Gaelic I was told was slipped in out of goodwill by said Welshman because there are still Gaelic speaking communities in Canada – presumably because this does not apply to Irish or Cornish, they didn’t get in.


    1. Fascinating. Thank you for sharing your experience Michael. Late in 2015 I made a new FOI request, which confirmed one test taken in Scottish Gaelic on 30 June 2010, and two requests in Welsh. For Welsh, one person never “came back to learn direct to confirm” (understandable, I had to exchange around 10 emails before they even accepted that I really wanted to do it in Welsh), the other had not yet set the test then (I assume that was me).

      Somehow I am not surprised by what you say about the quality of the translation. Sadly, after a long argument, the company doing the Life in the UK test now (learn direct) took so long to come up with a translation that I had moved back to London by the time they were done and they wouldn’t let me sit it anymore as my closest test centre now wasn’t in Wales. They said on the phone they would ban me from taking it in Welsh in the future as I was wasting their resources (they were aware of my impending move in advance, plus they failed to notify my of the proposed test date–make of that what you will).

      I had a more positive response (in fact, the only response I received to any letter) from the Home Office, who affirmed they would make appropriate arrangements if a candidate would want to satisfy the language requirement through Welsh, Scottish Gaelic or BSL (they didn’t say anything about ISL and Irish, as far as I can remember, but the wording of the letter is such that I wouldn’t be hopeless in those cases). Did you complete the naturalisation process after the Life in the UK test entirely through Scottish Gaelic too (language requirement, oath, forms)?


      1. Yeah none of this is really a huge surprise, sadly…

        No, everything was in English (the language requirement was – in those days – fulfilled by sitting the test or possibly I claimed fluency on the basis of having a degree from Edinburgh Uni, I can’t recall), the horrible book, the forms, oath, everything. At some point, especially when fighting the staff at immigration you just cave in and go along with what’s there because you just want it to be over so you can get on with your life.

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