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Linguistic fidelity for spouses

Britain orders that marital newcomers must prove their English fluency.

LONDON - Love may have its own language - but that's not good enough for the British government.

It wants English, too.

Starting this fall, the spouse of a citizen who is coming from outside the European Union and wants to live in Britain will have to prove he or she has a basic command of English.

The move, announced Wednesday by the new Conservative government of Prime Minister David Cameron, comes as countries across Europe tighten their rules on immigration amid rising unemployment rates and concerns about the ability of newcomers to integrate.

The famously tolerant Netherlands held an election Wednesday in which a far-right party that wants to ban all immigration from non-Western countries more than doubled its seats in the parliament.

In Britain, the government is casting the new policy as an effort to promote integration - not to keep out foreigners.

"I believe being able to speak English should be a prerequisite for anyone who wants to settle here," Home Secretary Theresa May said in a statement. "The new English requirement for spouses will help promote integration, remove cultural barriers and protect public services."

Couples already have to meet other criteria, such as proving their marriage is genuine and demonstrating that they can support themselves financially. And language tests are required for skilled workers and people applying for permanent residency or citizenship.

The changes to Britain's rules follow a hard-fought general-election campaign in which immigration policy was a key, and contentious, issue.

The new measures have been criticized by civil libertarians, lawyers, and activists. Some say the changes discriminate against people from countries with few English-speaking traditions, such as in Africa and Asia. Others call them an intrusion into citizens' private lives.

Some also argue that English is best learned where it's spoken every day, rather than forcing people into classrooms abroad, which could be of varying standards and potentially costly. Spouses will have to show evidence to British authorities that they have passed an English test with a government-approved provider.

Language requirements vary across Europe.

Some nations, such as France, require basic proficiency before arrival, while others, such as Italy, are in the process of phasing in a system in which an immigrant will have to achieve a certain number of points through language and culture tests.

In bilingual Belgium, where language is a hot issue, Flemish political parties argue loudly that language skills should be tested, especially for North African immigrants who may manage to learn French - the language of former colonial masters - but not the country's other main language, Dutch.

In the United States, despite an increasingly vociferous movement to stem the influence of Spanish and make English the only official language, there is no requirement for a spousal visa applicant to speak English.

Demetrios Papademetriou, president of Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan Washington think tank, said that different viewpoints in Congress would make it unlikely a move like Britain's could ever be adopted in the United States.

"We also don't focus purely on integration, the way Europe seems to have latched on to integration," he said.

Some Britons argue that it's only natural for newcomers to learn the language of their host nation.

Dennis Weeks, a 38-year-old civil servant from east London, said he wouldn't be able to participate in another country's culture if he didn't speak the language, so it seems fair that immigrants to Britain learn some English.

"I don't think it is a bad thing," he said. "I think to be able to properly partake in a society and be involved with things with society, you're going to need to communicate. So having a basic understanding of English must only be a good thing, surely."