Starting this fall, people hoping to go to Britain to either join their spouses or get married and immigrate will need to prove they can speak English.
The requirement, announced Wednesday by the new conservative government of Prime Minister David Cameron, applies only to those from outside the European Union. The government said migrants will need to show they can speak English as well as a 7-year-old before they'll be granted a visa. This is in addition to proving their relationship is genuine and they are able to support themselves financially.
"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."
Officials estimate the new language test will cut visa applications by 10 percent, with those most affected coming from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
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 the rule an intrusion into citizens' private lives.
The changes follow a hard-fought general election campaign in which immigration policy was a key, and contentious, issue.
Currently, spouses are granted visas that allow them to go to Britain for about two years, after which they can apply for permanent residency — which requires a citizenship and language test.
"Forcing husbands and wives to take language tests before they even arrive in the U.K. will rip families apart," said Hina Majid, the policy director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, a London-based advocacy group. "These new rules are likely to hit people from South Asia and Africa, where English is not the main language. It may also hit women harder and discriminate most against the poorest."
Besides, cultural integration is dependent on far more than just understanding certain words, said lawyer Danielle Cohen, whose London practice focuses on immigration and human rights.
"Being part of a culture is a gradual thing," Cohen said. "Cultural barriers are not going to be lifted immediately just with the command of basic English."
The measures were first tabled by Britain's Labour government in 2002. Last year, about 38,000 spousal visas were approved, and another 21,000 people were granted permanent residency.
Cohen called the changes to the rules an intrusion into the personal lives of citizens.
"The problem for me with this measure is that I don't think the English language is a prerequisite for love," Cohen said. "If you can communicate in your own language, what business is it of the state to interfere?"
But 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. 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," he said. "So having a basic understanding of English must only be a good thing, surely."
The move 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 was holding an election Wednesday in which a far-right party that wants to ban all immigration from non-Western countries has a shot at doubling its seats in Parliament.