Multiculturalism, linguistic diversity, and citizenship testing

By July 13, 2017Migration

Miriam’s mother arrived as a refugee in New Zealand in 1939. She still remembers the kindness her family was shown.

Like many other Western countries, Australia is currently grappling with the global wave of refugees, together with the threat of terrorism. Although the Australian government has managed a very successful immigration and settlement program since the 1940s, the current conservative government and their supporters in the media, and especially the Minister for Immigration, Peter Dutton, have linked the risk of terrorism with new immigrant and refugee communities. A recent government policy change outlined in a document called ‘Strengthening the Test for Australian Citizenship’ proposes tough new barriers to achieving Australian citizenship, including an English level of IELTS Band 6.

Mr Dutton claims that “The Australian public wants to see an increase in the English language requirement, they want to see people meet Australian laws and Australian values”. However, there has been widespread opposition across the community to the changes in the English language requirement and the opposition Australian Labour Party has decided to oppose them, too.

There is no evidence that introducing more rigorous language testing and raising the bar for citizenship will support the successful integration or English language learning of immigrants or refugees; rather it may achieve the contrary. The language hurdles to citizenship proposed by Mr Dutton are unrealistic and overcoming them will be unachievable for many adults who arrive in Australia under different visa classes.  This policy will inevitably lead to two classes of permanent Australian residents, one of them an underclass without access to the privileges of citizenship.  Is this what the Australian government wants?

It is beyond question that English is the national language of Australia but we also need to recognize that Australia is characterized by high levels of linguistic diversity: Many current Australian citizens (including some indigenous ones) are not proficient or even competent in the national language.

In spite of this, successful contemporary democracies including Australia have flourished because of the contribution of diverse immigrants and, of course, the contributions of their children.

The evidence of Australia’s successful 70-year-old immigration program shows that such a new English language test is not necessary.  Many Australian citizens originating from non-Anglophone countries would never have passed the proposed test and may still not have ‘proficient’ English after many years in Australia. Yet their hard work – and their brain power – have built modern Australia, and this has not been impeded by their less than perfect grasp of English.

They and their children will remember that this government, by imputation, has discounted that contribution.

People with limited English have successfully participated and still do participate in workplaces and communities.  We should not conflate formal education with life skills, as the independent Senator Jacqui Lambie has argued in the Australian parliament. The millions of migrants and refugees who built post-war Australia learnt their English through immersion in communities and workplaces that afforded opportunities for participation and inclusion; as they used to say out at the Ford motor car factory in Broadmeadows in Melbourne: ‘we didn’t learn English but we learnt to speak Ford’.

Rather than making full inclusion in the Australian community provisional on first knowing English, the sociolinguistic evidence shows it is the other way round: newcomers learn English through participation in the Australian workforce and community when and were they are welcomed, appreciated and involved. And Australia does have a proud record in this regard.

Lack of education and the challenges of adult language learning are reasons why many current Australian citizens are not fluent in English after many years living and working here, including those who have attended English language classes.  In spite of this, their dedication to Australia is, or should be, beyond question. Learning a language formally as an adult is a difficult process, as many of us have experienced.  It is particularly difficult if a learner has limited education in his or her own countries, because of poverty, or war, or displacement.

When Prime Minister Turnbull claims that imposing the test is ‘doing people a favour’ he has not understood that when migrants and refugees fail to acquire English, it is not for want of trying. Most are eager to learn English and willingly attend ESL classes. But adult second language learning does not progress at a steady pace from zero to proficient, even when learners have high levels of motivation and convenient tuition available.  Rather, individual learners ‘stabilise’ at different points along the continuum, very often before reaching the kind of ‘proficiency’ measured by level 6 of the proposed test (International English Language Testing System or IELTS).

IELTS Band 6 requires English skills far beyond those required for everyday participation in the wider community; essay writing for example. IELTS (including the ‘general’ IELTS) was designed to test formal ‘school’ English skills, and therefore discriminates against migrants with limited education, such as refugees and humanitarian arrivals. It also discriminates against women who have missed out on basic schooling due to gender discrimination or poverty in their country of origin.

It seems highly likely that many applicants for citizenship would fail the proposed test.  In fact, many Australians  – including citizens by birth – would not succeed in reaching this level yet have sufficient language skills for social engagement and employment. Its validity in the context of citizenship testing is therefore highly questionable.

In effect, the government is proposing that immigrants and refugees from non-English speaking countries demonstrate mastery of English far beyond that required in everyday life and intends to link such a level of English to the assessment of who is a desirable citizen. The implications of the proposed change for our understanding of what is means to be Australian and what kind of country Australia is are highly disturbing.  Multiculturalism, a policy that has served Australia well for two generations, is now apparently no longer an Australian value.

Author Miriam Faine

Dr Miriam Faine is a Lecturer in English as a Second Language and Adult Education in the Faculty of Education at Monash University in Melbourne. She has nearly 40 years’ experience as an ESL teacher and as a lecturer and researcher in adult English language learning.

More posts by Miriam Faine
  • David Valls

    To acquire Australian nationality English should not be a unique must. It should be possible to acquire this nationality by showing fluency in any of the 250 aboriginal languages, as they are more Australian than any other language. Why English over Greek, for example? Aboriginal languages will always be Australian, however who knows if English will always be the majority language in Australia.

    • What a great idea! If people from non-English-speaking backgrounds have to demonstrate proficiency in English, people from English-speaking backgrounds (including the native-born) should have to demonstrate proficiency to an equal level in an Aboriginal language. That would kill the idea that language proficiency is a valid prerequisite for citizenship really quickly …

      • David Valls

        What I exactly meant, is that proving proficiency in any of the 250 aboriginal languages will do. English should not be a requirement or at least let’s make either proficiency in English or in any of the 250 languages.

        • Good idea, too. Except then, in reality, everyone would still take the test in English … in the UK, it’s possible to take the citizenship test in Welsh or Scottish Gaelic in addition to English but apparently hardly anyone ever does ..

          • David Valls

            the test should be available also in, at least, the main aboriginal languages.

  • LauraSK

    Australia has a long and proud history of using language tests as a supposedly fair and unbiased way to exclude particular groups of people. We have only to look at the dictation tests used under the White Australia policy for another example. I discussed this in another LotM blog post.
    http://www.languageonthemove.com/discrimination-by-any-other-name-language-tests-and-racist-migration-policy-in-australia/

    Language tests as a prerequisite to residency (and this indirectly to citizenship) already exist for some visa categories – namely skilled visas. However, given the logic behind those visas, this makes some sense. In reality, the application of a language test on all would be citizens is bound to disproportionately block those who have faced most difficulty in their lives, through limited access to education. It is likely to therefore block e.g. More women than men, and people have experienced socioeconomic disadvantage or persecution (and are residents in Australia on humanitarian grounds). Therefore, as Miriam argues, all such a test would do is create two classes of residents/citizens and effectively entrench disadvantage.

    • Miriam Faine

      thanks for the comment Laura – I would have replied earlier but have ben on holidays. I had read your earlier post with interest – not last because it has personal reference to the other side of my family as I believe Australia followed South Africa’s lead in imposing a language test for entry in 1903. (South Africa was trying to keep out Indians). My great grandfather, a Russian Jew, had been working in South Africa when his wife died in 1901 or 1902 and he had to return home to his children, He subsequently ended up migrating to NZ and it seems likely that the reason he could not return to South Africa was that at that point Yiddish was not deemed a European language.

  • Thi Lam Tra DINH

    This article reminds me of the article on the Guardian with the title “Computer says no: Irish vet fails oral English test needed to stay in Australia” on Tuesday 8 August 2017. This Irish woman has two degrees; however, she could not overcome the oral test in English. The problem may result from the reliability of the language test, the computer malfunction, or the woman lacking skills completing the oral test. So if English is Australian National Language, is it really necessary for those who English is their first/offical language and has certain qualified certifications in English to take an English test for their immigration point? It is obvious that applicants with such backgrounds are eligible to apply for Australian universities. Why is it not the case for immigrants?

  • Julie

    Attaining certain levels of English proficiency will surely afford the commitment immigrants bring to Australia in all aspects. However, as they also contribute to the Australia of multiculturalism and linguistic diversity, the citizenship testing may not have to strictly base on IELTS 6.0 applying to all potential citizens. The article actually has reasoned many points to explain the whys which I share with. The threats, to lesser or greater degrees, will not barely be attributed to immigrants only though the policy-makers would find it hard to make a ‘best’ solution for the concerned problem.

  • Ha Pham

    I think that that is policy is invading human rights. Language should only be one of factors to be considered when someone wants to be accepted as australian citizen. language is a precious gift for people, helping them to discover new things in life, which means the most. however, this policy is preventing that dreams coming true. why dont politicians think about other criteria other than English profiency, the length of stay and achivements for example.

  • vy ha

    I am not opposed to the idea of having some sort of English proficiency test for citizenship because after all, English is an official language in this country but the requirement is 6 IELTS is beyond ludicrous. Content for both IELTS academic and general requires certain level of education which is not easy to attain for many immigrants and refugees and even when they master the content on the test, it has little to do with their lives in Australia. In fact, Australia government should consider proficiency test that focus on the communicative aspect of English which can be of use when migrants have to learn to cope with their new lives here instead of requiring them to analyze all sorts of chart or writing an argument essay, which has 0 value on the daily basis.