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.