(c) Stephen Mitchel

A Coalition backbencher, Hon Dr Sharman Stone MP, recently proposed that potential Australian citizens should be required to learn English in order to be granted citizenship. Wannabe citizens would be required to take a course, proving a basic conversational ability in English. Apparently, more and more people who are unable to speak English are turning up at citizenship ceremonies in Stone’s electorate of Murray, VIC, and she’s not happy about it.

Leaving aside the fact that the existing citizenship test takes place in English and thus requires a certain level of English language proficiency, and that specifically testing migrants’ language abilities is eerily similar to the infamous ‘Dictation Test’ of the Immigration Restriction Act (AKA The White Australia Policy), we thought we’d help out the Coalition by providing them with some ready retorts when arguments for English tests next get thrown around the party room :

“English is Australia’s official language so new citizens should have to be able to speak it”

English is often considered Australia’s national language, but it is not our official language. Unlike many other countries around the world, we technically don’t have an official language. While our government operates in English, it’s not stated anywhere that that’s what it has to be. Compare this, for example, to our close neighbours in New Zealand where Māori, New Zealand Sign Language and English are all legally acknowledged as official languages. What’s more, Australian Government materials are produced in a variety of languages.

 “Real Australians speak English”

As of the last census in 2011, 76.8% of Australian households spoke only English at home and this often results in what’s referred to as the monolingual mindset. Speaking one language is the norm in Australia – and that language apparently needs to be English (Never mind that more people in the world are bi- and multilingual). Nearly a quarter of Australian households speak languages other than English, including indigenous languages. The assertion that you have to speak English in order to be Australian is frankly ridiculous. This is especially true when we consider that English has only been the dominant language in Australia for around 200 years. Indigenous Australians have been speaking languages other than English for tens of thousands of years.

“Learning English is a valuable skill that they will be able to use for life”

Many of the non-English speakers turning up at ceremonies, Stone says, are from “Middle Eastern countries and are very often women”. According to Stone, these women often “prefer to stay at home [and] this might be their only chance to be allowed to learn English”. If this is the case, is forcing these women to learn English going to have a long-term benefit? Anyone who has learnt a second language will be able to attest to that fact that, without practice, language skills soon fall by the wayside. If people lead lives without a need to speak English, socialising in communities where people speak languages other than English, attending doctors who speak those languages, receiving government forms in those languages, etc., learning English in order to pass a citizenship test is unlikely to result in long-term English proficiency.

“When new immigrants can’t speak English, it leads to them becoming isolated”

Are we, as Stone suggests, “missing opportunities to help these new citizens get the skills that will help them get a decent job, or help their children in school”? Are we “ultimately … risking that they become alienated and discontented”? Here at Fully Sic, we’d argue that forcing people to learn a language that they have little use for is probably not going to lead to an end to the potential isolation of new migrants from broader Australian society. That’s more likely to come from those same people no longer being harassed for speaking their own languages in public and/or for dressing according to their religious customs.

What’s more, it is possible to be legally employed in Australia without speaking English. Among other departments, the Australian Tax Office and the Fair Work Ombudsman provide materials in numerous languages to ensure employees both obey the law (e.g. by paying taxes if they are obliged to) and are treated fairly. If the type of employment that a person wishes to undertake requires English (or, indeed, if that person wants to learn English for any reason whatsoever), we should be doing everything we can to help them to achieve that goal – through, for example, ensuring access to community language programmes. However, there is a very big difference between ensuring people are able to learn English should they choose to and telling them that they cannot live in our country unless they speak it.

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