“It wasn’t very difficult…” Personal responsibility, immigration and english language

“Culture wars”. When Keith Windschuttle writes another tirade in Quadrant designed to rile up progressives, I cringe. I don’t mean to offend those who care about this stuff, but I certainly don’t. Endless point scoring and nit-picking from a range of mostly excellent writers who are seemingly obsessed with each other. Whats the point, I think, as I read another blog post about education curriculum? Save me from this endless cultural churn.

But… unfortunately for anyone who feels as I do, it ends up being important (caveat: sometimes). This was illustrated perfectly yesterday when Bianca Hall showcased Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells views on the English language and immigration. Senator Fierravanti-Wells is associated with the hard right faction of the NSW Liberals and herself from a migrant background.

Unlike the bombastic approaches of others on Australia Day, Fierravanti-Wells found a topic which I believe is broadly appealing to the general public. Of course migrants should speak English! Seriously, one shouldn’t disagree with this sentiment. English language improves employment prospects and assists new arrivals to settle in Australia perhaps more than any other factor.

Yet the language of the Senator is to be rejected:

”It wasn’t very difficult: within three months, we had all learnt English and we were all busy singing away with our Maltese teacher, who taught us,” she said.

Senator Fierravanti-Wells said Australia Day was an apt time to discuss the ”personal responsibility” of migrants to learn English.

Propagating the myth learning another language is easy, from the Parliamentary Secretary who has responsibility for integration of migrants, is damaging. Doubly so by using her personal experience as a primary school aged child as the baseline for migrant ability. Her array into the “culture wars” was a deliberate attempt to expand what is acceptable opinion by inferring migrants these days are just a little bit different from migrants back in her day.

Personal responsibility should count for something and I believe education results show it does. Migrants take personal responsibility, just like most other people.

This graph shows how Australian migrant children perform in schools, as measured by the PISA scores (an international test). Second-generation children perform better than native students at reading, while first-generation students score about the same level. Australia is such a massive outlier here, largely attributed to our large skilled migration program and successful integration programs.

Screen Shot 2014-01-27 at 11.54.11 AM

The same holds true for maths, as measured by the birthplace of parents:

Screen Shot 2014-01-27 at 11.56.38 AM


(Source: OECD)

Here we have compelling evidence that migrant families, those implicitly disparaged by Senator Fierravanti-Wells, take “personal responsibility” for their children in terms of both reading and maths. It is hard to believe this would be achievable without parents and other adults within migrant communities taking the time and effort to learn what they consider a personally appropriate level of English.

It is undoubtedly true that learning English language is important for migrants living in Australia. However there no evidence at all that forcing migrants to speak English as their primary language from the day of their arrival will improve the settlement experience.

The Australian settlement experience for migrants is world-class. There are less than a handful of countries that can lay claim to engineering such a successful integration of mass migration and maintenance of social cohesion. Senator Fierravanti-Wells comments do not support or further this goal, instead they are nothing more than an attempt to hoodwink a relaxed public on Australia Day.

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