An English test for citizenship? Just another barrier

A dedicated English language test as part of a citizenship application is an odious barrier and does not reflect a society I want to be a part of.

Yet the ability of migrants to speak the English language in Australia is essential. I understand there is an alternative argument that some who cannot speak English can and do make meaningful contributions to our society but for the average migrant, English language is the starting point of economic and social success. It is vital to social cohesion and the traditions of Australian settlement.

Instead of barriers to citizenship, support should form the foundation of an inclusive citizenship. To begin, there is already a de facto English test given the citizenship test is taken in English. Formalising this process into two separate tests would adversely formalise  a tiered membership to our society.

We do not want new migrants enclosed and removed from society, stuck on the edge, always peering in. Proficiency in English language is the single most important factor to ensure this does not occur. In the 1980s, the average income gap between those migrants who could and couldn’t speak English was about 10 per cent. By the 1990s, this had grown to about 20 per cent. Today, this gap is between 35 and 40 per cent.

This should be the number one piece of evidence that drives policy and program support for new migrants from non-English speaking backgrounds. This suggests there is ample room to support medium term increases in labour productivity given 60 per cent of our population growth is from migration.

The underlying factor behind this income trend is easily recognised. As the labour market increasingly values human capital, those without the associated skills such as literacy and linguistic fluency fall further behind.

Despite this entrenched trend, there is little policy recognition this is occurring. Instead of arguing the merits of an English language test for citizenship, perhaps we could focus instead on creating English language proficiency in newly arrived migrants?

We know for instance that 94 per cent of migrants in the Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP) believe it is important to learn about employment. “Words to Work“, an AMES survey report into the AMEP, found that only 27 per cent of migrants were happy with their level of English after completing their eligible hours.

Despite being perhaps global best practice in delivering language support to new migrant arrivals, the AMEP is in need of an overhaul. 510 hours of eligibility is enough for about six months full time training. Migrants leave the program without ability to engage fully in the labour market or broader society. A immediate doubling of eligible hours would step one in helping to foster improved English proficiency.

Step two is to expand the eligibility for the AMEP. There are about 60,000 students per year in the program yet this excludes long-term temporary migrants who in all likelihood will end up as permanent residents. Why should someone wait 4 or 8 years to undertake an English language class if they know they are in Australia for the long haul? At a minimum, eligibility should be extended to the partners of 457 visa holders.

Finally, the program is still delivered roughly as it was over the past three decades. There is a teacher, a classroom and face to face learning environments. In a situation where there is enormous pressure to work for many migrants, program flexibility is a must. Mixed use classes, a heavier focus on employment and variability of lesson delivery are desperately needed when the program is next tendered.

There will always be some who do not make the transition to fluent English. This is to be expected but not punished. It is demonstrated across language and countries that older migrants struggle mightily compared to younger migrants to learn English. Further, an increase in linguistic diversity – speaking Chinese or Arabic and not just Germany or Dutch – has increased the difficulty for Australia’s migrants as a whole.

The worst outcome is permanent exclusion from society because barriers to entry are too high. An English language test for citizenship would be such a barrier. This exclusion would occur despite an indefinite right to remain in Australia. A tiered, broken system of residency with little long-term hope.

Under the Howard government, the residency requirement for citizenship increased from two years to four years. This is hardly remembered these days but it was a sign that the barriers to citizenship grow greater. Time passes and the extension to four years is not a deal breaker (but should be reconsidered in my opinion). An English test does not simple fade with time. It would be a permanent reminder that some are more equal than others in Australian society and we would be worse off for it.

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