The Australian government is proposing tough new English language competency requirements for those seeking Australian citizenship.
Alongside a test of Australian values, and proof of your integration into Australian society, you’ll need to prove you can read, write and speak English at a competent level
We’ve been here before
Question: What do these two excerpts have in common - besides their clumsy sentence structure?
If the land is ploughed when wet the furrows may, and in all probability will, wear a more finished appearance, and will be more pleasant to the eye, but land so ploughed will be more inclined to become set or baked, and when in this state will not produce a maximum yield.
By carefully preplanning projects, implementing pollution control measures, monitoring the effects of mining and rehabilitating mined areas, the coal industry minimises the impact on the neighbouring community, the immediate environment and long-term land capability.
Answer: They are both language tests used to decide Australian citizenship.
The first is a 50 word dictation test that was key to the White Australia Policy. It was used to keep non-Europeans out of Australia.
Even if you passed the test in English, the immigration officer had the right to test you again in another European language. It was used from 1901 until 1958.
The second one is 50 words from a 1000 word reading comprehension exam with 40 questions that you must complete in 60 minutes.
This test is key to Australia’s proposed new Citizenship test. You must also write two essays, do a 30 minute listening test and a 15 minute speaking exam. If it passes through Parliament this week, it will be used from 2017.
Aspiring Australian citizens will need to score a Band 6 on the general stream of the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) test, the same score as those seeking entry to Australia’s top university.
So, could you pass the test?
The reading test
You have 60 minutes to read at least four texts taken from magazines, newspapers or training manuals, and answer 40 comprehension questions. Your short answer responses are also assessed for grammar and spelling. Here is an excerpt from a piece about bee behaviour.
The direction of the sun is represented by the top of the hive wall. If she runs straight up, this means that the feeding place is in the same direction as the sun. However, if, for example, the feeding place is 40 degrees to the left of the sun, then the dancer would run 40 degrees to the left of the vertical line.
Try the test for yourself.
The writing test
You have 60 minutes to complete two writing tasks. For example,
Write a letter to the accommodation officer complaining about your room mate and asking for a new room.
You are marked on the length of your response, its cohesion, vocabulary and grammar.
To give you something to gauge yourself by, this one didn’t achieve the required score of 6. It begins,
Dear Sir/Madam, I am writing to express my dissatisfaction with my room-mate. As you know we share one room, I can not study in the room at all any more if I still stay there.
As Senator Penny Wong observed about the test,
“Frankly if English grammar is the test there might be a few members of parliament who might struggle.”
Currently our national school test results from NAPLAN show that 15.3% of Year 9 students are below benchmark in writing. This means they would not achieve a Band 6 on the IELTS test.
A fair test?
I prepared students for the IELTS test when I lived and taught in Greece. They needed a score of 6 to get into Foundation courses in British universities. It wasn’t an easy test and sometimes it took them more than one try to succeed.
My students were middle class, living comfortably at home with mum and dad. They had been to school all their lives and were highly competent readers and writers in their mother tongue of Greek.
They had been learning English at school since Grade 4, and doing private English tuition after school for even longer. Essentially they had been preparing for their IELTS test for at least 8 years.
They were not 40-year-old women whose lives as refugees has meant they have never been to school, and cannot read and write in their mother tongue.
Neither were they adjusting to a new culture, trying to find affordable accommodation and a job while simultaneously dealing with post-traumatic stress and the challenge of settling their teenage children into a brand new world.
Learning a language takes time
Even if we conclude that tests about dancing bees and recalcitrant room-mates are fit for the purpose of assessing worthiness for citizenship - and that is surely very debatable - we must acknowledge that it is going to take a very long time for our most vulnerable aspiring citizens to reach a proficiency that will enable them to pass the test.
Currently we offer them 510 hours of free English tuition. That is at least 5 years short of what the research says is required to reach English language competency.
Testing English doesn’t teach it
The three ingredients of successful language learning are motivation, opportunity and good tuition.
The Australian government must address all three if it wishes to increase the English language proficiency of its citizens.
An English language test may appear to be a compelling motivation to learn the language, but without the opportunity to learn and excellent tuition over time, the test is not a motivation. It is an unfair barrier to anyone for whom English is not their mother tongue.
And then this new policy starts to look and feel like Australia’s old White Australia Policy.