English language bar for citizenship likely to further disadvantage refugees

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Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has proposed tougher language requirements for new citizenship applicants.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Sally Baker, University of Newcastle and Rachel Burke, University of Newcastle

Citizenship applicants will need to demonstrate a higher level of English proficiency if the government’s proposed changes to the Australian citizenship test go ahead.

Applicants will be required to reach the equivalent of Band 6 proficiency of the International English Language Testing System (IELTS).

To achieve Band 6, applicants must correctly answer 30 out of 40 questions in the reading paper, 23 out of 40 in the listening paper, and the writing paper rewards language used “accurately and appropriately”. If a candidate’s writing has “frequent” inaccuracies in grammar and spelling, they cannot achieve Band 6

Success in IELTS requires proficiency in both the English language, and also understanding how to take – and pass – a test. The proposed changes will then make it harder for people with fragmented educational backgrounds to become citizens, such as many refugees.

How do the tests currently work?

The current citizenship test consists of 20 multiple-choice questions in English concerning Australia’s political system, history, and citizen responsibilities.

While the test does not require demonstration of English proficiency per se, it acts as an indirect assessment of language.

For example, the question: “Which official symbol of Australia identifies Commonwealth property?” demonstrates the level of linguistic complexity required.

The IELTS test is commonly taken for immigration purposes as a requirement for certain visa categories; however, the designer of IELTS argues that IELTS was never designed for this purpose. Researchers have argued that the growing strength of English as the language of politics and economics has resulted in its widespread use for immigration purposes.

Impact of proposed changes

English is undoubtedly important for participation in society, but deciding citizenship based on a high-stakes language test could further marginalise community members, such as people with refugee backgrounds who have the greatest need for citizenship, yet lack the formal educational background to navigate such tests.

The Refugee Council of Australia argues that adults with refugee backgrounds will be hardest hit by the proposed language test.

Data shows that refugees are both more likely to apply for citizenship, and twice as likely as other migrant groups to have to retake the test.

Mismatched proficiency expectations

The Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP), where many adult refugees access English learning upon arrival, expects only a “functional” level of language proficiency.

For many adult refugees – who have minimal first language literacy, fragmented educational experiences, and limited opportunities to gain feedback on their written English – “competency” may be prohibitive to gaining citizenship. This is also more likely to impact refugee women, who are less likely to have had formal schooling and more likely to assume caring duties.

Bar too high?

The challenges faced in re/settlement contexts, such as pressures of work and financial responsibilities to extended family, often combine to make learning a language difficult, and by extension,
prevent refugees from completing the citizenship test.

Similar patterns are evident with IELTS. Nearly half of Arabic speakers who took the IELTS in 2015 scored lower than Band 6.

There are a number of questions to clarify regarding the proposed language proficiency test:

  • Will those dealing with trauma-related experiences gain exemption from a high-stakes, time-pressured examination?
  • What support mechanisms will be provided to assist applicants to study for the test?
  • Will financially-disadvantaged members of the community be expected to pay for classes/ materials in order to prepare for the citizenship test?
  • The IELTS test costs A$330, with no subsidies available. Will the IELTS-based citizenship/ language test attract similar fees?

There are also questions about the fairness of requiring applicants to demonstrate a specific type and level of English under examination conditions that is not required of all citizens. Those born in Australia are not required to pass an academic test of language in order to retain their citizenship.

Recognising diversity of experiences

There are a few things the government should consider before introducing a language test:

1) Community consultation is essential. Input from community/ migrant groups, educators, and language assessment specialists will ensure the test functions as a valid evaluation of progression towards English language proficiency. The government is currently calling for submissions related to the new citizenship test.

2) Design the test to value different forms and varieties of English that demonstrate progression in learning rather than adherence to prescriptive standards.

3) Provide educational opportunities that build on existing linguistic strengths that help people to prepare for the test.

The ConversationEquating a particular type of language proficiency with a commitment to Australian citizenship is a complex and ideologically-loaded notion. The government must engage in careful consideration before potentially further disadvantaging those most in need of citizenship.

Sally Baker, Research Associate, Centre of Excellence for Equity in Higher Education, University of Newcastle and Rachel Burke, Lecturer, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

20 Reasons to be a Proud ESL Student + 5 Tips for Speaking English With Confidence

Be proud of learning a second language!

20 Reasons to be Proud of Being an ESL Student

  1. You can dream in multiple languages.
  2. You know more about English grammar than most native speakers know.
  3. You can read more of the internet than your monolingual friends.
  4. Your perspective of the world is wide.
  5. You can understand life from multiple perspectives.
  6. You have changed the way native speakers think about your native culture.
  7. You understand more of your native language.
  8. You are more flexible in your thinking.
  9. You are comfortable being around people who look different than you do.
  10. You speak more than one language, and most people can’t say that.
  11. You are more perceptive than others (according to a study by the University Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain)
  12. You can identify sounds better than those who only know one language, according to this study.
  13. You are brave enough to reach beyond the limits of your own language.
  14. You know how to speak short phrases in several different languages, because of your classmates from different countries.
  15. You can translate for your parents.
  16. You have developed an even stronger sense of pride for your native country.
  17. You can pretend to not understand English if you’re ever in a situation where that would benefit you.
  18. You use more of your brain than a monolingual person.
  19. You know what being an outsider is like, so you have the ability to have compassion on those who feel marginalized.
  20. You’re incredibly strong for taking the risk of learning a second language.

5 Tips for Speaking English with Confidence

  1. Make eye contact with the people listening to you. Nothing shows confidence more than eye contact. Most native English speakers come from cultures where eye contact is a sign of confidence. When you look someone in the eyes while you are talking, you show them that you are competent and sure of yourself.
  2. Stress key words with emphasis. Most people will be able to understand the meaning of your statements if you clearly pronounce the key words in the sentence. We call these “content words”. Here is an example: Here is how stress sounds in a sentence when you focus on stressing content words and not stressing function words. (I capitalized words that need stress): I WALKED to the PARK last TUESDAY, because I WANTED to take my DOG on a WALK. Simply say those words more strongly and loudly than the other words. Fore more on this, read this article about ways to sound like a native speaker.
  3. Ask for clarification if you didn’t understand what someone said. Many times, non-native speakers of English won’t understand what someone has said to them, and instead of asking for the speaker to repeat themselves, many people just nod their heads as if they understood. When you do that, it makes you feel insecure about the direction of the conversation, and you will no longer feel like you can meaningfully contribute to the conversation. To regain your place in the conversation, just simply ask the individual to repeat what they have just said. You can say, “Sorry, I didn’t catch what you said?” Or you could say, “What’s that?”
  4. Record yourself speaking English on camera. A great practice for improving your speaking confidence is to record yourself and then watch it back. This exercise is for the brave! Watching yourself speak a second language is difficult because we are often our own worst critics. However, if you can take this practice as a way to better yourself, you will become much more confident of a speaker because you will have improved yourself.
  5. Stand up straight. Our body language often dictates how we feel. Watch this TED talk called “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are” by Amy Cuddy. It will encourage you to stand up straight and position your body in a confident way, because body language can influence our mood. When you stand up straight, you start to believe in yourself, and you will see your confidence increase. Try it right now.

Author : Andrea Giordano

Andrea is the founder of ESLbasics.com and the author of 21 Ways to Jumpstart Your English Skills. She loves teaching English, traveling the world, and living the good life with her husband and two sons