Tougher English test to meet new citizenship rules may set bar too high, expert warns

Press/Media: Expert Comment




A tougher English language test under the Federal Government's sweeping changes to citizenship laws will exclude people from disadvantaged backgrounds, a linguistics expert says.

Louisa Willoughby, a senior lecturer at Monash University, said the new requirements ignored the fact that learning a language as an adult was "difficult".

The new test will measure migrants on their attitudes to religious freedom and gender equality and ask them to demonstrate that they have integrated into Australian society.

It also requires them to sit a more stringent English language test which will include reading, writing and listening components.

But Dr Willoughby warned that learning a new language required at least 1,000 hours of communication to reach a level of fluency.

"I'm always scared about restricting citizenship to people based on their English levels," she said.

"A lot of the time learning a new language is a really hard thing, especially if you've come from a place where you've been a refugee who's had interrupted schooling.

"If you never became literate in your first language, it's so difficult to become literate in a second language.

"If you set the bar too high, you can end up excluding people who really are doing the best they can be expected to do."

Learning as an adult

While the general understanding is that the easiest time to learn a language is when you are young, learning as an adult also comes with its advantages.

"As an adult, you know about the world, you know how to study, you're just learning a new way to conceive the world," Dr Willoughby said.

However unlike children, adults need to start off with the basics of a language.


Dr Willoughby said a child's brain could easily pick up words and phrases if they were immersed in a country, for example, while adults found that difficult.

"If you take the kids to China for work, the kids will just pick up Chinese like that," she said.

"But adults can't do that; there's things that happen to our brains in puberty that mean if we're just chucked in the deep end, we've got no hope.

"So we need to learn some vocabulary, some grammar beforehand."

Fluency takes years

A year of learning a language before immersion in conversational settings was the first step on the road to fluency, Dr Willoughby advised.

ABC Radio Sydney caller Mark said he took five years to learn Spanish and had been learning Indonesian for two.

He suggested to others they should expect a similar timeframe.

"If they don't do that, they become very discouraged and give up," he said.


Josephine, who teaches conversational English in a church community group, said she gets her participants to engage in the language using role play.

"I teach people in their 20s to people in their 60s who are mainly women," she said.

"I find a lot of the people are happy to be engaged but find it hard to speak English at home, which is a big drawback. I encourage them to speak one hour a day."

Find a partner

There are numerous language apps and courses run by community groups and colleges that teach adult language classes.

However the best method to advance your proficiency is to find situations where you can use the language authentically, rather than speaking in set introductory phrases that are usually taught in classes.

Dr Willoughby suggested finding a language exchange partner online so you can set up regular Skype chats and take turns speaking to each other in your native tongue.

"The best way is interacting with people who understand what you're trying to stay and help you or ask for clarification if something is not clear," she said.""Try to use it in a restaurant to order food, or finding someone online to talk to to do a language swap."

Period20 Apr 2017

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  • TitleTougher English test to meet new citizenship rules may set bar too high, expert warns
    PersonsLouisa Willoughby