No English, no entry?

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By Cassandra Allen

There is a cynical and nasty tone creeping into our national discourse on immigration and citizenship. And it disturbs me.

It worries me too, because for all the talk about ‘Australian values’, the current discussion is not representative of those values. It casts an exclusionary veil over our immigration policy and, in my opinion, that’s just not reflective of our inherently welcoming nature.

The very thing that has made us such a fabulously successful multicultural nation is the absence of gimmicky ‘language and values testing’. But political forces dictate that is about to change.

Imagine if early Italian and Greek immigrants had been required to jump English-language hurdles before coming here after World War II? Many would not have made it to our shores. And how much poorer would our culture be?

Ditto for the Vietnamese refugees who arrived after the Vietnam War in the 1970s. The vibrancy these non-English speakers brought to our social fabric cannot be overstated.

While speaking English is certainly an advantage for people immigrating to Australia, I’m concerned about it becoming a condition.

What level of English is ‘good enough’? Who assesses a migrant’s proficiency? And who can judge the capacity for people to rapidly learn the language once they are immersed in our society?

It’s true that learning a new language when you’re older is difficult. But is a lack of proficiency in a parent an acceptable basis to bar a family?

My 21 year-old daughter has just spent six months studying in Spain. Admittedly, she had been learning Spanish at university here before embarking on her adventure. But her language skills were still quite poor on arrival.

She soldiered on though. She immersed herself among native Spanish speakers at university, attended lectures spoken in Spanish and submitted her written assignments in Spanish. It was very hard – “brain-fryingly exhausting,” she says. But on her return to Australia, after just six months, she is close to fluent in this second language.

I don’t think Australia should be closed to those who are just beginning their English language journey. That is not the sign of modern, progressive, outward-looking Australia. It’s a retrograde step that shows the desperation of a Prime Minister beholden to his right-dominated cabinet. Come on Malcolm, we’re better than that.