Australia: What about the other language barrier?

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Sep 11 14:56:23 UTC 2006

What about the other language barrier?

Migrants are often keen to learn English, but have limited opportunities
to do so, writes Rachel Woodlock. When Prime Minister John Howard and
senior ministers recently called for migrants to fully integrate and learn
English quickly, they were not saying anything new. Multicultural
Australia: United in Diversity (a statement elaborating our official
policy of Australian multiculturalism) notes that while one of our
greatest strengths is that we are, and will remain, a culturally and
linguistically diverse nation, all Australians are called to respect the
fundamental principles of our democratic society, and acknowledge English
as our national language.

With federal and state governments encouraging migrants to settle in
regional towns to fill jobs, it would be natural to presume funding is
being pumped into local areas to assist integration and the speedy
acquisition of English. In other words, has Mr Howard put money where his
mouth is?

Earlier this year, Monash University was given funds to research Muslim
settlement in regional Victoria, and Cobram was chosen as a town with a
long-standing multicultural history. Nestled on the Murray River and part
of the "fruit-bowl" of Victoria, Cobram has a strong demand for seasonal
labour: it is a fair bet the tomatoes in your can of soup came from around
Cobram. The area has seen waves of indigenous, British, Italian and now
Iraqi settlement and close to 10 per cent of the 4500 residents are Muslim
migrants: a population that has increased sharply over the past few years.

Because the majority of new settlers have limited English, both
service-providers and migrants themselves see English language learning as
vital to the success of settlement. As one Muslim leader explained: "It
helps you to do other things: get a job, friends, create a business. It
gives you many options to do what you like." Migrants reported that a lack
of English negatively impacts on employment and business opportunities,
comprehension of legal rights and duties, education for children and
youth, and can create feelings of embarrassment and frustration among
those who feel unable to communicate effectively. The problem is not a
lack of desire to learn English. The issue is with the availability of
learning opportunities for new migrants. The Department of Immigration and
Multicultural Affairs provides funding for English learning through the
Adult Migrant Education Program.

Depending on age and type of visa, a new migrant should receive between
510 and 910 hours of tuition if they apply quick smart on their arrival or
on being granted permanent residence. In practice, the delivery of English
tuition can be woefully inadequate. Cobram has struggled to offer English
classes to its growing migrant population, often facing bureaucratic
barriers. When the mayor, Ed Cox, tried to set up a volunteer scheme to
teach English in a local school, the project was aborted because of
insurance problems, despite willingness from volunteers and migrants to
see the program succeed.

Cobram has neither an intensive language centre for school-age migrants,
nor specialised support for children being placed directly in schools,
some with little or no English. When young migrants fail two or three
years in a row and then drop out of school altogether, it creates a class
of disenfranchised youth. But there has also been some good news. Thanks
to the philanthropy of organisations such as the Myer and Fairley
foundations, the local council has been able to lease a permanent centre
where English is taught. The grateful response from Cobram's Muslim
migrants is extremely encouraging. As one migrant said in regard to the
establishment of English House: "It's good now, we are free!"

So, if the Federal Government is serious about migrants learning English
to promote integration, it needs to make sure all our new settlers have
the opportunity to take up the challenge.

Rachel Woodlock is a researcher at the Centre for Muslim Minorities &
Islam Policy Studies, Monash University.


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