[lg policy] Australia: Practical language needs lost in the immigration debate

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Wed Jul 21 14:34:15 UTC 2010

Practical language needs lost in the immigration debate
Posted on July 20, 2010, 8:22 pm

The notion that new arrivals should have some command of the language
of their new country appears simple but it exposes very complex issues
of identity and equality
Language tests have a long record of playing a role in social group
inclusion and exclusion. The Biblical story of the shibboleth in the
Book of Judges, where the way the word “shibboleth” was pronounced was
used to detect friend from foe, resulting in the deaths of many
defeated troops trying to “pass” as friendly non-combatants, has been
repeated over the centuries in cultures all around the world from
mediaeval England, Sicily, Egypt and Yemen to contemporary Sri Lanka
and Lebanon.

While modern, scientific language tests seem a far cry from this
simple one-word test, it is increasingly clear that the very
scientific character of language tests can be useful in masking their
deeper social purpose of inclusion and exclusion. Research is now
beginning to focus on the role of language tests in controlling access
to rights of asylum, residence and citizenship.

For asylum, many countries, including the UK, carry out a form of
language testing as part of the determination of region of “primary
socialisation” of asylum claimants who arrive without identity papers.
The role of language analysis is based on the same simple, commonsense
belief that lay behind the shibboleth test, that you can tell a
person’s origin from how they sound.

But regional pronunciation features are often not a reliable guide to
origin, particularly if a person has spent time in multiple countries.
In any case, the kind of accent variation involved has not been well
studied in areas with strong refugee flows. Existing language analysis
procedures typically leave very much to be desired, to the point of
being indefensible. While these are not formal language tests, they
raise similar issues to those that arise when assessment is used for
other kinds of newcomers.

The rationale for language testing for the purposes of immigration and
citizenship has varied. Often, the motivation is said to be in the
interests of the welfare of immigrants themselves: it is ­argued that
access to educational and employment opportunities ­depends on
knowledge of the main national language of the host country. A more
elaborate form of this argument underlies the practice, recently
introduced in the UK following the lead of Australia, whereby points
are allocated for language proficiency (in addition to points for
youth, health and likely immediate employability) as part of a
points-based system for selection of skilled immigrants.

This functionalist argument for ­language testing for immigration and,
by extension, citizenship, suits language testers, who on this basis
can provide well-made tests as required, tests moreover that focus
precisely on the kind of ­practical communicative skills stressed by
the policy. That all is not what it seems is ­revealed by the fact
that the level of this functional proficiency required for citizenship
varies from country to country. Using the Common European Framework of
Reference (CEFR) for languages as a common yardstick, the level for
citizenship varies from A2 to C1 in various European countries.

Clearly, the requirements of language for social participation should
be the same, regardless of the actual language. The levels adopted in
each case act as a kind of barometer of the intensity of the social
and political debates around immigration and immigrant communities in
the countries concerned. More and more countries (including, recently,
France) are embracing language testing as a rational-seeming solution
to complex, often highly emotive, social issues. Moreover, one
political advantage of the points-based scheme is that it ­favours
immigrants with the kind of skills that make it easy for them to

On the question of the right to ­enter the country in the first place,
the heightened political climate around immigration in the Netherlands
saw more and more restrictive language testing requirements, so that
tests needed to be taken in the home country before a visa could be
issued; this practice is soon to extended to the UK for spouses who
want to join their naturalised partners.

An amusing example of the under­lying values informing current
practices arose recently in Australia, where the residency
requirements for elite athletes and others to apply for citizenship
were lowered from four years to two. In a statement, the minister
said: “The revamped requirements will create a fairer system for
people who, due to circumstances beyond their control, are currently
ineligible for citizenship. These changes will lead to more gold
medals for Australia at sporting events, as well as providing a real
win for the national workforce.”

Current policies therefore seem, below the functionalist surface, to
be informed by a shibboleth-like policy of using tests as means to
include and exclude, even though the tests now used are supported by
considerable technical sophistication.  So what are we to make of the
“scientific” quality of modern tests of functional proficiency in
languages, which have come to play such an important role in
immigration policy? Carefully developed and well managed proficiency
tests such as the Cambridge Esol suite, Ielts (International English
Language Testing System) and others allow defensible decisions about
individuals to be made within existing policy settings. In other
words, the tests support the fairness of decisions about individuals,
and in terms of fairness are an improvement on procedures that
involved impressionistic evaluations from officers not qualified to
make language assessments.

This is not to say, however, that these tests are perfect: a recent
concern is the lack of adequate evidence to support the linking of
levels on some tests to the CEFR levels mandated in legislation, a
matter of some ­importance given the nature of the policy. We can
make, however, a distinction between fairness and justice. Even if a
test is fair, it may be unjust, if it is used to implement unjust
­policies. Language testers are currently ­debating whether their
responsibilities extends to how tests are used. Whatever position one
takes in the theoretical debate, it is clear that a good quality test
in scientific and technical terms can disarm criticism of the policies
it serves. Both defenders and opponents of the use of language tests
in sensitive political and social contexts such as immigration and
citizenship tend to confuse fairness and justice in this debate.

• Tim McNamara is Professor of ­Applied Linguistics at the University
of Melbourne and joint editor of ­Language Assessment Quarterly’s
special issue on language assessment for immigration, citizenship and

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