Sentenced to discrimination

Language as a weapon of state

ON AUSTRALIA DAY in 2016, artist Elizabeth Close was at an Adelaide shopping centre speaking to her young daughter in Pitjantjatjara, when a woman approached and said to her: ‘It’s Australia Day. We speak English.’ Close was shocked, and replied, ‘Pardon?’ The woman slowed down her speech and repeated herself. Close retorted that as she was speaking a native Australian language, she ‘could not get more Australian’. The woman walked off without another word.[i]

The results of the 2016 Census reveal that more than three hundred languages are spoken in homes across the nation, and that more than 21 per cent of Australians speak a language other than English at home.[ii] That is one fifth of our population, and it is likely a modest estimate, as the Census does not account for Australians who did speak a language other than English at home but have since moved out and into an English-speaking home environment. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has publicly declared that Australia is ‘the most successful multicultural society in the world’, and Australia Day events centre around celebrating the nation’s multiculturalism. Yet our multilingualism is not accepted as part of our multiculturalism, even though a multicultural nation is by definition (and supported by the Census data) a multilingual one. A poll conducted in 2015 by ANU found that 92 per cent of respondents consider speaking English as ‘important’ in identifying as Australian, placing English skills higher than birthplace or citizenship.[iii] Despite the nation’s multiculturalism, English is a conspicuous marker by which Australians judge each other’s ‘Australianness’.

The high priority placed upon speaking English as an identifier of being Australian is in spite of the fact English is not Australia’s official language. It is designated as a ‘national’ language, and Australia, like the US and the UK, has no ‘official’ languages. The difference between the terms ‘official language’ and ‘national language’ is only slight, and refers to language management rather than language use. Some nations stipulate official languages to afford equal status to more than one language, as is the case in Canada, where both English and French are the nation’s official languages. South Africa has eleven official languages to account for the different mother tongues of citizens living in different areas of the nation. By law, an official language must be used in the government and legal proceedings of the nation, while a national language is only afforded the right to be used. It is not compulsory.[iv] It is unclear why English is not designated as an official language in Australia. Linguist David Crystal suggests that the reason English is not legislated as an official language in the US or UK is due to the dominance of the language in those regions at the time, and therefore there was no reason to legislate for the status of English.[v] This is also the likely reason why English is not an official language in Australia.

While English is not the nation’s official language, in April 2017 the Turnbull government proposed controversial changes to Australia’s citizenship eligibility requirements. One of the proposed changes was to introduce a formal English language component, where applicants would be required to achieve an IELTS Band 6 (International English Language Testing System) score in the general stream (not the academic stream) to be eligible for citizenship.[vi] The IELTS bands range from zero (for someone who does not show up for the test) to nine (native-level fluency). Band 6 falls in the mid to high range, and indicates a competent language user. Requiring an applicant to demonstrate language skills to be eligible for citizenship is not controversial in and of itself. The majority of countries in Europe, Africa, North America, South America and Asia require applicants to demonstrate ability in an official or national language in some way. Some countries require a formal language certification, while others assess the applicant’s basic language skills. There are some notable exceptions, which include Japan, Hungary, Ireland, Sweden and China.[vii] Of the countries that do not require language assessment, many require a citizenship test. Australia requires such a test, and therefore applicants need at least a basic understanding of the national language to pass the test. While Australia is in the minority in not mandating a language test for citizenship, the proposal of an IELTS Band 6 is a high level to require of potential citizens, and goes beyond the level of English required to function with day-to-day activities in society. Furthermore, given Australia’s language diversity and mix of Indigenous and community languages alongside English, requiring such a high language component is in direct opposition to the multiculturalism Australia promotes.

Language has been used since Federation to selectively include or exclude people from our nation’s multicultural fold, and the proposed changes to citizenship suggest a shift back to anti-foreign sentiments. The Immigration Restriction Act 1901, implemented at Federation, imposed the Dictation Test on those wishing to migrate to or enter Australia. Non-Europeans who wished to migrate to Australia were played a fifty-word passage in a language chosen by the immigration officer, and were required to write down what they heard.[viii] Originally, the test was to be conducted in English, but it was feared that this would give an advantage to Chinese and Japanese applicants. Therefore, officials decided the test could take place in any European language. In 1905, an amendment to the Act replaced ‘an European language’ with ‘any prescribed language’, but in practice the change still referred to European languages. Immigration officers determined which languages the applicant did not know during a pre-test interview and, if the applicant was deemed unsuitable to enter Australia, the test was administered in a language the applicant had no knowledge of. Officials could administer the test any time within a year of a person’s arrival in Australia, and those who failed the test were either deported or refused entry. The test was designed to be failed. Correspondence between the Commonwealth Home and Territories Department and the Collector of Customs at Fremantle in 1927 confirms the purpose of the test:

The test, when applied to an immigrant, is intended to serve as an absolute bar to such a person’s entry into Australia, or as a means of depriving him of the right to remain in the Commonwealth if he has landed. The test should therefore be applied in a language in which the immigrant is not sufficiently acquainted to be able to write out at dictation.[ix]

It was the duty of customs officials to ascertain which language the applicant would be certain to fail the test in:

The question has been raised as to whether it would be allowable to abandon the application of a dictation test before completing the fifty words and to choose a fresh passage in another language, in any case where an immigrant, after admitting his inability to write in the language first chosen, commences to write in such a manner as to indicate the likelihood of his passing the test. The Crown Law authorities, however, definitely advise that once the test has been started it should be gone on and carried to completion. It is therefore desirable that every possible precaution should be taken to ascertain whether the person concerned is likely to be able to write in the language chosen.[x]

The Dictation Test was used to discriminate against potential migrants, to ensure only migrants who fulfilled the nation’s wish for a white Australia could gain entry to the country. On the surface, the means for assessing a citizenship applicant’s English ability in the proposal by the Turnbull government does not openly discriminate in the same way as the Dictation Test, as the IELTS is administered by an independent body. Yet requiring such a high level of English to gain citizenship reserves citizenship status for applicants who have had access to steady, uninterrupted education and thus privileges certain applicants over others. It is in this way that the proposed changes resemble the Dictation Test, as they similarly filter out ‘undesirable’ applicants through prioritising the Australian value of possessing a high level of fluency in English.


YET EVEN CITIZENS who successfully meet the language requirement may not have the opportunity to integrate into Australian society as successfully as the government advocates. It is not only proficiency in English that Australians listen for in identifying fellow Australians, but how much of an accent a person has in their English. A person who speaks accented English will invariably be asked about their cultural heritage. The subtext is that if their English is accented, they are not Australian. Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann is Chair of Linguistics at the University of Adelaide, and the founder and convenor of the Adelaide Language Festival. During his opening address at the festival in November 2017, Zuckermann said, ‘When someone speaks English with a foreign accent in Australia, it is viewed as a disability. But it means they speak at least one other language.’ Zuckermann spoke in his own accented English, a language he speaks from his repertoire of fluency in eleven languages (he also has varying levels of competency in an additional eleven languages).[xi] Accented English reveals a linguistic skillset, and Zuckermann created the language festival in 2014 to educate the population on languages and celebrate linguistic diversity to normalise multilingualism. Festival attendees have the opportunity to take a twenty-minute crash course in a variety of languages. More than thirty languages were offered at the 2017 festival, including Indigenous languages, Asian languages and even invented languages such as Klingon and Esperanto. Citizens with fluency in more than one language are an asset to the skillset of the nation, not a detriment.

Even so, research shows that people who speak accented English suffer discrimination in the Australian job market. A study undertaken in 2013 interviewed bilingual social workers working in Australia to determine how their language skills align with their profession.[xii] One of the common themes that emerged from the participants was that, despite their qualifications and experience, their accented English deterred employers from hiring them. One participant shared that she was interviewed for a position where people from a diverse background were specifically sought, and then in the interview the interviewer commented on the participant’s strong accent. The applicant did not get the job. Another participant who was working as a social worker had to make a call on a client’s behalf, and the receiver of the call assumed the participant was an interpreter, not a social worker. The participants of the study also commented on how their accented English was not considered to be an educated way of speaking, and therefore others made assumptions about their intelligence based on their ability in English. Furthermore, their accented English was often blamed for miscommunications in the workplace.

But no matter how well a person learns a foreign language, it is often the case that an accent will never disappear. A person could live in Australia for more than fifty years and still speak accented English. A person can speak a language with perfect grammar and expression, but still have an accent. An accent is not a definitive marker of how well a person speaks a language or of a person’s intelligence, and it is certainly not an indication of whether or not a person is Australian. In a multicultural nation, it would follow that ability in multiple languages is celebrated, not condemned. While a person who speaks more than one language is not discriminated against by default, the extent to which a multilingual person also speaks English is weighed against their ability in other languages. Speak English with an accent that is not Australian, and the person will be marked not as someone who speaks more than one language, but as someone who is not Australian. In our society, accents are used to discriminate and segregate, with personal and professional repercussions.

It is not only foreign-born Australians who are subjected to discrimination based on language. The nation’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, who are the nation’s traditional owners, are ostracised for their perceived reluctance or inability to learn and use English. This is partly evidenced by Elizabeth Close’s experience on Australia Day, but is also reinforced by the strong disregard in Australia for the importance of maintaining and teaching Indigenous languages alongside English. This is a shift that has occurred in the last twenty years, as from 1973 to 1998 Australia was looked upon as a world leader in bilingual education, given the successful implementation of bilingual education programs in remote schools in the Northern Territory.[xiii]

The Whitlam government initiated the funding for bilingual programs after Indigenous Australians gained official recognition in the constitution. The program enabled schools to employ teacher-linguists to work alongside teachers in remote schools. Children who spoke an Indigenous language as their mother tongue had the opportunity to learn to read and write in their native language before learning to read and write in English. The children in the program achieved good results across all of their subjects, including English literacy. Yet on 1 December 1998, the Northern Territory Government announced that they would phase-out the bilingual programs and redirect the additional funds to English-as-a-second-language programs instead.[xiv] They claimed the decision was based on consultation with community groups, who said they wanted English-only education, and they selectively looked at data to support their claim that the bilingual programs did not improve student outcomes. Yet this reasoning was unfounded, and they ignored key data sets showing that the bilingual programs actually improved student outcomes across all areas. A review was commissioned in 1999 following the backlash against the government’s proposal, and while some bilingual programs were cut, others remained under the name ‘two-way learning’ program, often resourced by individual schools themselves rather than government funding. In 2005, the Northern Territory Government began reviewing bilingual education programs again, but by 2009 the government introduced the ‘four hours of English’ policy. All schools were required to teach in only English for the first four hours of the day (out of five and a half hours), even in preschools where some children had no prior knowledge of English.[xv] The priority became a focus on English literacy, despite the fact a large body of research shows that students who have access to bilingual education achieve better results across all subjects than students who do not. Since 2015, the Northern Territory Government has mandated that remote schools use the direct instruction method for English literacy and numeracy, where teachers must follow predetermined lessons and deliver scripted instructions.[xvi] The degeneration of bilingual education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who do not speak English as their mother tongue further emphasises the role English plays in identifying as Australian. To strip remote communities of their native languages in favour of English, rather than nurturing both languages alongside each other, only refuses to acknowledge the role that languages other than English play in the lives of many Australians, and ignores the ways in which languages enrich our multicultural nation.


THERE IS A perception that Australians who speak a language other than English do not speak English or do not want to speak English. But competency in English and competency in another language are not mutually exclusive: it is possible (and common) to speak both English and an additional language or languages fluently. Furthermore, anyone who has lived in a location where they do not speak the local language understands how difficult and isolating it can be. It is necessary to learn English to get by in Australian society. Yet learning a language does not happen overnight, and there are barriers to migrants learning English. While the government offers up to 510 hours of English language tuition to new migrants under the Adult Migrant English Program to support migrants in acquiring basic English skills, 510 hours is not long enough to gain a high level of fluency in the language. It provides only a starting point. Learning English, or any language, is an ongoing process that can take years.

The Turnbull government’s proposed changes to citizenship did not pass through the Senate, and in October 2017 the changes were revised. One of the revisions includes dropping the English language requirement from a Band 6 to a Band 5 score in the general IELTS test, and the government plans to implement the new requirements from 1 July 2018, if the revisions pass through the Senate.[xvii] If the new citizenship eligibility requirements are implemented, ability in English will officially be legislated as a prized attribute of Australian citizens, guarding the gate to acceptance within our multicultural society.

We are Australian. And yes, we do speak English. It is our national language, and it is a challenging task to live in our nation and not have enough competency in English to navigate day-to-day activities. But we also speak more than three hundred other languages, and promote ourselves to the world as a multicultural nation. Our nation’s history tells a multilingual story stretching back thousands of years, yet our modern history reveals a pattern of discriminating against people based on language. Within our multicultural society we use English, not proficiency in more than one language, to identify fellow Australians. Though the role of English in Australia can bind our multicultural society together under a common tongue, prioritising English as a condition for claiming an Australian identity while rejecting other languages undermines and fragments Turnbull’s ideal of a multicultural utopia.



[i] Close, E, 2016, ‘I don’t care for your brand of racism.’,, accessed 27/11/17

[ii] Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2017, ‘Census reveals a fast changing, culturally diverse nation’,[email protected]/lookup/Media%20Release3 accessed 1/02/2018.

[iii] Australian National University, 2015, ‘Australian attitudes towards national identity: citizenship, immigration and tradition: ANU Poll April 2015’, accessed 5/02/2018.

[iv] Canadian Parliamentary Information and Research Service, 2014, ‘Official Languages or National Languages? Canada’s Decision’, Library of Parliament, Ottawa,, accessed 25/09/2016.

[v] Crystal, D 2003, English as a Global Language, Cambridge University Press, p. 84.

[vi] Australian Citizenship Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Requirements for Australian Citizenship and Other Measures) Bill 2017 (Cth)

[vii] GLOBALCIT, 2017, Global Database on Modes of Acquisition of Citizenship, version 1.0. San Domenico di Fiesole: Global Citizenship Observatory / Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies / European University Institute,, accessed 16/01/2018.

[viii] National Archives of Australia, 2016, ‘Immigration Restriction Act 1901 (commonly known as the White Australia Policy)’, Government of Australia,, accessed 11/10/2016.

[ix] McNamara, T 2005, ‘21st Century Shibboleth: Language Tests, Identity and Intergroup Conflict’, Language Policy, no. 4, p. 358.

[x] McNamara, T 2005, ‘21st Century Shibboleth: Language Tests, Identity and Intergroup Conflict’, Language Policy, no. 4, p. 358.

[xi] Goldsworthy, A 2014, Voices of the Land, The Monthly,, accessed 29/01/2018.

[xii]Harrison, G 2013, “Oh, you’ve got such a strong accent”: Language identity intersecting with professional identity in the human services in Australia. International Migration, vol. 51, no.5, 192-204. doi: 10.1111/imig.12005

[xiii]McKay, G 2017, ‘The Policy Framework for Bilingual Education in Australian Indigenous Languages in the Northern Territory’ in B Devlin, S Disbray, N Devlin (eds.), History of Bilingual Education in the Northern Territory: people, programs and policies, Springer.

[xiv]Devlin, B. et al., 2017, History of bilingual education in the Northern Territory: People, programs and policies, Springer.



[xvii]Department of Home Affairs, 2017, ‘What’s New for Australian Citizenship’, accessed 13/02/2018.

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