We Only Speak English Here

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Words || Isil Ozkartal

My grandma is the coolest Turkish-Australian you will ever meet. Whenever I visit her, she serves Turkish tea with Aussie lamingtons on the side. She mixes broken English into her Turkish sentences to try and impress us, to show us how far she has come. My cousins and I like to poke fun at her pronunciations and she laughs along. My favourite thing is when she texts me “I love you”, spelling it as “Aylavu”. I always reply with an “Aylavu too”. I would rather not correct her spelling because I think it’s cute and that’s our little thing.

I’d like to think Australia was a welcoming place for my grandma when she arrived here from Turkey in the 1970s. From what she tells me over tea, it wasn’t. When I asked her about her first 10 years in Australia, she cried out of sadness. She told me she hoped for better when she came here and she imagined it would be easier. She’s not ungrateful, she’s just broken. The creases that now run down her face are the roads she has travelled; long, troubled and permanent in their mark. She told me she never felt the same community feeling here as she felt in Turkey. “People over here hate on their neighbours for being ‘un-Australian’”. She tells me that she wishes she could speak better English, but it’s very hard for her.

My grandma’s broken English does not make her un-Australian in my eyes; it just makes her a miracle worker in a society designed to see her fail. She talks with her smile, and she has managed to speak to Australians that way for over 40 years. The language barriers mean she sometimes feels alone, but she still calls Australia home.

The Federal Government’s proposed changes to Australia’s citizenship test have put ‘Australian values’ in the limelight. New migrants and refugees must prove their ‘Australianness’ through answering tougher questions that assess their attitudes towards gender equality, religious freedom, the rule of law, and other topics to show that they have successfully integrated into their communities. Applicants are also required to have lived in Australia as a permanent resident for at least four years instead of one (besides New Zealanders, they are exempt from this rule).

Although some changes to Australian citizenship are relevant to national security – such as more thorough background checks – one of the most important and unfair changes is the new English proficiency requirement. Applicants would now have to pass a stand-alone English test, involving reading, writing, listening and speaking components.

While English is the most widely used language in Australia, adding a language component to the citizenship test will inadvertently affect some migrants and refugees, particularly those who have fled unimaginable circumstances. A one-size-fits-all proficiency test does not take into consideration those who are still learning English but are valued, respectable members of their community. It can also be seen that the government has not considered the difficulty of learning a new language for migrants with low educational and socio-economic backgrounds.

Dr Louisa Willoughby, Senior Lecturer of Cultures and Linguistics at Monash University, told ABC Radio that the new citizenship requirements set out by the government ignore the fact that learning a language as an adult is “difficult”. Dr Willoughby said she was concerned that setting the English language bar too high means that, “you can end up excluding people who really are doing the best they can be expected to do”. In Australia, a foreign and loving heart can turn stale overtime. A migrant must try much harder to integrate than the average person into Australian society, as they are faced with multifaceted cultural barriers.

If the government believes that the English language is a prerequisite to becoming an Australian citizen, it is telling me that my grandma is not. She still finds it very difficult to read, write or understand proficient English and it takes her a while to string together a sentence. Her accent yells, “I am not from here”.

I beg to differ with the Prime Minister’s appeal that he is “putting Australian values at the heart of citizenship processes and requirements”. As a first generation Turkish-Australia, the values that I hold close to my heart are multiculturalism, diversity, unity and progressiveness. Australia was built off the backs of working migrants. If my grandma had to go through that citizenship test, you probably would not be reading this. These latest changes put forward by the conservative government are frankly exhausting and insulting to migrants who are forced to ground their ‘Australianness’ in their ability to speak English proficiently. The government still needs to pass these citizenship amendments through a difficult Senate, and are taking suggestions on the citizenship test questions from the public until the start of June. I hope that future migrants, like my grandma, will be spared from having to once more ‘prove’ themselves to be part of this country.

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