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Is Your English Good Enough To Pass The Australian Citizenship Test?

A new language test is on the table for those who want to be Australian citizens — and it's tough. Could you pass it?

Illustration by Kati Szilagyi

Sydney, Australia. A chilly winter morning. The breeze has a sharp edge to it and the ground is covered with a layer of frost. And listen! Can you hear that distant tweeting sound? Why, it’s a politician using social media to talk about "Australian values" and propose a revamped citizenship test. This rare event takes place every ten years or so, much like a plague of locusts.

A new language test to become a citizen? And it will be harder than the last one? Alright, I admit, I didn’t even know we had a language test for people to become citizens. I thought you just had to be able to name the filling of a meat pie (correct answer: I don’t want to know), identify whether a "prawn" or a "shrimp" is the correct object to throw on the barbie, and be able to cite Don Bradman’s batting average.

So what exactly is this proposed test?

Heads down

The new test is made up of a 60 minute reading comprehension, a 30 minute listening section, a 60 minute writing paper with two essays, and a 15-minute speaking test. To pass, applicants will have to obtain the equivalent of a Band 6 IELTS score — that’s the International English Language Testing System typically used to gain entrance to universities. Band 6 means getting 30 / 40 in the reading, 23 / 40 in the listening, and scoring well in the speaking and writing sections. Let’s have a look at a sample IELTS reading passage:

The direction of the sun is represented by the top of the hive wall. If she runs straight up, this means that the feeding place is in the same direction as the sun. However, if, for example, the feeding place is 40 degrees to the left of the sun, then the dancer would run 40 degrees to the left of the vertical line.

Hmmm. How about this one?

Since mining activities represent only a temporary use of the land, extensive rehabilitation measures are adopted to ensure that land capability after mining meets agreed and appropriate standards which, in some cases, are superior to the land’s pre-mining condition. Where the mining is underground, the surface area can be simultaneously used for forests, cattle grazing and crop raising, or even reservoirs and urban development, with little or no disruption to the existing land use. In all cases, mining is subject to stringent controls and approvals processes.

If it seems like these would be challenging for some native speakers, that’s because they are. IELTS is a tough test; Band 6 is not easy to achieve. Bear in mind that the people taking this test are applying for university positions. You don’t just have to understand the language — you need to know the specifics of the test.

Let’s have a look at the writing section – not the "academic" tasks, just the "general" ones. Here’s Task 1, and a sample response. How would you rate it?

You live in a room in college which you share with another student. However, there are many problems with this arrangement and you find it very difficult to work. Write a letter to the accommodation officer at the college. In the letter, • describe the situation • explain your problems and why it is difficult to work • say what kind of accommodation you would prefer.

And the response below did not achieve Band 6:

A couple of tips, in case you’ve never had to grade IELTS before. We look for certain markers that are strictly controlled and standardized. There is little or no room for interpretation. But as you can see, writing something that is comprehensible doesn’t necessarily mean you achieve the required pass grade, although I bet you can understand the above response quite clearly.

What about the second writing task?

In Britain, when someone gets old they often go to live in a home with other old people where there are nurses to look after them. Sometimes the government has to pay for this care. Who do you think should pay for this care, the government or the family? Give reasons for your answer and include any relevant examples from your own knowledge or experience.

In the words of Senator Penny Wong, “Frankly if English grammar is the test there might be a few members of parliament who might struggle."

Three strikes

Another proposed rule is the "three strikes and you’re out" — once you fail the test three times you cannot become an Australian citizen. But here’s the rub: only those who have been resident in Australia for four years can even take the test. This means that those who failed would still be able to live in the country as residents, but they would never have full citizenship, effectively creating a class of people in Australia who would not have the same rights.

Skilled migrants and humanitarian migrants (refugees) are the main classes of people who will be taking the test. The latter group is not comprised of young, educated people applying for university, like most IELTS applicants. These people have come from war-torn or repressive states, and many have suffered trauma on the long and difficult road to Australia. They will be adapting to a new culture, trying to get a job and a house, learning a new language, and settling their children into schools.

This is quite a burden to lay on people who will probably already be struggling to keep their heads above water. If you’re still not sure, try the test yourself and see how you do.

Determining citizenship through language and culture

The concept of what makes a citizen is always going to be a politically loaded one and have an ideological bent. It’s based on the idea of inclusion and exclusion — you are one of us or you are not. Language proficiency and cultural familiarity are two common tests of this.

In some ways this is reasonable: how else are we to differentiate citizens from non-citizens? But in other ways it is absurd. You don’t need to be able to write an essay to be Australian (indeed some might argue the opposite is true). Most of the questions in the current test for "Australian values" are based on knowledge of Australian politics and constitutional guidelines that would stump a lot of Aussies. Putting unreasonable language tests in place is only going to make people’s lives worse.

And — whisper it — these policy proposals do tend to come around when the government wants to get people all riled up… Surely our elected representatives wouldn’t exploit such a thing for political gain? That, more than any number of grammar mistakes, would be rather un-Australian.

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