English language program in Australia prepares for major overhaul

English language program in Australia, specifically designed to help migrants participate socially and economically in Australian society, is expected to undergo a host of changes after concerns were raised regarding their proficiency and effectiveness.

Why don’t migrants learn to communicate in English if they want to live in an English-speaking country?—is one of those sentiments one will come across a lot in any diverse modern-day society. Believe it or not, the first thing any immigrant would like to achieve is to learn the language of the country they are permanently moving to. However, learning a new language isn’t as straightforward as that.

English language program in Australia – trouble in paradise?

The English language program in Australia is among the most extensive and longest-running migrant programs in the world. However, this flagship initiative is facing a crisis. It is suffering from what many of its providers and teachers describe as a crisis of identity, direction, and morale. 

Alan Tudge, the current acting immigration minister, recently told The Guardian that not only are the migrant participants of the English language program in Australia leaving the 510 hours course half-way, but most of them are also completing only 300 hours with a basic language competency that’s far below the expected levels. 

There are concerns that these participants barely meet the functional level criteria, thus hindering their chances of landing a good job, satisfactory pay, and social and economic integration. Without the functional-level English language skills, their contributions towards the welfare of our society and democracy, in general, will remain insignificant, Tudge explained.

Why English language proficiency matters?

Newly arrived migrants need to find somewhere to live, and a means to support themselves. They often have to navigate the host country’s welfare system to access health care and other social services. If they arrive with children, they will be required to learn and understand how the public education system works, communicate with the school officials regarding the enrollment process, and be abreast of their child’s progress in the school.

Undoubtedly, for successful integration, developing the host society’s understanding and its language is deemed extremely crucial. 

Low language proficiency is an apparent obstruction in their full participation in the community because of others’ inability to hear what they think and comprehend the challenges they face. Thus, support for migrants to successfully undertake an English language program in Australia should be central to any policy that aims to help them contribute productively to society and the economy, Tudge ascertained.

The proposed way forward

Pointing out the inadequacies of the English language program in Australia, Catherine Scarth, the chief executive officer at AMES Australia, says that first and foremost, removing the cap on the number of classroom hours is absolutely critical to allow room for more inclusivity and diversity.

Imagine 60 years and older immigrant population or completely illiterate refugees having to learn an entirely new dialect, understand the vocabulary and the nuances; it’s ridiculously challenging. The new structure must offer flexibility and some focussed learning approaches for these people to help them make the most of the career opportunities, be more engaged in their children’s education, and better understand complex public service systems such as healthcare and taxes, explained Scarth.

Scratch also proposed lifting the five-year time limit on eligibility, meaning that the migrants will be able to avail of free and unlimited hours of the English language program in Australia until they achieve a functional level proficiency. Only then will they be able to fully engage with the community and open their minds and doors to culture, experiences, and opportunities.

A move towards social cohesion

Today, Australia is home to over eight million immigrants, out of which it is estimated that more than a million people lack necessary conversational skills. This is severely impacting their employment opportunities and survival potential. The pandemic outbreak has only magnified these loopholes in the society, with multicultural communities facing issues with accessing healthcare facilities.

Stressing further on inclusivity, Tudge ascertained that the new changes to the English language program in Australia would emphasize social coherence and ensure that no one is left behind in the move. Tudge also indicated amendments to the citizenship testing where Australian values and culture will take priority. 

It’s a long road ahead, and there’s a lot that needs to be done to support non-English speaking migrants in their contribution towards a more united society and a more robust economy. But meeting the challenges of one of the most vulnerable and disengaged parts of the community through a host of changes will remain our top priority.

English Forward is doing its bit

It seems obvious but sharing a common language is a crucial step towards extending connectedness and solidarity amongst our communities and building a shared culture. English Forward, the internet’s largest learn English community with close to two decades of experience, has become a home to over 250 million visitors and takes pride in helping students worldwide attain success in the English-speaking world. Its co-founder, Mitch Rankin, reiterates the famous quote by Nelson Mandela, in case it hasn’t been said enough already,

Without language, one cannot talk to people and understand them; one cannot share their hopes and aspirations, grasp their history, appreciate their poetry, or savour their songs.