Ingeborg van Teeseling

Harsher migrant english tests a timely reminder of our history

We’re all a nation of ‘others’, and the stricter English tests that migrants will now face should be a reminder of who we’ve been in the past.



Ah well, here we go again: mandatory English tests for migrants. What to say about that? I could point, of course, to Frank Lowy, the boss of Westfield and, with a net worth of 8.26 billion in 2017, one of the richest men in the country. Yet, when he came here as a refugee from Slovakia, via a ghetto in Hungary and Palestine during the Arab-Israeli War, he didn’t speak a lot of English. Neither did Harry Triguboff, born in a Jewish community in China. He is worth even more than Lowy: 11.43 billion. And then there is Anthony Pratt, Australia’s richest man. He inherited his wealth from his father Richard, who was born Ryszard Przecicki, a Jewish boy in what was then Danzig, Poland, not a great place to be in 1934. English? Not so much. Number four in the top five is Ivan Glasenberg, also Jewish, from South Africa, and also not a native English speaker. Net worth: 6.85 billion dollars. So, Minister: “if we can’t communicate with one another, it’s very difficult to integrate”? Really?

If I wanted, I could also say something about multiculturalism, which is not, as the Minister seems to think, about “merging” and “integration”. That is called “assimilation”, and it was what we had before multiculturalism. Multiculturalism is, in fact, equality before the law, and in the Australian version of it, it is supposed to describe a nation in which people are allowed to be themselves: practice their own religion, have their own culture and way of life, speak their own language. Multi-culturalism, listen to the word. Within the parameters of the law, all of us can be who we are or want to be. Migrants, but Australians as well. You can be as Ocker, or as oblivious of your own history, or as bogan as you want to be. We newbies don’t mind. Sure, we think it is a bit lazy, and a bit silly, in this global world, to sit on your arse and only speak one language and think you are the bee’s knees, but hey: whatever floats your boat, right? We don’t mind sitting the citizenship test that you would have failed, or speaking better English than most of you, or being fluent in multiple languages where you only speak one. As long as you give us our multiculturalism, we’ll give you yours.

Some people, who were really smart, like writer and communist Egon Kisch, spoke so many languages that they had to go through multiple exams before they could be officially rejected.

When I migrated to Australia, I had just finished a degree in English language and literature. In English. I had spent six months at an Australian university and was invited by them to do a PhD. Nevertheless, before I could start, I had to do a TOEFL test, the Test of English as a Foreign Language. One morning, in a dreary classroom in George Street, I had to sit tests all day. Spelling, grammar, comprehension, speaking, reading. I can’t remember the detail, but there were questions about the rods and cones in the eyes of primates and their connection to colour-blindness. It used the language of epidemiology and was like peer-reviewing an academic paper on biology. Afterwards I asked my husband, who is a scientist, and Australian, and he had no idea. Then something interesting happened. After a few days – and a large payment, obviously – I got the results. I had passed with flying colours. In fact, in some sections I had scored almost a 100%. But with my marks was a letter, accusing me of cheating, and asking me to come to the testing site in Sydney for a meeting. So I got on the train again and met a perfectly nice man, who took one look at me and smiled. “We must have ticked the wrong box,” he said. “You don’t look like you are from the Dutch Antilles. All good. Thanks for coming in.” I had only been in Australia for a few weeks then, so it took me a while to understand. They had thought I was black. And black people, as we know, don’t score close to perfect on English language tests. Now they had seen I was white, they were convinced I couldn’t have cheated.

It was a salutary reminder of Australia’s history. The one we keep forgetting, about the White Australia Policy and the Dictation Test. Like the one I had been sitting, this examination had also nothing to do with the English language. For one, not everybody had to do it. The choice of candidates was at the discretion of the men and women at the border, who had instructions to block “undesirables” from entering. You were unwelcome if you were not; a) white; b) a communist, or; c) a critic of the government of the day. Then you were given a test “in any European language”, which usually meant not English, but something obscure like Dutch, Danish or Gaelic. Some people, who were really smart, like writer and communist Egon Kisch, spoke so many languages that they had to go through multiple exams before they could be officially rejected. Kisch came here to speak out against the Nazi regime, but as we have seen recently in the flags on Australian military vehicles in Afghanistan, that is not something we want to hear in this country.

I can tell you a lot of other things. That children from migrant families are much, much better at spelling than Australian children, and usually win spelling bees. That without all those Italians, Greeks and Lebanese who spoke little English when they came, you would still be eating tripe with potatoes and drinking overly brewed tea. That my Australian university students often score lower than their counterparts who came from somewhere else. That it would be good if Ministers tried walking in migrant shoes for a while: try adapting to a new country, a new language, a new house, a new job, a new climate and new rules at the same time, while being racially abused at every street corner. I could say that Australian English really isn’t English, and I could quote many, many examples of government officials, including Ministers of the Crown, proving that most migrants have a better grasp of linguistic guidelines than people born here. But you know what? I am getting really, really tired of this bullshit. Why is it always the Others at the receiving end of restrictive measures? Why is it necessary to keep reminding us that we don’t really belong, that we are here at the mercy of you? That we have to be grateful, that we are only tolerated, that at any time the rules can change and we can be out on our ear? What has that got to do with your famous egalitarianism, your “fair go”, your “boundless plains to share”? Cut it out, for crying out loud, just cut it out! Leave us alone, so we can become the next Frank Lowy, Harry Triguboff, Ivan Glasenberg, Anthony Pratt.


Ingeborg van Teeseling

After migrating from Holland ten years ago and being warned by the Immigration Department against doing her job as a journalist, Ingeborg van Teeseling became a historian instead. She endeavours to explain Australia to migrants new and old at her website, and runs, telling people's life stories.

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