“She go flook!”

This is my grandmother’s stock way of saying that someone tripped or fell. She arrived in Australia from Italy in 1959, and she still has some issues with speaking and reading English. Though she can read and speak standard Italian and also has full mastery of a regional Italian variety, she most likely wouldn’t pass the English-based Australian citizenship test, which was introduced in 2007 (though she has picked up words like “mate” and “bludger”, which could work in her favour). The controversy surrounding the citizenship test has largely died away, but we should continue to question this continued push for official English monolingualism, which underpins Australia’s language policy, both within governments and society.

English is widely perceived as Australia’s national language. However, this is not set in constitutional stone; as Greg Dickson has commented, federal Parliament has been slow to even recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages as the first languages of Australia, let alone to openly declare English as the sole official language (wouldn’t that seem in stark contrast to that Multicultural Policy it has recently introduced?).

The test imposes a legal requirement that prospective citizens have a “basic knowledge of the English language”; in typical legislative fashion, what “basic knowledge” might mean is left delightfully vague. The explanatory video “Our Common Bond” about Australian society and values proclaims that the national language is indeed English. On what basis? Well, according to the 2011 census, 76.8% of Australians speak only English at home: though English may have a de facto position as the main language of Australia (in a thoroughly monolingual sense), there is no legislative support for the Australian government to insist that future citizens speak English as well.

The government has provided the resource booklet intended to help applicants prepare for the test in 37 other languages, but the test itself can only be taken in English. The Department of Immigration and Citizenship’s website explicitly states that “there is not a separate English language test”, but is the test itself not implicitly examining applicants’ level of English?

Certainly, applicants can prepare for the test in a vast array of languages, but how might they apply the knowledge they have acquired in these varieties to answer questions given in a language that may be largely alien to them?

An eerie historical parallel emerges between the language requirements of the citizenship test and the notorious dictation test under the Immigration Restriction Act 1901. Though not framed in terms of ethnicity, the act allowed Australian immigration officials to subject all incoming individuals to a dictation test of 50 words in any European language as a basis for entering the country. You could have brilliant language skills in your own language, but could be forced to sit a test completely unknown to you (this system sounds familiar, eh?). Even speaking English as a first language didn’t seem to help — just look what happened to Mabel Freer, having to sit the test in Italian (and inevitably failing).

This comparison shows Australia’s long-standing and infamous habit for using language skills to filter future citizens. So much for progress …