Tag Archives: Fierravanti-Wells

Australian Senator

English or else – is this the new assimiliationism Australian-style?

It’s very disappointing to read press reports quoting federal Liberal politician, Sen. Concetta Fierravanti-Wells on language issues in Australia. It’s not the fact that everyone should be able to speak English in this country – we all know what the benefits of that are. It’s her particular exposition, if correctly reported, that is concerning.

The Age online (26/1/2014) has the headline Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells insists all migrants must speak English

Like I said, I have no doubt that having proficiency in English is important in Australia – that’s not the issue – it’s the bit in bold in the quote below that’s worrying:

“Senator Fierravanti-Wells said Australia Day was an apt time to discuss the ”personal responsibility” of migrants to learn English. But she went further, arguing that not only should migrants learn English as a second language, they should learn to speak it as their main language.

This is a position that takes us back to the 1950s and 1960s at least in the official sphere (and still a widely held view in large part of the private sphere – judging by some blog responses to the press coverage). It’s a little more subtle nowadays, but the effect is essentially the same: English or else as ‘personal responsibility’.

There is no need for migrants to speak English as their main language – at the expense of their own. English and other languages can live happily side by side – with all of Australia benefitting from such an arrangement (I give an example of such a benefit below).

Millions of Australian citizens and residents speak more than one language – they need more encouragement not less. What is required is an emphasis on balanced bilingualism (or even balanced multilingualism) – where people’s language skills are just as good in their mother tongue(s) and in English OR in English (if it’s their mother tongue) and another language – and (this is critical) where all language skills are valued by society, and their benefits clearly understood.

The emphasis on English in this country is already HUGE and completely unavoidable – indeed I have never met a person in Australia who doesn’t want to speak good English.  If they can’t, it’s more likely because they haven’t been given adequate opportunity or support to do so. The government could do well by addressing those issues – in a positive fashion – without throwing society’s knowledge base out the window.

Jonathon Christley writes a useful comment, based on personal experience, in response to the Senator’s comments on the Sydney Morning Herald website:

Migrants need more help

Concetta Fierravanti Wells emphasises a migrant’s personal responsibility to learn English, but fails to acknowledge the government may also be responsible (“Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells insists all migrants must speak English”, smh.com.au, January 26). Under the Adult Migrant English Program, migrants and refugees receive up to 510 hours of English language training. ? This number was determined in the 1980s as the average time taken to be proficient in English.

The problem with only providing the average hours, however, is that approximately half of the students would be below average and would not become proficient.

Having worked with migrants and refugees over the last 20 years, I rarely see a lack of desire in a person to learn English. Instead, their learning is hindered by their life experience, and by the level to which their first language differs to English. Refugees in particular often have experienced trauma and upheaval, which has decreased their ability to concentrate and disrupted their previous education. Under the current system, some migrants and refugees are disadvantaged. Surely a better system would provide classes until a level of proficiency has been achieved, rather than stopping tuition after students have received an arbitrary number of hours. (Jonathon Christley)

Now back to the Senator’s position and her explanation:

“The importance of this, she said, was underlined by the experience of ageing postwar migrants, many of whom were suffering dementia and forgetting their conversational English.”

Dementia is an unfortunate illness of the brain. What the Senator (previously opposition spokesperson on ageing) completely overlooks is that active bilingualism is well known to delay the onset of dementia (by about 4.5 years). Emphasizing English at the expense of everything else is likely to matters worse not better…… Ageing bilinguals already save our national health budget a great fortune every year…..

Ironically, the Senator will likely to benefit on his front from her own bilingualism – she is Italo-Australian:

“Senator Fierravanti-Wells herself spoke no English when she first went to kindergarten as a little girl in Wollongong, several years after her Italian parents migrated to Australia. On her first day at St Francis of Assisi school, she said there were 75 children – three of whom spoke English. ”It wasn’t very difficult: within three months we had all learnt English, and we were all busy singing away with our Maltese teacher, who taught us.”

The current PM Tony Abbott, who won’t draw the same health benefit unfortunately is at least more understanding of Australia’s migrant community, specifically in response to the Senator’s statement. In the Telegraph article English needed for national life he is quoted as saying, amongst other things:

“Yes, it is important for people to fully participate in Australia that they master our national language,” he told reporters at the national citizenship ceremony in Canberra on [Australia Day].

“But as you can all see, there are lots of people who become Australian. From all sorts of cultures, all sorts of backgrounds.

“We don’t have any expectations on anyone except that they join the team and that they become Australian in their own way and at their own pace.”

Elsewhere, even our hardline immigration minister. Scott Morrison, appears to attack the Senator’s position, without naming names:

“The ongoing development of our institutions and sense of nationhood does not require us to reject our heritage but to understand and appreciate it — perhaps less with a sense of judgment from a more advantaged age, and more with a sense of empathy for the difficult challenges faced by those who created this country and the inheritance that is now ours to steward and enjoy,”

It would have been just as easy to congratulate migrants for bringing their languages with them, for wishing to learn English and to participate in society, and for helping….. to contain our health budget. But it might not have garnered as much media attention……