Australia’s citizenship program should focus on Indigenous introduction, Darwin linguistics teacher says

As IRCC prepares the revised citizenship study guide, with what I understand extensive consultations with Indigenous peoples (to be released later this year?), some interesting reflections from Australia on improving the understanding of Indigenous peoples and new citizens, and language:

As Ganesh Koramannil passed through Sydney Central train station in 2004, a man approached and asked him for $2.

It was an interaction he would have long forgotten, except the man was the first Indigenous Australian Mr Koramannil had ever met.

It could have remained among his only insights to a culture with more than 60,000 years of history, had his wife not turned down a job in Canberra to take up one in Maningrida, 500 kilometres east of Darwin.

After moving to the Arnhem land community four years after arriving in Australia to study English, Mr Koramannil was finally introduced to “the most welcoming culture” he had ever come across, which he said had unprecedented similarities with his own.

“You give an Aboriginal language speaker any Indian name, they will pronounce it very clearly without any accent. Give it to the Europeans, they will give you six varieties,” he said.

“There’s linguistic similarities between Aboriginal languages and Indian languages. My mother tongue for example is Malayalam. There are sounds that are very much part of Yolngu language.

At the time of publishing, Mr Koramannil was the only Territorian to write a submission to the Australian Citizenship Legislation Amendment Bill 2018, which aims to toughen the eligibility requirement for new migrants to become citizens.

But Mr Koramannil said that for many migrants, their knowledge of Indigenous Australia would never extend far beyond his experience at the Sydney train station.

He said Australia’s immigration program offered no systemic way of introducing newcomers to Indigenous culture.

Instead of introducing stricter tests and eligibility requirements, Mr Koramannil has called for an “experiential” citizenship pathway, where migrants were taught about culture, history and values in dedicated sessions.

“The link to our Indigenous past and its present and future relevance [should] be included as a mandatory requirement for citizenship,” he said.

Tougher citizenship test proposed

The original bill to toughen up citizenship requirements was struck down 2017, when the Government missed the deadline for the Senate which saw it struck off by default.

The Greens, Labor and the Nick Xenophon Team had all opposed the changes.

But One Nation senator Pauline Hanson introduced it again 2018 and it was referred to a committee for inquiry.

Among the proposed changes will be a separate English language test, which will check for a ‘competent level’ of listening, speaking, reading and writing skills.

It would also increase the general residence requirement, meaning newcomers will need to live in Australia for eight years before applying for citizenship.

The citizenship test would also include questions about Australian values and the privileges, and responsibilities of Australian citizenship.

In April 2017, when the first bill was launched, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the Federal Government was “putting Australian values at the heart of citizenship processes and requirements”.

The Multicultural Council of the Northern Territory wrote a submission to last year’s bill, stating that while it was important for migrants to learn English, proficiency should not be an indicator for a person’s ability to make a positive contribution.

It said the idea may have adverse impacts for those from non-English speaking backgrounds and humanitarian entrants.

“It is our experience that fluency in English to the level proposed for migrants from non-English speaking backgrounds in a stand-alone English language test is not usually gained within the period of settlement, but can be viewed as a lifelong skill,” it said.

It said many of the proposals were “at best, unnecessary and, at worst, divisive and counterproductive”.

‘Language cannot be devoid of racial identity’

During Mr Koramannil’s time in Maningrida, he said Indigenous children, who had seldom met an Indian person before, would come up to and say “You are from India”.

It fascinated him.

“I said ‘How did they know?’ You know Maningrida — 600 or 700km away from here, one of the largest standalone Aboriginal communities — and kids of six years old [recognised me],” he said.

Looking back on it, he said he believed the children had sensed a familiarity between the two ancient cultures, just as people who spoke more than one language could recognise features of languages they didn’t speak.

In his opinion, if citizenship tests focussed so closely on English proficiency, it would come at a cultural and linguistic cost.

Mr Koramannil now works in Darwin teaching linguistics at a tertiary level.

The way he sees it, language is so deeply ingrained in a person’s racial identity that selecting citizens based on their language skills is tantamount to profiling.

“[Selecting people based on] language is profiling. And these days we speak multiple languages. And especially people trying to come to Australia, very few people won’t be bilingual.”

As a linguistics professional, and former IELTS examiner, he said he’d seen many “monolingual anglophone Australian professionals” fail to get their band score in writing.

The only reason he could see for such a test was to keep people of certain backgrounds away.

“The question is why are you trying to keep people away? Do keep people away on character for example, criminal background and that. But language is racially profiling,” he said.

Mr Koramannil said forming connections with Australia’s culture, values and history should instead form the basis of citizenship.

He believes newcomers should spend some of their time in Australia prior to becoming citizens learning about the country’s past, culture and values.

He has suggested ‘cultural welcome centres’, where Indigenous people could meet new migrants and explain their perspective of Australia to them, acting as “cultural translators” and helping forge connections.

Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs is due to file a report by December.

The ABC has contacted the committee for comment.

Source: Australia’s citizenship program should focus on Indigenous introduction, Darwin linguistics teacher says

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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