It caught me off guard as I was filling up my exchange application.
“8. Have you taken an English proficiency test?”
With a sense of powerlessness, I realise I am yet again being asked to prove I can actually speak English. Confusion turns into annoyance.
Of course, taking an English test is hardly something unfamiliar for me. Growing up in China when Deng Xiaoping’s Open Door Policy and its state-controlled capitalist ideology were gaining traction, I have witnessed a growing national obsession with English. Since it was made an education priority in 1990s, millions of schoolchildren were sent to learn a language that was previously suppressed for political reasons. Consequently, overpriced afterschool tutoring flourished and those who excelled were put on a pedestal. It was deemed so important that it became compulsory for all students throughout twelve years of school—comparable only to Chinese and Mathematics.
Nonetheless, English education in the self-proclaimed communist state was characterised by an uncompromising authoritarianism, and teaching practices that could best be described as rudimentary. Students were instructed to be at school no later than 7:30 am daily to memorise new vocabulary. Their progress was closely monitored through regular exams, with an emphasis on rigid and obscure grammar. Sometimes, a piece of paper listing the grades of every student in descending order circulated the classroom and before being pinned to the blackboard.
I survived the torment with a mix of hard work and endurance. The day I completed my IELTS, a compulsory English test for non-native speakers, I remember thinking to myself that I could finally leave those gloomy memories behind—I thought, naively, I could finally speak English.
Linguistic prejudice comes in many forms. It is commonly intertwined with systematic oppression—think, for instance, the status of over 250 aboriginal languages in Australia. It can also be a cause as well as an upshot of social polarisation. Examples range from the language policies in Catalonia and Quebec, the escalating rivalry between English and French in postcolonial Africa, to the discrimination against dialects in China and the politicisation of Mandarin in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
What confronts me the most, however, is something subtler. It didn’t take long for me to realise that being able to speak a language is quite different from being able to speak it properly. I have often been told that I “speak good English” and that I am “unlike other international students”. Despite being intended as genuine praise, these statements make me rather uncomfortable, perhaps due to the stereotypes that they imply. When I tell people I coach debating at schools, sometimes I get responses like, “I didn’t know Mandarin debating was that popular now”.
In this sense, the way we understand people’s language status is coloured by how we perceive the world more broadly. People with accents get strikingly different treatments depending on their economic, social and cultural status. That’s why we might want to be more careful with and more critical of some of our common practices.
Crucially, this extends beyond the level of individual interactions to that of governmental policies. Earlier this year, the Turnbull Government unveiled a plan for citizenship reforms, among which is a tougher English language test. With opposition from Labor, the Greens and the Nick Xenophon Team, the future of the bill remains to be seen.
Nevertheless, what often gets lost in current discussion is the signal this proposed policy would send. The issue at hand is more than “who will pass the test, how many of them and what implication that has”. It is equally important to recognise that many would-be citizens have put in great efforts to even be where they are, and that many are already disadvantaged in the society because of their language status.
This is, of course, not to suggest an easy answer. The point is rather that we, as a society, need to deliberate more clearly the conditions under which a demand for justification can itself be justified. It’s perhaps noteworthy that being asked to justify themselves is often itself a problem that many minorities (Muslims, Indigenous Australians and African-Americans etc.) face.
Regardless, another test doesn’t sound all that unreasonable after all— I’m just wondering if this piece could be used to waive it?