The tyranny of English

Since the beginning of autumn, Thursday mornings have been particularly tense in my apartment. It’s dark, and getting colder when we wake, but they’re yet to start the heating in our block. As I fill the cafetera while still on autopilot, my partner, avoiding eye contact, fires up the PC that has taken over our kitchen table since March. Within minutes, she’s too immersed in spreadsheets to heed my weak attempts at conversation.

‘Sorry,’ she says eventually, as I pull my mask on to leave, ‘es que …’

‘It’s ok,’ I tell her, ‘we’ll talk at dinner.’ Once we’re even more tired, and the day is almost done.

It’s not that things are bad between us. Nor is it her workload, or the dread I feel at having to catch Madrid’s crowded metro each morning, despite coronavirus cases being in the hundreds of thousands. The problem is that on Thursdays we’re trying to only speak in English.

The initiative started a few weeks before the Department of Home Affairs’ introduction of a language requirement for partner visas to Australia.

Whilst, as an EFL teacher, I should be glad we’re finally practising, it’s an uncomfortable shift in dynamic. Nobody likes to be the subject of scrutiny, especially in their own home. Or to feel, as will now be the case with many couples, that the future of a relationship is hanging on language proficiency.


According to the media release, by end 2021, new partner visa applicants must have ‘functional level’ English, or demonstrate they’ve made ‘reasonable efforts’ to learn it. What constitutes either is not defined, though it’s suggested the requirement could be met with, ‘for example’, the completion of 500 hours of free classes through the Adult Migrant English Program.

Starting with the controversial declaration of English as ‘our national language’ (which has no basis in law), and ending on an anxiety-inducing TBC, the proposal is as offensive as it is worrying. The title itself, ‘New requirement to learn English to maximise job prospects’ suggests a migrant’s priority is to be economically productive, while simultaneously implying that non-English speakers are not.

The release also claims the requirement would protect people from family violence and exploitation. The admission that migrants, and particularly migrant women, are vulnerable to abuse is a sad reflection on Australian society, that is unlikely to be resolved by making already-free classes compulsory, especially if it gives abusers another point of leverage.

The statement acknowledges that ‘the ability to speak multiple languages is a great asset’, yet somehow claims that only English will enable new residents to fully participate in our democracy. Considering the strategic linguicide inflicted by colonists on First Nations people, and the historical use of language tests to discriminate against non-European migrants, since when has English, or its imposition, ever been democratic?


In response to another recent debate – the proposed axing of Footscray Primary’s Vietnamese program in Melbourne’s West – André Dao has criticised how languages and their teaching are so often ‘ranked according to purchasing power’, and stated in an interview that minority languages have ‘a fundamentally different way of viewing the world and the way in which it’s available.’

For native Anglos, of course, the world is more of a given. But for non-native speakers, English is also an arbiter of privilege – the fruit of foreign nannies, high school exchanges, time, money, and opportunity.

Since I arrived in Spain’s rural south, at the peak of the GFC, the majority of my students have been bright young graduates preparing to move abroad or experienced professionals desperate to learn English in order to find employment, or remain employed. The latter are often painfully self-critical. If I had an AUD for every time someone has apologised to me about their English level, I’d be able to afford the $7,715 partner visa application fee.

As the gates to the Anglosphere are tightly guarded, most are required to take level tests, such as the IELTS, Cambridge exams, TOEFL, or PTE. Even in the case of neurotypical, tertiary educated candidates, these exams are not always a fair or accurate indication of proficiency.

While the DHA doesn’t yet specify how ‘functional English’ will be measured for Australian partner permanent residencies, other visa categories have the same requirement.

According to their criterion, if you’re not from the UK or another wealthy ex British colony, and haven’t studied at an English institution, you must provide one of the above certificates. The fact that these are predominantly a tool for academic institutions is telling of the class of migrant the government might hope to exclude by using them.

Language tests favour lived experience (work, study, travel, etc), meaning those who’ve had less opportunities are faced with a harder task. In the TOEFL and IELTS, where everyone takes the same exam and is awarded a band score, beginners must wade through advanced level material, hoping to find or fluke easier questions. As well as spontaneity, natural chattiness, and general knowledge, the ability to interpret visual data (such as maps and graphs), sarcasm, and body language can all influence results.

Essay questions are perhaps the most problematic feature. Writing convention (such as where or whether to include a thesis statement) varies across cultures, but marking matrices penalise deviations from the models prevalent in the Anglosphere. The use of slang (e.g. ‘gotta’ instead of ‘have to’) is also marked down – another setback for those who haven’t attended formal classes.

Whilst structurally different from one another, all tests require ad hoc preparation, ultimately taking away study time from fundamentals with more practical applications.

The certificates are hardly an appropriate check for family visas. Nor, considering recent cuts to tertiary education, is Australia in a position to be screening applicants as if the country were an elite university.


As the immigration minister has emphasised, the alternative to a test is to ‘take advantage’ of the AMEP. How this applies to offshore applicants, and whether this will be the only way to demonstrate ‘reasonable efforts’, is still unclear.

Wondering if my partner and I should start logging our Thursday practice time, I half-joke, half-rant about the proposal with Eddy, my co-worker and ‘only Australian friend’ (in Spain).

A three times migrant, Eddy met his husband, Dani, in Tokyo in 2005. After marrying in Madrid, he was granted a visa without a word of Spanish. Although he’s since picked it up, at home, the couple still communicate in Japanese and English – neither partner’s mother tongue, as Eddy’s are Mandarin and Taiwanese.

His thoughts on the proposal?

‘It’s like a step back to the White Australia Policy.’


The fact that global mobility has come to a standstill is a reason to reduce, not increase, sources of stress for those facing the already-daunting immigration process. Anyone who has endured a lockdown should understand what it’s like to be separated from loved ones. Zoom is bitter consolation, when a relative is unwell, or a camera-tired nibling is toddling away from the screen.

For my partner and I, the possibility of relocating to Australia is still years off. In the meantime, we’ll continue to chip away at her long-held complex about her English. If it ever comes down to a test, she’d have every advantage and, as a white European with an Anglo-Aussie partner, I’m sure her application would be viewed favourably. For the same, familiar reasons that those of other, no-less deserving couples might not be.

Jean Velasco

Jean Velasco is a teacher, writer, and translator from Naarm/Melbourne who lives in Madrid. Her work has appeared in Kill Your Darlings, Going Down Swinging, Rabbit Poetry, and Growing Up Queer in Australia. She can be found online @jean_sprout

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  1. English as Australia’s national language is not really controversial – it’s the official language used by the courts and parliament; all of our laws (including the Constitution) are written in English; the vast majority of Australians speak it; the vast majority of shops use it. What other criteria would make it the official language – a line in an English-language law saying so?

  2. To add to the previous comment – that’s not to say that the English-language requirement is unnecessary and punitive. But I strongly disagree that the requirement is truly the White Australia Policy reimagined (which was about capricious and arbitrary language requirements), or that English being the national language is an objectively controversial view.

    1. ‘English as Australia’s national language is not really controversial…’

      depends on whom you are addressing

      to exploit people you have to educate them first, and current and past education systems in this country have peddled english as the first language, regardless and irrespective of first nations’ claims to their own far far longer standing languages and cultures, as a primary example

  3. The author’s point is entirely valid – unlike some other countries, Australia does not have an official ‘national language’, embedded in law. Arguably that is a good thing. English is certainly the lingua franca for a country defined to a large extent by migration, but that is entirely different to the idea of a national language.
    There is an important distinction to be made between a language requirement for a visa to live in Australia with one’s Australian spouse (other countries treat this as a right, whereas Australia still considers it a ‘privilege’), and a language requirement for Australian citizenship (which comes much, much later, and only after several years of living in Australia).
    In addition to the prohibitive costs of visa application fees, the English language requirement for a partner represents yet another reason for Australians to leave Australia because our government is hostile to the idea of a multi-cultural nation. I am a 4th generation white Australian of Scottish descent, while my Tunisian-French wife is fluent in 4 languages including English. The fact that our future will inevitably take us to France, despite my own shortcomings in the French language, is largely due to Australia’s neo-colonialist policies and the persistent agenda of White Australia.

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