Migrating to a new country can be an enormous gamble. People take huge risks to uproot their lives in order to come here to enjoy the freedoms and opportunities Australia has to offer.
People do not come here to fail, but to succeed. And for generations, many have done just that.
Migrants have made, and continue to make, an enormous contribution to the success of our nation. They have helped build modern Australia, making it what it is today. I have often said that Australia is the most successful multicultural nation in the world.
Our success has been firmly based on integration. Over the decades people from all over the world have come to Australia, adopted our values, shared our loyalties and contributed to our society. Migrants have enriched the social, economic and cultural life of our nation.
While we come from many culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, no one is expected to stop speaking their native language or give up their cultural heritage. In fact, we recognise the immense value in being bilingual and in retaining or acquiring multiple languages, not just for social and cultural reasons, but also for economic reasons. Cultural and linguistic skills play an important role in doing business with our overseas partners, and a linguistic advantage is invaluable.
It is also important for Australians, particularly children, to learn languages other than English. All states and territories offer a language-other-than-English program with it being compulsory in some states. Recently, the Turnbull government introduced language study at the pre-school level. The study of languages can have enormous cognitive benefits.
Learning English also delivers enormous benefits to newly arrived migrants because it helps with settlement, integration and with finding a job.
As our national language, English is a shared form of understanding. It impacts all areas of life – from gaining meaningful employment to connecting with the broader community.
A shared common language is the glue to a cohesive society. Without a common language, how do we speak to our neighbour? How do we understand each other? How can we successfully work together? If we cannot communicate, it is difficult to integrate.
This is important, because being part of the broader community helps newly arrived migrants to integrate well and settle into life in Australia.
That is not to say that a person cannot have a great life and make a terrific contribution to Australia while speaking little or no English.
This is an important message which I have discussed over the past six months in consultations with multicultural communities across the country. The feedback I have received from many migrants on the importance of English language skills has been overwhelmingly positive. Community leaders have repeatedly told me they are supportive of the need to increase the capability of migrants to speak English.
The Australian Multicultural Foundation believes that learning the English language is key to breaking down barriers, promoting integration, removing the fear of the unknown and providing employment.
The Australian Government is helping migrants to improve their English skills. We offer free English classes through the Adult Migrant English Program. New migrants can access 510 hours of English language classes if they have below-functional English. In some cases they can access 1,000 hours. This year we will spend over $300 million on this program – an increase of more than $50 million since we came to office.
Not all migrants, however, take up the offer of free classes to improve their English. For example, a study of humanitarian migrants showed that one-third were not doing English classes three to six months after arriving in Australia.
The government has therefore been examining how to create more incentives for residents to boost their English capacity, particularly before becoming a citizen. We are currently examining different options with a focus on basic conversational, primary school level English.
As we know as part of the ageing process, many elderly migrants who may have in fact learned to speak English quite often revert back to their mother tongue. People aged over 60 (or under 16) will not be effected by any proposed changes to English language requirements.
We are committed to ensuring we continue to place migrants in the centre of Australian life, not on the fringes. We want them to thrive and prosper.
A successful life in Australia requires the ability retain and celebrate one’s cultural and linguistic heritage but importantly also to communicate in our shared language – English.