05/07/2017 4:07 PM AEST | Updated 05/07/2017 4:07 PM AEST

Increasing The Difficulty Of The English Test Is An Insult To New Migrants, And Australia's History

Australia's mother tongue was not English.

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It is debateable whether Australia would have a unique identity without us Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and our 389-plus languages. Our languages matter because we, with our languages, are core to the cultural life of this country. We made Australia what it is today, through tens of thousands of years of careful management and intellectualising about what it is to be 'Australian'.

We continue to make substantial contributions to the evolution of this country, although in doing so we are rarely acknowledged for our efforts. More commonly, we are characterised as problematic, non-contributors and a drain on the country.

We are not a problem.

In fact we are part of a movement for planetary health, led by Indigenous people worldwide, that quietly works towards ensuring the continuation of the vast ecological and social diversity of the entire world. In Australia, this is not a new practice, Aboriginal people are by nature hospitable and supportive.

The First Fleet survived in what is now Sydney with the help of the Aboriginal people of the area. The clans of Sydney shared their knowledge of the environment with the invaders and taught them how to live and thrive in this totally unfamiliar place.

They told them the names of plants and animals, showed them what was poisonous and what was good to eat, how to catch and prepare game and supplied them with fish. The notes about the Sydney language written down by First Fleet officers in the first few years of the colony are a record of the empathy shown the invaders by Aboriginal people.

Our Indigenous languages hold the key to our knowledge about the planet. Anyone who speaks an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language can enter the minds of the people who created that language and think as they have about the world.

If you speak one or more of these languages, you will understand the deep history of Australia. You will be able to talk, with the authority given through understanding Indigenous knowledge systems, about the environment and how to manage it for all our benefit into the future. You will know how to care for other people using the tools of empathy embedded in our social relationships.

Trump is proposing a physical wall to keep potential citizens out, while we build language walls.

In our communities, before Britain invaded us in 1788, there was no unemployment, no homelessness and everyone was educated, enjoying elaborate life-long learning programs. When we were born we had a future and a place within our communities and when our lives ended we were mourned, respected and eased into our long collective memories.

Our languages are the vehicles for sharing this knowledge, for ensuring we thrive in a healthy and sustainable world.

In NAIDOC week, we commemorate the moment in our history when the British effectively reached deep into our bodies to tear out our beating hearts and pull out our tongues, leaving us heartsick and voiceless. In doing so, they unknowingly eviscerated their own futures.

We knew how to manage this country and to thrive as people in a dry and complex environment. They did not bother to listen to what we were saying in our languages, they did not learn what we knew about this country. The result has been environmental and social degradation. Many of our own people now live in conditions that are far from equal to those enjoyed by the rest of the population.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are not alone in this inequality. Many of the migrants to this country are also suffering in silence because they are also seen as a potential problem. Proposed refinements to the citizenship test again focus on English language proficiency.

It takes what was already an insult to the intelligence and capacity of our migrants to new heights by increasing the difficulty of the English language test. In a country that that has always had a huge amount of linguistic diversity it is laughable that some arbitrary test of a person's capacity to communicate solely in English, is given focus in choosing people for citizenship.

Surely Australia, with its laws and partnerships in international conventions that supposedly protect human rights and freedom of 'speech' (in any language), can do better than including a primitive English language test as part of the selection for future citizens?

It's certainly useful to know the dominant language of any country, however, this does not make someone a better citizen. Australia's own multicultural policy statement, 2017, is available online in 32 languages and states that 'our multilingual workforce is broadening business horizons and boosting Australia's competitive edge in an increasingly globalised economy'.


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It seems that, contrary to even its own policies, the only language that 'matters' to the Australian government when they're choosing citizens is English, or there would at least be tests in other majority world languages.

It is determined to impoverish Australia linguistically by standing naked as the Emperor with his new non-existent but very expensive robes ignores the fact that many in the rest of the world would find our monolingual dominant culture at the very least questionable.

Trump is proposing a physical wall to keep potential citizens out, while we build language walls.

Fortunately, it is clear that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people do not share the ignorant and limited attitude of the Australian government. We have always been linguistically diverse communities and our efforts to keep our languages alive demonstrate our continued commitment to this diversity. For us all languages matter, even English.

Yes, we continue to be empathetic to our invaders. Our languages matter so much to us, and we believe to all Australians, that we are slowly regrafting our tongues and rebuilding our hearts by re-awakening our languages. Across Australia, communities are working to revive and maintain the mother tongues of this country.