9 September 1996 English language test for new Asian immigrants – have we got it right?
Opinion Piece by Professor Kuan M. Goh
It is now nearly twelve months since the Government introduced immigration policy changes. Among them was that immigrants from non-English speaking countries such as Taiwan, Korea and China must pass an English language test. Lately, a great deal of concern has been expressed by new Asian immigrants on the test. Even a former Taiwanese Finance Minister, Mr Chien-shien Wang, while visiting Christchurch recently, commented that "the new requirement of an English examination is very difficult to pass. It is like New Zealand's university entrance examination, and even many New Zealanders would find it difficult".
The New Zealand Immigration Service advertises its colourful leaflets "New Zealand – the right choice". To many new Asian immigrants, it appears to be fast becoming ''New Zealand – the tough choice".
Are these concerns justified? Have we got it right? Is the English test meeting the aims and objectives intended for it? Are we not deterring Asian capital and business talents from coming to New Zealand? It is time to consider some of these issues.
Under the present English language requirement, all principal applicants and any accompanying family members aged 16 and over must pass four modules with reading and writing in the General Module of the International English Testing System (IELTS Level 5). If this is not met at the time of application approval, each accompanying member must pay a fee of $20,000 to the Immigration Service. This bond is not refundable if the non-principal applicant fails to meet the English standard within one year of arrival. Total refunds are given only if the test is passed within three months of first arrival and $14,000 is refunded if the test is passed within one year of first arrival. The stated purpose of the language bond is "to encourage non-principal applicants to meet the minimum English standard and help them to adjust to life in New Zealand".
Key issues facing immigrants sitting the English test are whether the IELTS test is an appropriate or difficult test to pass within one year or less, and whether the bond is justified.
The IELTS test is used as a measure of English proficiency of international students by New Zealand tertiary institutions for entry to their courses. The General Module of IELTS is designed as entry requirement to vocational training courses in polytechnics but not universities, which require passing the Academic Module and attaining an IELTS minimum score of 6.0.
As many accompanying members of Asian immigrants, especially their spouses, do not intend to become tertiary students, the IELTS test is inappropriate. Furthermore, accompanying members intending to enrol in New Zealand universities would need to pass the Academic and not the General Module of IELTS. Although not directly related, many educators are unable to find a direct relationship between English proficiency tests such as IELTS and academic achievement. Some educators hold the view that "all language measurement involves uncertainty and the usual level of prediction is about 0.3".
Nevertheless, what is needed by new Asian immigrants to adjust to New Zealand ways of life is not academic or institutional English but general English communication skills for everyday life so as to function effectively at work, socially, culturally and in sporting and community activities. Passing the English test should enrich their lives and "open new windows in their world". For them, it should be "Discimus vitae, non scholae" or "we learn for life, not for scholarship".
It is not generally appreciated how long it takes for immigrants to fully settle in a new country to overcome cultural shock, let alone language study shock. It takes time to learn a language, especially a foreign language. Many Asian immigrants who worked hard to create a successful business and acquired a wealth of practical experience in the 'school of hard knocks' are likely to have left school at 14 or 15, like their spouses. Most adult accompanying members will require more time to study and pass examinations than their university-aged children.
According to educators, social English or interpersonal communicative skills (BICS) may take two years to acquire while CALP (cognitive/academic language proficiency) can take from five to seven years or even longer depending on a whole raft of factors such as age, personality, language acumen and prior study. Good business acumen does not necessarily mean good English learners.
Thus, one year is insufficient to achieve IELTS Level 5 by most immigrants from non-English speaking countries. We have, indeed, not got it right. It is obvious that new Asian immigrants have a slim chance of recovering their bond money. The Immigration Service will be the principal beneficiary. Being business-minded, many Asian immigrants may decide not to enter into such a contract and may choose to migrate to other countries. This is reflected in the recent decline in the number of applications. Hence, with the present English requirement, the number of immigrants will limit itself. There is no need for New Zealand First to introduce a policy of capping the migrant number to 10,000 per year. It seems we have already succeeded to start curbing the number of Asian immigrants. Are we, therefore, missing out in attracting into the country Asian capital and business talents which impact on our future economic growth? Perhaps we are beginning to see the failure of our success.
Although $20,000 per person is relatively small compared to the $1.2 to 1.4 billion brought into the country last year by only the Taiwanese immigrant group, it is a significant sum for a family of five. Some immigrants are quietly resenting the bond. Others liken it to a resurrection of the Chinese Immigration Act of 1881, which brought in the Poll Tax, causing considerable suffering to the Chinese people, lasting for more than half a century. This is a compelling analogy. Like the Poll Tax, the English test together with other measures were introduced to curb the influx of Asian immigrants amid public and political outcries of too many Asians and 'Asian Invasion' in the l 990's, similar to the fears of 'Yellow Peril' in the 1880's. Furthermore, not unlike the Poll Tax, the language bond involves the collection of a tax, although refundable in theory, but mostly not in practice.
I agree that new Asian immigrants must have English language proficiency to live in this country, but we must facilitate this. There should not be a language bond but a payment towards the attendance and successful completion of a mandatory orientation and bridging programme. This programme should include an appropriately designed general English course and examination to best meet the needs of the immigrants, taught by registered teachers of English to speakers of other languages (TESOL), and other topics such as the Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand laws, education, health, economy, social services and geography.
If New Zealand's future is inextricably linked to people and trade in Asia, then the new Asian immigrants are among those who will provide these links. They deserve recognition not only for their present capital input into the country's economy but also for their future contributions of new ideas and trading opportunities. As hosts, we should be providing the best means possible to smooth the path of entry of new immigrants and not to create language barriers and hardships. I believe we should place people first before financial penalty and gains.
Professor Kuan M. Goh is the Academic Adviser to International Students at Lincoln University and also the Professor of Soil Science; the Foundation President of New Zealand Federation of Ethnic Councils and a present Executive Committee member of New Zealand Chinese Association.