A test too far: New language tests for migrants
Melanie Cooke and James Simpson are researchers and lecturers in language education, Melanie at King's College, London and James at the University of Leeds. They are both members of Action for ESOL. In 2008 they co-authored ESOL: A Critical Guide (OUP).
The new rules outline unattainable financial requirements, and an extension in the wait before spouses and families can apply for ILR and citizenship. The Government has also decided to raise the level of English language and literacy that applicants are required to have before they can apply. This will have profound implications for migrants who don’t speak English as a first language and for people who have low literacy. We believe this will discriminate against some of the poorest and most needy people in our communities. This is why Action for ESOLis joining MRN and JCWI in the campaign against these draconian changes.
Language and citizenship
The current arrangements, while far from perfect, offer the chance for those with an English level lower than that of the Life in the UK (LUK) test to enrol on a course of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) which includes a citizenship component. If they progress a level, they achieve the language and citizenship requirements for settlement, without having to take the electronic test.
Now, the government will overturn this policy at one stroke – for spouses now, and no doubt for everyone else very soon. From October 2013 applicants for settlement joining family members will have to both pass the citizenship test and provide evidence of passing an English test at intermediate level (see paragraphs 113-117 of the Home Office Statement of Intent).
Literacy and the Life in the UK test
Language experts and teachers believe this is too much for many to achieve. To pass both the LUK test and a speaking and listening exam at intermediate level is a tall order for those who arrived in the UK with limited English, and perhaps limited literacy in their own expert languages. The LUK test is a multiple choice test that can only be taken in English (or Welsh or Scottish Gaelic), and is taken on a computer. Questions are drawn from one source only, Life in the UK: A Journey to Citizenship. The test is therefore quite transparently one of English literacy and computer skills. The test is particularly tough for all people who have low levels of literacy, not only English language learners. We have interviewed several people from former British colonies in the West Indies and Africa, who at one time would have been invited as workers to the UK, but who have struggled with the LUK test because of literacy.
The new speaking test
Likewise, passing a speaking and listening exam at the proposed level, B1 on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, will be very challenging for some. You might think that five years is long enough for anyone to learn the language of their adopted country. But ability to learn depends on the individual, their context and their life history. Intermediate level may well be realistic for someone who is already literate in their own language and who had formal education prior to migration. Things are very different for someone who, for example, missed out on schooling as a child for whatever reason. To suppose that it is easy to pass an intermediate-level speaking and listening exam fails to take into account the impact on learning a language of being able to read and write in your first language. Research is beginning to demonstrate the benefits of (1) schooled experience and (2) knowledge of literacy gained as a child on an adult’s ability to develop their second language speaking and listening. For many migrants, both these factors are missing. Consequently for many people the bar is now simply too high, and the new language requirements will be unattainable.
Access to English is crucial for everyone living in this country. But rather than promoting English language learning for those seeking settlement, the new measures will greatly reduce opportunities for many who might otherwise have been able to develop their English language proficiency to become fully integrated British citizens. We argue that these changes are discriminatory and it is difficult to see them as anything more than an attention-grabbing strategy, which will be to the detriment of the poor and vulnerable.