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The Importance (?) Of English

I have just spent four weeks in Paris and Barcelona (relax this isn’t a story about what I did on my summer break…) on a working holiday and am constantly surprised not so much what I learn about other people and places on these trips but what I learn about ...

Iain

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The Importance (?) Of English

I have just spent four weeks in Paris and Barcelona (relax this isn’t a story about what I did on my summer break…) on a working holiday and am constantly surprised not so much what I learn about other people and places on these trips but what I learn about ...

Iain

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The Importance (?) Of English

Posted by Iain on July 24, 2014, 4:39 p.m. in Immigration

I have just spent four weeks in Paris and Barcelona (relax this isn’t a story about what I did on my summer break…) on a working holiday and am constantly surprised not so much what I learn about other people and places on these trips but what I learn about New Zealand and New Zealanders. And how these experiences shape my view of what would make good immigration policy and an even richer country.

Take the importance of English as a current part of our immigration criteria (for everyone except family category applicants and the uber-rich).

For many people from similarly Anglo-Saxon countries, New Zealand has historically been an easy cultural fit in part because of the commonality of English as the dominant language between migrant and New Zealander. There is little doubt in my mind it has been an important settlement tool. And probably will be for a while yet.

While those with English as a second language face a more challenging settlement process, with increasing numbers of ethnic communities reaching a critical mass it is arguably becoming less important. I recognised a long time ago the key to good settlement outcomes was linguistic compatibility and thereafter cultural compatibility. This has served migrants and New Zealand well as a country but I question in future how important it will need to be when the 'linguistic compatilibility' refers to English and the 'cultural compatibility' predominantly 'South Pacific British'.

Right now we rightly demand migrants speak, read, understand and write English to a reasonably high level – the rule book ‘only’ demands conversational or competent despite in my experience ‘native’ employers demanding a greater level of fluency. As more New Zealand employers are not ‘native’ however is it as important when those employers local and overseas customers don’t speak English as their first language?

Immigration policy is almost always a year or two behind the times. There is a disconnect between immigration policy and an evolving labour market, particularly in Auckland. Outside of Auckland it is fair to say that many (would be) migrants will struggle to secure employment at a similar level to that from which they have come given potential local employers will be largely ‘native’ New Zealanders and a high level of English is a must have.

This is why at Immagine we focus on the English speaking markets of the world and irrespective of how many ‘points’ a potential client might have we only agree to represent those that we believe have English good enough to secure them the job and the future they seek in a short(ish) period of time.

Spending two weeks in Paris with only two years of boyhood French to call on was something that filled me with trepidation before I left New Zealand. Luckily I found, in Paris anyway, the outcomes of a European education and business system that produces a significant bi-lingual population who could speak English. This came as great relief – I didn’t want a diet of steak and chips for two weeks.

It does make me and a great many other New Zealanders feel somewhat inadequate that we come from a country that has historically been, by and large, mono-lingual. This constrains us somewhat when we travel and that of course creates disadvantages in not being able to maximise business (not to mention leisure) opportunities that exist to the multi-lingual.

All of that got me thinking that in New Zealand we have no ‘end game’ in mind with our immigration policy. Skilled migration tends to be based on a relatively short time horizon – New Zealanders emigrate (shock horror) and there are skills we do not produce enough of. The simple solution is to encourage migrants to fill those current vacancies. Traditionally those migrants have needed to speak fluent English because historically most employers only spoke English.

But times they are a changing.

In my own suburb of Mount Eden the population over the past 20 years has moved from being largely Pakeha (New Zealander of European descent) and Polynesian to North Asian – mainly Chinese. I have three local supermarkets – one ‘western’ and two ‘eastern’ within a few minutes’ walk of home. I generally shop at one of the Asian ones. Everything is labelled in Chinese so if I don’t know what I am looking for I am in trouble. When I walk in the door I am often the only Pakeha in sight. Few people are speaking English. I don’t speak Chinese. It still works. I get my bok choy and chicken thighs.

What has happened where I live then is a whole lot of people had to prove they spoke English to the level of a competent user to get their Resident Visa but once in, there is now a sufficiently critical mass of Chinese speakers for them to revert to their home language and apparently thrive.

Although it is a controversial thought, perhaps it is time to have different English language levels for different migrant groups or even different cities if they have jobs inside or outside of Auckland. Given in Auckland we now have 20% of our residents born in North Asia and 15% in India, is it appropriate in 2014 we demand such a high level of English for Chinese and Indians if the job they get is say in an exporting or tourism related business? If as skilled migrants they could get a skilled job offer what do we really care if they score English in the IELTS exam of 6.5 or higher?

I can but wonder if we had 20% of our migrants coming from Italy, France or Spain if we would feel differently. Imagine an Italian quarter, a Spanish quarter, a Brazilian or a French quarter in Auckland where many people speak their home language with a smattering of English. I have seen it in New York and it seems to work okay. I doubt anyone would feel threatened.

I say we have little to fear but much to gain.  Aucklanders, (but perhaps not yet the rest of New Zealand),  have shown that in the space of a generation they have accepted becoming one of the most ethically and linguistically diverse societies on Earth where 42% of the residents were not born in New Zealand. When I was a boy in the 1970s there was only about 10% of us not born locally. The sky has not fallen in as that has changed.

The children of these migrants will all be fluent English speakers thanks to our education system and if mum and dad can survive quite adequately speaking little English does it really matter if they were able to secure the ‘skilled’ job the Government demanded of them to gain entry in the first place?

I can but hope their parents demand these children remain fluent in their second, ‘ancestral’ language. And that these first generation Kiwis appreciate the economic and cultural strengths of maintaining the language of their parents and forebears.

I also wish that a second language was compulsory for all New Zealanders.

We have, thanks to our small domestic population always been a nation of exporters. What better tool could we use to secure our own future economic prosperity in a globalised economy than competency, if not fluency, in a second major language – be it Mandarin, Spanish, Japanese or French? Rather than forcing migrants to speak fluent English in future might we be better served economically if they can speak some English but bring with them fluency in other languages?

In some respects the Europeans are increasingly forced through the political and economic integration of Europe to learn at least one other language (usually English). I was amazed, delighted and relieved how many Spanish could speak excellent English and French.  And how many French could speak excellent English and Spanish.

New Zealand is the poorer for our one language focus both in our education system and with our migrants.

I love the fact when I walk out of my office and along the streets of downtown Auckland I can hear 20 -30 languages in the space of 15 minutes. We are richer for it. It makes me feel part of the global family.

I made a recommendation as part of the Skilled Migrant Category review a year or so ago that those with better English be rewarded for it. I stand by that recommendation but I do wonder if it is appropriate to still be doing so in 5, 10 or 20 years’ time as different linguistic (migrant) communities reach a critical mass whereby they are able to secure or create for themselves meaningful economic opportunity once here. If they cannot speak great (or are not willing to learn) English and they do not become dependent on the state what’s our loss? The risk is theirs.

Australia awards points for English on a sliding scale with a minimum threshold – the higher the score the more points awarded. It is the one part of the Australian skilled policy which seems logical to me at this point in time. I was interested to see that it is one of two recommendations made by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in a report they issued earlier this week on New Zealand’s immigration policy. They have encouraged this reward for superior English for the same reason.

I am not at all certain any more the future lies with our country’s education remaining mono-lingual and I am increasingly far from convinced that we should expect migrants to speak ‘the Queen’s’ English as well.

For our country to thrive in the 21st century as many people in the population need to be bi-lingual if not multi-lingual as we can create or import. Migrants play a vital role in creating those conditions.  In the meantime that does not eliminate the importance of English for most migrants at least in the short term but we must be smart (or brave) enough to know when it is appropriate to review this position.

I think we are almost at that point.

Until next week

Iain MacLeod

Southern Man- Letter from New Zealand

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2 comments on this post
July 26, 2014, 3:15 p.m. by Krish

Good thought. Thanks for posting this article. I have some doubts & queries..
Is there any proposal to increase the requirement to have IELTS score more than 6.5 for NZ also (as it is done for AU)?
is it mandatory to get 6.5 score if education & work experience is in English?

Replies to this comment

July 26, 2014, 3:47 p.m. by Iain Macleod
On your first question not that I am aware of. Notwithstanding my views I will not be surprised to see a sliding point scale rewarding better English following the current review but that is speculation on my part. In Australia the minimum IELTS score is 6 - they have not raised it. On your second question if you can demonstrate that the 'recognised qualification for which you claim points was taught in English you may be exempted from sitting the IELTS but is a subjective call from the bureaucrats. If your qualification was British or American you can assume they'd exempt you. If it was from India or the Philippines INZ has a quaint (arrogant) view on the standard of the English in those countries.
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