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Why should immigrants speak perfect English when Australians can't?

Why should immigrants speak perfect English when Australians can't?

2017-04-24, SMH.Australia

How does Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull expect migrants to achieve functional standards of speech when most Australians can't even pronounce the name of our own country?

While it appears that Turnbull has been motivated to attract more Pauline Hanson voters with his new citizenship test requirements, he is attacking the wrong communication deficit. 

We have a serious communication skills problem in Australia glued to a long standing fixture in Australian culture. If Turnbull wants to promote Australian values as they stand, then migrants will be taught to shut up, be stoic, take it like a man and repress expression; or if they have to express, to leave much information open to interpretation, shorten their words and beware of bigger words.

Yet stoicism is an Australian trait that continues to serve our national character well – it is our national spine calcified by solidity, toughness and a proud work ethic. But an underlying branch of stoicism needs to be addressed, the part that holds-in, internalises emotions and suppresses expression.

Stoicism through gritted teeth builds up tension cumulatively like a pressure cooker with two potential directions of concern; implosion or explosion. For many this is a gateway to domestic violence, violence, alcoholism, drug abuse, mental and physical illness and compromised national outcomes. It is particularly applicable to the Australian male (though not gender-exclusive) and may be a hangover from the British – the world champions of repressed emotion. It is most timely that Prince Harry has generously gone public about his struggles with emotional suppression after Princess Diana died.

Our education system should be training all of us with the necessary tools to manage, express and release tension. Australian values need to change to encourage expression and communication.

Another long standing Aussie value is suspicion of those who speak with openness, skill, confidence and clarity.

Waleed Aly is a child of immigrants who speaks Australian English better than most Australians. He communicates clearly, with exceptional fluency, panache, is prepared to use large words and exercise his intellect – all of which does not endear him to white bread Aussies. If we ignore the racism, part of the antipathy directed towards Aly is that he speaks too well.

The seesaw scale works this way: the worse you speak, the better you are liked and the better you speak the less you are trusted. Australia's suspicion of communication excellence can be traced to feelings about the British who were generally respected, but not liked or trusted.

Though it might appear counterintuitive, identifying shortfalls in Australian communication patterns is not demonstrating cultural cringe, neither does wanting the best for your country. Cultural cringe usually has an imperial model that suggests that the Australian culture is inferior to the British – a notion that is as flawed as Turnbull's new citizenship policy.

So it is pertinent to remind Turnbull that it is unacceptable to scapegoat any group; that picking on migrants should not be an Australian value. Instead he should be creating initiatives that train our fellow Australians to communicate better.

Dean Frenkel lectures in public speaking and communications at Victoria University.

Prime Minister Australia New Citizenship Law

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