Language and opportunity for immigrants in Australia

Language and opportunity for immigrants in Australia

If your parents are immigrants, you’ve probably heard it from them before – the anecdotes of how difficult life was ‘when I first come to this country’. With war veteran-like passion, they recount their struggles as factory workers, new to the country, labouring day and night in multiple jobs so that you might, one day, enjoy a better life than they did.

Granted that parents often have a propensity to glorify their exploits from back in the day, I can appreciate that life was not easy for my parents when they first arrived as immigrants, and I often wonder why this was. Cultural differences notwithstanding, I’ve realised that the one crucial factor that had the greatest impact on the difficulties they faced was their lack of English skills.

Immigration to Australia has undergone significant changes over the decades. The nation’s post-war population boom of the fifties and sixties was largely due to the government’s ‘Populate or Perish’ policy, which encouraged large-scale immigration from Europe. In subsequent years, as the White Australia Policy was relaxed, an increasing number of migrants from southern-European and non-European countries began to settle in the country.

Government assistance in helping the newly-arrived migrants learn English was minimal, and many ended up working in labour-intensive occupations such as factory work and construction. However, since the 1980s, Australian immigration controls have become increasingly selective, and with the current focus on skilled migration and family reunion, the composition of new cohorts of immigrants has evolved accordingly.

Nowadays, skills-based migration requires demonstration of English skills through IELTS (International English Language Testing System). Under the skilled migration selection system SkillSelect, prospective migrants are rewarded for higher English competence, ranging from zero ‘bonus points’ for ‘proficient English’ to twenty for ‘Superior English’. These skilled migrants are often educated in Australia, and all have some level of proficiency in English. For these migrants, economic opportunities are much more diverse than the unskilled migrants of previous decades. Those without functional ability in English can usually only immigrate to Australia through the family reunion or humanitarian programmes. These immigrants usually have difficulty in finding employment if they don’t acquire at least some level of proficiency in English.

The government’s Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP) provides free language tuition and is aimed at helping these migrants gain the English skills necessary for social integration and employment. However, the programme’s focus on basic English means that by the time immigrants leave the programme, they only have a general, simple understanding of the language, with many far from achieving fluency.

In Australia, proficiency in English is a prerequisite for most jobs (Syed & Murray, 2009, p. 421). Unsurprisingly, one’s competence in English can directly affect the type of work that he/she can obtain. Syed & Murray’s research (2009) reveals that it can be particularly difficult for these migrants to find employment in jobs such as marketing and sales, which involve interaction with English-speaking clients.

Similarly, they may also have difficulty communicating and socialising with their native-born colleagues, leading some migrants to feel that their potential to progress in their careers is limited by their English capability.

Furthermore, immigrants from non-English-speaking backgrounds are more likely than native-born Australians to be employed in less well-paid jobs, and can often only find employment at a level below their education level and experience (Roshid & Chowdhury, 2013, p. 69). These migrants often find that, when looking for employment, their foreign qualifications are either disregarded or seen as inferior to Australian qualifications.

Nonetheless, it is clear that not all non-English speaking migrants are unemployed or only employed to do manual labour. One possible scenario is that the migrant’s skills (usually in scientific research) are in such high demand that entrance requirements for English skills are relaxed and employers overlook the migrant’s English deficiency. Of course, such circumstances are rare. A much more common situation is when migrants are employed in jobs where they speak their own language either exclusively or predominantly.

A wealth of examples of migrants in this situation can be found in the community’s various ethnic enclaves. For example, take Box Hill in Melbourne, a community with a population that is predominantly Chinese in background. Here, Chinese businesses serve a mostly Chinese customer base. It is not rare for a business transaction to be conducted completely in Cantonese or Mandarin – indeed, many who live and work in the area find that there is often little need to use English on a day-to-day basis. Such ‘self-contained’ language communities offer environments in which migrants can find adequate employment without having fluency in English. At the same time, however, it is important to note that such communities are limited in size and employment opportunity. For the majority of new immigrants with limited knowledge of English, learning English is still essential in order to find skilled work.

With the Government’s current emphasis on population growth to combat the ageing of Australia’s population, immigration to Australia seems likely to be sustained at current levels during the next decade. While immigration controls have tightened, there is still room for improvement. One notable problem is the under-utilisation of new immigrants’ skills and experience. It is regrettable that the majority of immigrants are employed in occupations where their qualifications and experience are not being fully capitalised.

Quite often, many migrants find that their education and work experience are meaningless when they first arrive in Australia because they lack the English skills to make their skills relevant for the Australian labour market. Research also shows that immigrants tend to gravitate towards work related to their prior education and experience when their English competency increases (Ehrich et al, 2010). Some see this as an indication that the current language-training procedures for skilled migrants are inadequate for many individuals.  It remains to be seen whether the Government will adopt a more comprehensive and perhaps tailored language-training programme. Perhaps this will help new Australians to work in a way that assures that Australia is maximising the economic potential of its new migrants.


Collins, J. (2008). Globalisation, Immigration and the Second Long Post-war Boom in Australia. Journal Of Australian Political Economy, (61), 244-266.

Ehrich, J., Kim, S., & Ficorilli, L. (2010). Competency-Based Assessment, Employment and Immigrant Background: An Exploratory Investigation of Adult Language Learners in Australia. Language And Education, 24(6), 485-494.

Kossoudji, S. A. (1988). English Language Ability and the Labor Market Opportunities of Hispanic and East Asian Immigrant Men. Journal Of Labor Economics, 6(2), 205.

Leslie, D., & Lindley, J. (2001). The Impact of Language Ability on Employment and Earnings of Britain’s Ethnic Communities. Economica, 68(272), 587-606.

Roshid, M., & Chowdhury, R. (2013). English language proficiency and employment: A case study of Bangladeshi graduates in Australian employment market. Mevlana International Journal Of Education, 3(1), 68.

Syed, J., & Murray, P. (2009). Combating the English language deficit: the labour market experiences of migrant women in Australia. Human Resource Management Journal, 19(4), 413-432.