BBC Home
Explore the BBC
BBC News
Launch consoleBBC NEWS CHANNEL
Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 August, 2004, 17:04 GMT 18:04 UK
Do they speak English in Australia?
By Jennifer Quinn
BBC News Online Magazine

Well of course they do - like millions of other members of the big happy Commonwealth family. But new rules asking natives of those countries to prove they can speak English before getting UK citizenship has left some 'colonials' feeling a little insulted - and that's the same in any accent.

Map of Australia
It's a veritable celebration of the Commonwealth. There's Vegemite and maple syrup, copies of the Sydney Morning Herald and All Blacks gear. South African chutney sits across an aisle from Canadian peanut butter.

In the midst of all this, Geoffrey O'Connell is on a roll.

The issue is deep-fried potatoes. What are they called? Depends on where you're from, of course. A native Briton will ask for a packet of crisps. A Canadian wants a bag of chips. Australians cover all bases, and look for potato chips.

"Potato chips are these things," Mr O'Connell, general manager of the Australia Shop in London's Covent Garden, says as he holds up a packet of, strangely, a South African brand. "We don't have crisps."

The crisp-chip-potato chip issue is an example of the cultural differences between the native English-speakers of the Commonwealth. And while there may be opinions on how well citizens of different Commonwealth nations handle the English language, there's no doubt that many of them actually do speak it.

Under new regulations, all would-be British citizens from every nation on earth must now prove that they have a working knowledge of English - a rule which applies equally to people from Commonwealth countries like India, Cyprus and Barbados, as it does to those from, for example, the US.

For many people, secondary school or university qualifications will act as proof; for those without those certificates, proof from an English-language school will be sufficient.

'Mad as a cut snake'

"They no longer take for granted that we antipodean colonials speak anything that they recognise as English," wrote a mildly annoyed Terry Lane in Melbourne's Sunday Age. "Already, two Australians wanting to become Britons have been rejected."

Hurt feelings aside, there's the feeling among some that citizens of English-speaking Commonwealth nations should maybe get a free pass on the test, because being asked to prove that they understand their native tongue seems kind of, well, insulting.

We've now got something to give and they've got something to learn

After all, says Mr O'Connell - who has placed the packet of crispy potatoes, perhaps slightly crushed, back on the shelf - citizens of Commonwealth countries are often treated differently when it comes to visas, so why not when it comes to language?

"I do find it odd that we're asked to sit an English test when we've taken their government and expanded on it, we've taken the food and expanded on it, and we've taken their language and expanded on it," he says. "We've actually got something to give and they've got something to learn off us."

His shop stocks delicacies from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa, and it employs citizens of all those nations.

Mr O'Connell admits there has been the odd breakdown in communication - he got some blank looks from non-Australian staff when he asked them to have a "fossik", which loosely means hunt, for a lost item - but nothing critical.

Listen and respond to spoken language
Communicate orally, both face-to-face and on the telephone
Read and understand straightforward text
Deal with situations likely to arise in an English-speaking area
Produce simple text on familiar topics

New Zealanders in the UK report bartenders giggling over their pronunciation when they try to order a bottle of Beck's beer, and confusion over their use of the word "dairy" instead of corner shop.

Canadians, of course, spend half their time explaining they're not from the United States, and much of the rest being polite, spelling words with a "z" instead of an "s" and purchasing two-fours - or cases - of beer.

But a spokesperson for the Home Office - which implemented the rules last month - says the regulations, which also recognise those with a working knowledge of Welsh or Scottish Gaelic, aren't an attempt to insult. Rather, they're an effort to be more egalitarian.

"Effective integration of those who adopt the UK as their home - including embracing common language and an understanding of life in the UK - is important to continue good race relations and community cohesion," a spokesman says, describing the standards as a key part of the government's "managed migration" scheme.

"New citizens need to have a better understanding of the rights and responsibilities which come with the acquisition of British citizenship. This will help them gain a deeper understanding of British values, alongside their own cultural heritage."

'Cross as a frog in a sock'

Citizens of many Commonwealth nations would argue that they already understand UK values since their government, courts, and social systems are based on British models.

But the thought of having to prove a grasp of the English language still seems a bit worrying to Craig Posnikoff and Alex Blair, two 19-year-olds from Vancouver, Canada, who are spending months travelling across Europe.

The pair ducked into the Maple Leaf Pub - looking for a replay of a World Cup of Hockey exhibition game - and considered the question.

Unlikely to pass an English test
"I'm somewhat insulted," Mr Blair says, "but I can understand it a little bit, because there's a lot of Canadians in Canada that I would say aren't necessarily can speak the language properly.

"And there's my language skills there," he says, after a pause. "Very poor."

While Canada doesn't have a language requirement, the country is happy when would-be citizens speak English or French, one of the country's two official tongues.

Australia asks migrants to demonstrate a "sufficient ability" in the English language; New Zealand wants a "reasonable standard"; South Africa requires would-be citizens to "communicate satisfactorily" in one of the country's official languages.

And while the Sunday Age's Mr Lane believes the Australian people could do with some diction lessons - he is concerned the language there could "become completely unintelligible to all but McDonald's counter staff and female MPs" - he believes the British may also have a problem.

"The English, as we know, are in no position to mock the colonial deviation from the standard spoken language," he says. "If those BBC cops-and-robbers shows are anything to go by, then there are sub-dialects of English that are incomprehensible to those not native to the patois. So who are they to sit in judgement?"

Citizenship classes for new Britons
03 Sep 03  |  Politics
Tea and cakes for the new Britons
25 Jul 03  |  Politics
Blunkett names 'Britishness' chief
10 Sep 02  |  UK Politics

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


News Front Page | World | UK | England | Northern Ireland | Scotland | Wales | Politics
Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health | Education
Have Your Say | Magazine | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific