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Bilingual benefits: Why migrants make effective English tutors to new arrivals

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New migrants to Australia are learning more than just language skills from volunteer tutors who have walked a similar path.

First-year university student from China, Candice Zheng, moved to Melbourne with her family two years ago. It was a transition she found difficult.

“I was struggling with my English,” she told SBS Mandarin.

“I even tried to avoid making phone calls because I was afraid that I couldn’t understand what others were talking about.

“I also felt lonely. I had no friends here.” 

She met Lily Chen, a volunteer English tutor, through the government-funded Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP).

Ms Chen also migrated to Australia from Shanghai two years ago with her twin daughters as they prepared for university.

She’d already had extensive English language training back in China.

Her experience made her the perfect language tutor for Candice.

Ms Chen tailored a learning plan to help Candice practice the kind of English language skills needed for everyday life in Australia, and then she gradually moved to academic settings to prepare her pupil for university.

“In our weekly meetings, we spend at least half an hour just to catch up,” Ms Chen says.

“In English, we talk about how we are going, books or movies we like, and even some troubles we worry about.”

During these chats, Candice began expanding her vocabulary, while improving her listening and speaking skills.

She is now confident to have a conversation in English, and she’s just commenced her studies at the University of Melbourne, majoring in geography and psychology.

AMEP student Candice
AMEP student Candice Zheng moved to Australia two years ago.

For her, Ms Chen is not only an English tutor but a friend.

“She’s a mentor for me,” Candice says.

“I can always talk to her if I have problems in my life or feel stressed about something. She can always give me some advice.”

The friendship soon extended to Ms Chen’s daughters who enjoy spending time with their "big sis" in Melbourne.

“Our families visit each other from time to time, and Candice became my daughters’ close friend. We expanded our social circles,” Ms Chen says.

“Who knew our two families could make such good friends here.”

AMEP Volunteer Tutor Chen Min
AMEP volunteer tutor Lily Chen
Chen Min

How new arrivals get help from bilingual volunteers

Volunteer Tutor Scheme Officer Ivy Feng from Melbourne Polytechnic matches AMEP students with suitable volunteer tutors.

She says many tutors are from migrant backgrounds themselves.

“Many of our volunteer tutors are migrants who have spent many years here and know Australia very well,” she says.

“They have excellent English skills and speak the native languages of their origin. It’s much easier for them to tutor new migrant students because they speak both languages.”

Bilingual tutors are particularly sought after among new Chinese migrants.

“Many new migrants from China want to practice English with tutors with Chinese language skills,” Ms Feng says.

New migrants to Australia can access free English courses through the AMEP. But Ms Feng affirms that not many of them know they can also have volunteer tutors help them outside the classroom.

“We can match an AMEP student with a volunteer tutor helping them practice English for one hour per week,” she says.

“Before the pandemic, students can meet their tutor at home or cafe, which is a better way to communicate. After this March, we can only do online tutoring.

“All of this is free. Don’t miss the opportunity.”

Ms Chen encourages others with capable English skills to become volunteer English tutors for new arrivals.

“I joined this program because I noticed there is a strong culture of volunteering in Australia,” she says.

“You do your best to help people around you. At the same time, you can make some like-minded friends as well.”

She didn’t expect she would stay in this program for this long. The two-year journey with Candice also helped her find “confidence and a sense of accomplishment” in her new country.

“Even if you don’t have any teaching experience, as long as you are willing to help others, I encourage you to join the AMEP volunteer tutor program. You may discover your new horizons too.”

According to the latest census, the number of people in Australia who said they could not speak English well or at all increased from about 560,000 in 2006 to around 820,000 in 2016.

Currently, new migrants can access 510 hours of free English courses through the AMEP within five years of their arrival or having their visa granted.

Acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge announced changes to the Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP) at the National Press Club in late August, which include the lifting of the cap on class hours and removing the five-year time limit in which those eligible can access the scheme.

Acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge has denied any suggestion of wrongdoing.
Acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge.

But Mr Tudge affirmed that, on average, participants are only completing 300 hours of classes and 21 per cent are leaving without "functional English", or "the basic language skills to enable participation in society".

Educational linguist from Griffith University, Doctor Minglin Li, specialises in teaching English.

She says many adult migrants find it difficult to speak English, simply because they lack practice.

“Many Chinese new migrants speak a native language with their family members at home. They don’t need to speak English at all,” Dr Li says.

“Many migrant parents can get help from their children if they need to use English.

That means they have no strong motivation to learn English.

“It’s one of the challenges teachers face when they teach new migrants English.”

She points out that learning English is not just about language.

“Learning a new language cannot be separated from learning a new culture.

“If you want to adapt to Australian society, you need to know the culture,” Dr Li adds.

“If you have good English skills, I think it will help you have more confidence to start a conversation and make new friends, find better jobs, and know more about multicultural society in Australia.

“In return, it will also benefit your English skills.”

If you live in Victoria, AMEP contacts can be found here, while if you live in another state, visit this website

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