"How could you come to this country and not even know how to speak English?" my university dorm flatmate railed.
Jenny* was not great with words herself, loved a good piss-up and slurred most of her r's. But the fact that she could target neighbouring drivers, manicurists and shopkeepers for their less-than-perfect English made her feel briefly superior. It was her country, after all. And these newcomers could at least learn to bow and scrape in ways that were intelligible to her.
The old 'speak proper, English' chestnut was one I grew up hearing.
The old 'speak proper, English' chestnut was one I grew up hearing. A curious snobbery coming from a culture known in the rest of the English-speaking world for our slang-fuelled, cropped syllabled, 'Strayan convict mash-up.
Irony aside, it's the stick that was used to beat up our parents. It's the stick we internalised by feeling embarrassed, acting as translators, over-achieving at school; by trying to prove 'yes I am good enough'. And - finally - by not knowing, as Toni Morrison says, that this stick was racism itself.
That whole time we were chasing an arbitrary hamster-wheel standard set by others. The purpose was always for us to keep running, it was always inferiorisation. We became language-chameleons, fusing English with new accents, new words, new intonations.
You see, language wars is a very old and coded form of racism, hidden in what looks like a logical argument at face value. It seems to get a run every time there's any kind of social upheaval and it's easiest to blame migrants who can't really argue back. It's embedded in the superior 'western civilisation' matrix that justified colonisation.
The 'speak English' folks are usually the first to belittle people's accents, or expression, to infantilise or assume a lack of intelligence from those not perfectly fluent, and to begrudge those same migrants their upward mobility from the labour class
In my experience the 'speak English' folks are usually the first to belittle people's accents or expressions, to infantilise or assume a lack of intelligence from those not perfectly fluent, and to begrudge those same migrants their upward mobility from the labour class. For these people, it's a problem if you can't speak English, and it's a problem if you went above your station and spoke it too well.
It's no accident that new rules around English tests and citizenship become political flashpoints every few years, including new controversial proposed changes to partner visas to potentially include 500 hours of English classes to obtain Australian permanent residency.
Strangely, this was also being justified by our Prime Minister as an anti-family violence initiative. Free language support for migrants is one thing, but using it as a stick to reject visas is another. Research has shown time and again that the best weapon against domestic violence is to create structural supports to empower women and promote gender equality society-wide: from funding shelters for those on temporary visas, to framing a sponsorship system cognisant of how abuse thrives on power imbalances that transcend race, class and cultural backgrounds.
For a more cohesive society, why can't we shift our focus instead to inviting Australians to learn Indigenous languages? Or to nurture a school curriculum that teaches a second or third language? Or to simply express a kind of awe (thus recognising) the skills and qualifications people bring to Australia with their native tongue and cultural knowledge? (Think of International Booker-prize nominated Persian book 'The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree' written by Australian refugee writer Shokoofeh Azar).
Instead, the focus has always been on the colonial framework: How can you measure up to us and our frame of reference. It's a position that makes little sense in our globalised, multicultural world, given almost half of Australians having at least one parent born overseas, and English waning as the dominant global power language.
I am not bemoaning the wonderful work of ESL teachers or language learning for dialogue, cultural exchange, communion and of course the smooth conduct of daily business between folks. I'm talking here about the politicisation of language as a weapon, as a way to impose uniformity, as an exercise of power. If a conversation requires two people, English could be that mansplaining guy who never shuts up or listens.
I've always found my own use of language a strange contradiction. I'm one of the first people in my family to have English as my native tongue, but it wasn't designed for my experience. English is a jacket I'll put on, and customise to make it my own. I'll link and absorb my other languages, my other colours and not only I, but the language itself and this culture, will be enriched and changed by it.
Sarah Malik is a Walkley-award winning journalist and SBS Voices senior writer and video presenter. You can follow her on Twitter @sarahbmalik, Facebook or Instagram. Her work covers migration, feminism, domestic violence, representation and cultural diversity. To contact her for engagements, see her website.
*Name has been changed