The weaponisation of language: English proficiency, citizenship and the politics of belonging in Australia

  • Rachel Burke (University of Newcastle)
  • Nisha Thapliyal (University of Newcastle)
  • Sally Baker (University of New South Wales)


Calls for greater protection of national boundaries – both physical and ideological – and the politicising of immigration and citizenship are increasingly characteristic of the global geo-political landscape. Several signatory countries to the UNHCR refugee convention have sought to legislate higher levels of language proficiency for citizenship eligibility. Most recently, this has been attempted in Australia, reigniting controversy about the use of language testing to assess a potential citizen’s ‘worthiness’. In this paper, we identify contested conceptions of belonging and citizenship, manifested in mediatised debates around language proficiency and citizenship which emerged following the announcement of proposed changes to Australian citizenship rules. We use Graff’s (1981) concept of the ‘Literacy Myth’ to analyze associations between language proficiency and ‘morality’ evident in Australian media articles, to explore the underpinning discourses of these proposals, and to probe the relationship between citizenship, belonging and language. We argue that these myths work discursively to frame language proficiency as a proxy measure of the morality of prospective citizens and their willingness to ‘integrate’ or ‘assimilate’ into resettlement contexts. Relatedly, these myths can be deployed to justify the denial of the possibility of belonging to those who do not possess the linguistic capital privileged by policy and media elites.

Keywords: citizenship; language proficiency; ‘worthy citizens’; belonging; Australia

How to Cite:

Burke, R., Thapliyal, N. & Baker, S., (2018) “The weaponisation of language: English proficiency, citizenship and the politics of belonging in Australia”, Journal of Critical Thought and Praxis 7(1).

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Published on
09 Mar 2018
Peer Reviewed