26 March 2013 You are here:

Grammatically Correct?!

She was Australian, and we both were surprised to be facing each other in that particular context. I was in Bergen, the second largest city in Norway, located on the east coast, and had travelled there – in part – to complete my International English Language Test System (IELTS) examination.

For those who don’t know, people holding certain passports – and South African passports are on the list – are required to prove their competency in English before they can apply for a visa to live and work in the United Kingdom. The requirement is exercised regardless of one’s actual competence or educational level. No supporting documentation is enquired after, let alone inspected. If your nationality is listed, you have to take the test!

IELTS is used to measure one’s competency in English. It comprises a three-part examination, completed over some six hours. A test of one’s ability to grasp spoken English is followed by a test of one’s written English. The final component of the test is a conversation with an examiner. It was then that I met the Australian! The irony of an Australian testing the English-language competency of a South African in Norway while his Norwegian wife shopped because her nationality was exempt, did not escape me, and formed the subject of our conversation as I responded to her incredulous: “Why are you taking this test?!”

It is doubly ironic that I agree with the principle: to be able to function in a place one should make every effort to understand its people and learning the language is a crucial element in that process. What I do not find ironic – because it is not humorous, however one looks at the issue – is that this principle is applied so discriminately (as opposed to indiscriminately!) so that people whose mother-tongue is English, and who possess a proficiency in the language the equal to most well-educated Britons, are required to take the test, whereas others who are not able to converse at a basic level are given unimpeded access – simply because they have an approved passport. The principle cannot be upheld if the criterion is based on geographic rather than linguistic considerations!

You see, when the roles were reversed – some three to four hundred years ago – the British immigrants were not required to learn Khoisan or Zulu, Hindi or Urdu, Apache or Comanche. In fact, they required the citizens of the lands in which they chose to live to learn English, which is why my mother-tongue is English and not Khoisan.

There are obvious inconsistencies in this practice which impact upon individuals such as me and I would hope that, as Britain seeks to handle the very complex issues around immigration – and I readily concede their complexity and the challenge they present in terms of workable and responsible solutions, our mutual past may inform, and indeed reform, the perspective with which the challenge is seen and addressed both by the authorities concerned and by the nation at large.

I was directed in my thinking to the Sistine Chapel, and the recently-held conclave to choose the Pope. Imagine the reaction of the world – never mind the Roman Catholic Church – if the Italian authorities had insisted that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio needed to pass a language test because his nationality was not on the approved list! As it happens, he speaks Italian fluently but, let’s suppose that the conclave of cardinals decided that a non-Italian speaking cardinal (if such a person exists!) possessed other, more relevant, qualities which were needed for the role as Pope in 2013, and let’s imagine that the Italian authorities denied him the right to fulfil that role – based on a language test. (Yes, I know that the Vatican is a separate state and that therefore this scenario is as unlikely as my becoming the next Pope. I did say “imagine”!) What an outcry it would cause! What outrage would be felt!

Similarly, if the Anglican Synod had elected as the next Archbishop of Canterbury, someone from a non-English speaking background, who happens to have a passport which is not on the approved list, the person would be required to undergo a test which, I submit from my own experience of the wonderfully rich dialects I encounter in my travels across these British Isles, some British citizens would not pass. Imagine the person taking the examination and failing! The religious freedom of the Anglican Church – to choose whomever it deems fit to serve – would be compromised.

These hypothetical speculations lead me to something which is not hypothetical at all. This insistence upon a language test with discriminate and, therefore, potentially discriminatory selection of who has to write and who does not could, and does, impinge on the rights of religious organisations to exercise religious freedom when appointing or electing someone to fulfil a role for which the Church or organisation believes the person in question has the necessary competencies. If The Salvation Army deems a person to be suited to fill a particular role – an appointment which is based on a number of criteria, where language competence is but one of several factors that is taken into consideration, but where it is by no means a “deal-breaker” – surely it must be the right of The Salvation Army to make that appointment without this inconsistently adhered to principle being applied when that appointment involves someone with the wrong passport needing to live in the UK?!

Despite what some of us English-speakers often think instinctively, there is not necessarily a direct correlation between someone’s command of the English language and their intelligence. This same disconnect would be as true in regard to other aspects of religious leadership at which a religious body would be looking when considering someone to assume a particular role. Therefore, if a religious body deems the person competent to function within its parameters, should the state have the right to prevent that person by using a discriminate system that is not applied consistently and, by its very inconsistency, undermines the principle for which it exists? After all, we see this being applied in reverse in several countries, where the Church appoints individuals – several of them being British citizens – who have no knowledge of the local language, but who possess the necessaries skills and gifts to serve the mission of the Church in that particular context. And despite that British citizen often only being able to speak English, the Church manages and the work is done.

Let us hope that, when The Salvation Army’s international leaders gather for the next High Council, we will not have to concern ourselves about whether the person would pass the IELTS examination because, in doing so, we would be endorsing a system that is patently and principally flawed in achieving the very thing it is supposed to ensure, while surrendering our right as The Salvation Army to exercise religious freedom in making the most suitable choice!