Adult Migrant English Program: More than learning English

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Migrants sit for an English test when applying for Australian citizenship, but a lot of them struggle with conversational English. Image source: Austral Migration

Australia has always been known as an “immigration nation”, with recent migration trends pointing to an increasing number of migrants from the Asian region. Let’s be honest, with a stable economy, low air pollution and quality education, what’s there not to like about Australia? Many migrants choose to start a new life here, but sadly, not all of them have the opportunity to be fluent in the dominant language in Australia – English.

Nusrat Hasnin, who came to Melbourne from Bangladesh two years ago, is one such example. She comes across as friendly and welcoming, but admits that she has difficulty expressing her thoughts when getting to know people, due to her limited English. 

“I love to talk to people, I like making friends. After coming here, I thought, ‘if my English is good, I could make friends easily’. When I make conversation, I think a lot about my English. I think, ‘What makes a good sentence? Which word should I use?’”

There’s also the fear of being misunderstood.

“You want to say something, but you don’t know how to say it in English, and they will misunderstand you. I can express my feelings, my happiness or my sorrow in front of people, but if I don’t know English then I won’t be able to maintain a good friendship,” Nusrat says.

But it’s not all about making friends. Having a minimal understanding of English means that Nusrat won’t be able to integrate fully into the Australian community. She says that learning English has helped her with her daily life here – from little things like making a doctor’s appointment, to bigger issues like talking to her customers at the cafe she runs.

Nusrat believes that by learning English, she can express herself better. Image source: Bilian Loi

Although Nusrat had formal English lessons in her home country when she was younger, she credits her English tutor Deborah Williams for helping her with her conversational English. Deborah and Nusrat are part of the Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP)’s Volunteer Tutor Scheme (VTS), which pairs newly-arrived migrants or refugees with a volunteer tutor for weekly lessons.

They typically meet around Glen Waverley for weekly one-hour classes, and Nusrat says that these classes have helped her tremendously as it is personalised to her needs. She is also free to ask as many questions as she wants to. Nusrat jots down a list of questions before every class, and Deborah is happy to answer each and every one. Deborah also helps Nusrat construct her sentences, and gently corrects her whenever she makes mistakes.

Nusrat is happy to be corrected, and says that even little improvements like knowing the difference between ‘you and I’ and ‘me and you’ makes a huge difference in her daily life.

“It makes me happy when I know that I’m using whatever I’ve learned in class in my daily life. It feels like, ‘wow’. This is what motivates me to come to class every week.”

Language is also the gateway into another culture, and in these one-to-one classes, Deborah helps Nusrat adapt to the culture here.

“Sometimes, I need to go to dinner parties for work, but I don’t understand the dress codes. I am used to wearing saris but it’s not appropriate here. So I ask Deborah and she helps me,” Nusrat says.

Deborah Williams is an English tutor with 3 years experience. Image source: Bilian Loi

Deborah understands what’s it’s like to be an outsider, as she has lived in America, Japan, the Philippines, and Indonesia. She knows what it feels like, and wants to help.

“It’s really important in Australia that we encourage everybody to speak the same language and to give them a sense of value so that they can vote and participate in society and not feel like a second-grade citizen,” she says.

Although Deborah has taught for 3 years, she first heard of a similar course 30 years ago. It was a course that was designed to teach English to speakers of other languages, but sadly, there were a few barriers: it was only held in Sydney, was costly and required full-time dedication.

“I really wanted to do it, but I couldn’t because I had a little girl and a son. If I had the money and the time I would have gone. I would have been a teacher professionally all my life,” Deborah says.

The turning point in her life came a few years ago, when her parents passed away. She wanted to turn her life around and so, decided to volunteer.

Apart from private lessons with Nusrat, she also volunteers as an English teacher at the Caulfield South Community House. But she does more than volunteering. She helps whomever who wants to improve their English, including university graduates who wants to know how to write professionally.

“I’ve got students from different levels, some not paying anything and some paying through companies. I probably do about ten sessions a week and they are always an hour and a half,” she explains.

Teaching takes up a lot of her time, but she finds it rewarding.

“It’s a great way of reaching out and helping other human beings who either had a difficult time or are trying to move countries and understand cultures. It’s just a great way of uniting other people and you can do it through language, just smiling and laughing over a cup of coffee,” she says.

Nusrat and Deborah enjoy their weekly meetings, but this is far from Nusrat’s first English class. Before that, she attended tri-weekly classes, also part of the AMEP, which ran from 9am to 2.30pm each day. However, she found it difficult to attend classes regularly, as she had to juggle between work and family. She admits that she had to leave classes early most of the time to pick her children up from school.

“That’s why I had to stop going to classes, and I applied for a tutor,” says Nusrat.

Stella Jennings. Image courtesy of Stella Jennings

Although Nusrat and Deborah were lucky enough to be paired up, some students have to wait due to the shortage of tutors. Stella Jennings, coordinator of the VTS, recognises the problem. 

“We desperately need tutors, especially in the southeast suburbs. We’ve got a lot of mums who are having babies, who are at risk of social isolation. The tutors can be the only hour in a week that they get to speak English and is the only link to an English-speaking society.”

The bond between the tutors and students oftentimes result in lifelong friendships, with some becoming part of the family.

“We’ve had kids call them aunties. That’s a really common outcome of this program. We focus a lot on that integration side of things and help people to get out into the community and make friends with the community,” Stella says.

Volunteer tutors can come from any walks of life, as long as they are 18 or older and have “reasonably fluent English”. “We’ve got full-time mums, we’ve got university lecturers, we even had somebody who was a Lego robotics engineer,” says Stella.

Some students graduating from the program also get trained as tutors. They are usually paired with pre-beginner students, as their English might not be perfect, but just good enough to help somebody who has just arrived.

“We find that that works really, really well because those students know what it’s like to have no English in an English-speaking community. It’s inspirational for their students because they get to see how far their tutor has come and that makes them feel like ‘I can do that too’,” says Stella. 

AMEP is run by the Australian government, with a focus to provide English language tuition to migrants and refugees for 510 hours per person. The VTS has been in operation for more than 50 years as part of the AMEP and has over 350 students being seen by tutors across Melbourne at the moment.

Students are eligible for tutoring for 5 years, or 510 hours, upon arrival as a migrant or refugee in Australia. While tutoring can be as long as 5 years, most students take classes for only 6 to 12 months as they become more proficient and find work, or return to full time classes.

“We do have cases though, particularly with some of our retirement age students, of long term tutoring, and they are always firm friends with their tutors!” says Stella.

Knowing the language of the country you are trying to settle into can be vital. Simple things like shopping, banking or making a doctor’s appointment can almost be insurmountable tasks for newly-arrived migrants and refugees. Accessing services, finding work and making friends in the community is also very challenging without being able to communicate clearly. 

“Our students recognise this and are really motivated to learn, asking for a tutor even if their personal circumstances mean they can’t get to a class, or to support them with their homework and accelerate their learning. We have many positive outcomes and stories, like Nusrat’s, with students achieving goals such as getting their licence, obtaining Australian citizenship or finding employment due to the help they have received in learning English,” says Stella.

The students are not the only ones who benefit from the program, as tutors gain a sense of achievement and satisfaction too.

“It’s also really rewarding for tutors to see their students progress, and to watch them achieve those milestones and outcomes,” says Stella.

To register as a volunteer, visit Melbourne AMEP’s website or call 9269 1514.

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