Dr Bart Deygers: Language requirements for permanent residence and citizenship, and their impact on low-educated, low-literate migrants


*This seminar will be immediately followed by a book launch - see next LTRC News item*

Venue: Seminar room 407, Babel Building, University of Melbourne Parkville Campus


Low educated, low-literate L2-learners (LESLLA-learners) have long been part of the migrant population in Europe, but in recent years their presence has increased, both proportionally and in absolute numbers (CoE, 2013). Following the augmented influx of migrants that began in 2015, most European countries have started implementing language requirements, or have strengthened already existing criteria. Many European countries now require all migrants to demonstrate language skills at a certain level, and in most cases the requirements for LESLLA learners and those for the general population are the same.

As the presence of LESLLA learners in the test-taker population increases, the dearth of knowledge on this population in applied linguistics becomes quite manifest indeed. LESLLA learners remain an understudied population in SLA research (Tarone, 2009). Few SLA theories and models take into account how LESLLA-learners approach the task of learning a second language, or map the obstacles they face during assessment.

In line with this need for empirical data on low-educated learners, the purpose of this task is twofold. First, I aim to outline the political context in Europe when it comes to language criteria for migrants. For this, I will focus on a very recent study conducted on behalf of the Council of Europe (CoE) in which we consulted with government representatives of 34 CoE member states. The results show a gradual increase in language requirements over time, combined with a lack of attention for LESLLA learners. Importantly, the language requirements are typically not based on any empirical data or research.

In the second part of the talk I will zoom in on the Belgian context, and compare the speaking and writing results of LESLLA learners to those of the general migrant population. All 1053 participants took the same centralized test at the A2 level of the CEFR – the required language level for permanent residency and citizenship in Belgium. The results clearly show large and significant performance differences between candidates with different educational backgrounds, especially for the written skills. Moreover, the language classes that are designed to cater to the needs of migrants with different levels of schooling appear to be ineffective in bridging the gap between lower and higher educated learners. Over the course of these classes, the performance gap between these groups of learners effectively increases.

Since this paper has implications that are of empirical and societal value, I will finish by discussing some ethical and professional implications of using language requirements to determine citizenship or permanent residence.

Dr Bart Deygers

A postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Leuven, Belgium, I am working at the University of Melbourne from January until March 2019. My primary research interest is the role and impact of high-stakes tests in today’s society. When language tests are used to determine the capabilities and opportunities of people, it is my aim to work with relevant stakeholders to empirically investigate the real-world impact of those tests, the assumptions that support their use, and the intended and unintended consequences of the testing policy. Currently, I am primarily focused on how language tests for citizenship and permanent residence affect low-educated, low-literate learners. In previous projects I mainly worked on university admission language requirements.