Migrants could face a primary-school level conversational English test as a requirement to becoming permanent Australian residents and citizens.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said speaking English was the key to integrating in society and engaging with the economy and education.
“Everyone should recognise we all have a vested interest in being able to converse and engage in the national language,” Mr Turnbull told reporters in Hobart on Thursday.
He said the initial goal of primary school-level English was reasonable, saying it was an obvious measure to help migrants achieve in Australia.
“It is plainly in everybody’s interest that everyone, ideally, should have English language skills,” Mr Turnbull said.
Citizenship Minister Alan Tudge said Australia could move to a locally designed test focusing on conversational English, rather than using international exams.
“If you have a lot of people not speaking the language then you start to get social fragmentation and we don’t want to see that happen,” Mr Tudge told Sky News.
He said the government was considering extending the test to make it a requirement for permanent residency.
“We’re looking at whether or not we can have a reasonable, basic conversational English language requirement at that stage,” Mr Tudge said.
“We want people to be able to interact with one another, work together, play together and continue to contribute to Australian society.”
Australia is approaching a million non-English speakers and the increase is concerning, Mr Tudge said.
He wants to avoid “parallel communities” developing, which he said were an issue in some European countries.
“The secret to our success is we’ve largely had integrated communities where people have blended together regardless of where they’ve come from,” he said.
It’s not the first time Mr Tudge has flagged the importance of English for migrants.
In March he suggested migrants must demonstrate they’ve made an effort to integrate before becoming citizens. Steps could include joining a Rotary Club or a soccer team.
Any changes would need to pass parliament, but that is by no means guaranteed.
Previous changes to citizenship laws were blocked in the Senate last year. Fresh talks would be needed with cross bench senators.