Located in one of Melbourne’s inner city suburbs is a thriving fish and chips shop owned by a Chinese man in his mid-fifties. Each time the phone rings, he picks up and utters the only English sentence he knows.
“Hello, how are you?”
The reply doesn’t interest him. All he's listening out for are specific words that will tell him exactly what his customer wants. Fish, chips and how many of each. He’s good with numbers and the different types of fish.
Once he’s taken the order, he assigns it a pick up time. It’s always either in 15 or 30 minute blocks. He doesn’t like to complicate things for himself.
Lately though, he’s grown curious about his regular customers. He wonders how old they are. Do they have families? How many children? And more importantly, is it culturally acceptable to even ask such questions to people he considers familiar strangers?
His questions are stark in their simplicity. His customers would be surprised, even amused, at his curiosity over such banal details of their life.
But Lim Wei Ching, an English language teacher at AMES Australia, fully understands the unspoken intent behind those questions.
“It’s about finding their footing and identity,” she explains. “Being in a new country means having to think about what your role is here. And finding a sense of identity is a common challenge.”
“Having a common language also means being able to live in society. You and I don’t think twice when we ask for directions or register for a government service. And even if we don’t know the Australian public system, it’s easy enough to look it up online - but not if you don’t have the language.”
Wei Ching, a Malaysian who migrated to Australia over a decade ago, teaches three weekly classes and a total of 80 mostly Chinese students in the Australian Migrant English Program. They fall into an age range of between 21 and 70 with women outnumbering men and grandparents filling most seats in her preliminary class.
She bears witness to the frustration, grit and tenacity that spur her students to turn up week after week. She shares in their elation when understanding strikes like a lightning bolt after months of the same lesson.
And she knows what it’s like to want to belong in a world that can feel just slightly out of reach.
“Migrants don’t have just one face," she says. "Each has a different motivation for migrating to Australia but most are here for a better life, whatever that means, for themselves and their families."
"I completely understand this because my grandparents migrated to Malaysia to seek a better life for us. I never really thought about their sacrifice until I started working with migrants. Everyone just wants a fair go in life.”
Mandarin. Wait, no, it was Hokkien. We didn’t communicate in English at home but I learnt the basics in school and by watching TV.
My maternal uncle and aunts placed heavy emphasis on us learning English so when I was nine I took classes at the British Council in Kuala Lumpur. I remember watching so many episodes of Mind Your Language.
When I was 15, an aunt who loves Australian magazines gave me her entire collection of New Idea and Women’s Weekly. That was how I developed my English!
Right before I finished high school, I started thinking about what I wanted to do next, and that was when I decided I had to brush up on my English because I wanted to travel.
Oh, definitely accidental! I went to university in Perth and the first thing I wanted to do after graduation was get involved in the community. To get to know Australia better, you know? Somehow I ended up volunteering to teach English to adult Chinese migrants.
At the time, the migration of Southeast Asian Chinese into Australia had just begun and many of them needed language assistance. I joined the Adult Migrant English Progam and began volunteering as a teachers' assistant at Central Tafe in Perth. That was 12 years ago.
The teachers. They were the kind I wished I had had in school. I was so inspired by some of them that I decided to enroll in CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults) which is universally recognised as the minimal requirement for teaching adults. I was volunteering in Chile when I suddenly thought, wait a minute, I could make a career out of this. That sort of sealed the deal.
When I was a kid, my dad returned from a trip to Australia and tried to teach us to say ‘G’day!’ We didn’t understand what he was talking about! And when I first arrived in Perth, I kept thinking, “Wow, what are they saying?”
I teach them any words that they’d encounter in everyday life, like sparky or tradie. For the beginner level students, I teach them that phrases like, “How are you?” and “How’s it going?” mean the same thing. And I limit their responses to “Fine, thanks” or “Good, thanks”.
I could repeat this lesson for 10 weeks and we may still have to keep working on it because they can't understand why we don't speak the way we write. For instance, the written “How are you?” versus the spoken “How’re you?”. It doesn’t make sense to them why or how we run three separate words together when we say them. This is why listening is one of the most difficult aspects of teaching English.
My main focus is adults with low literacy in their native language. These are the students who walk into my classroom not knowing the alphabet. They have no idea what I’m drawing when I’m writing on the board.
Most of them speak Mandarin or Arabic, languages that don’t use the Roman alphabet. So we start from writing the alphabet to spelling a word to pronouncing it and finally to understanding what it means. As a teacher, you have to give your best and know that you can’t help everyone in exactly the same way.
To be honest, I’d much rather deal with these sorts of challenges than with office politics!
Yes, but those patterns are created by distinct variables like their education background, which ranges between primary and university level. The other variables are age and personal circumstances.
Those who migrated here with their families are fairly established and only need the basic vocabulary. Those who migrated on a business visa or who are seeking employment need to build a wider vocabulary much faster to be able to interact with the public.
Sometimes. I try to create opportunities for them to speak about everyday life by asking questions like, “What did you do today?” That alone can tell you about their lives.
One of my students runs a Chinese pancake business in the city. He’s in his late forties and has a family but I’m not sure if they’re here with him. He relies on his staff to communicate with customers while he does the other work in the café.
When I first met him, we had to start from scratch with the alphabet and then move on to basic phrases that he could use in his business. I remember one lesson around ordering coffee. The next day he used the phrases he learnt to take a coffee order and even asked if the customer wanted a small or large coffee.
This may seem like such a small thing but in their world it's an achievement. It’s actually really scary to communicate in a language that you’re not confident in. Not so much with asking the question but understanding the reply.
This same student travels by train from Werribee into the city every morning. How does he know where to get off? He has memorised what the name of his station sounds like and what he sees out the window.
If there’s an announcement about train replacements, he has no idea what’s being said but he knows what those sounds mean and what he needs to do. He has built his own glossary of words and uses his own system to make sense of the world around him. It’s incredible.
Favourite Aussie phrase: “Good on ya!”
Most frequently asked question: What’s the best way to learn English?
Restaurant worth standing in line for: Shanghai Dumpling House
Best non-academic way to learn English: Community events
A true Melburnian…is someone who feels comfortable with anyone of any background