Dictation Test

March 25, 2013


The dictation test was a long standing device to exclude unwanted immigrants from Australia.  If you failed the test (which could be given in any European language) then you became a “prohibited immigrant” and were subject to deportation.

In 1934, the government of the day was attempting to exclude Egon Kisch (an activist on a world wide anti-Hitler campaign) from Australian and he was requested to do the test. Unfortunately, Mr Kisch was fluent in so many European languages that the immigration officer resorted to administering the test in Scottish Gaelic. It became apparent in the subsequent High Court case (R v Wilson; Ex parte Kisch (1934) 52 CLR 234) that the immigration officer himself was not familiar with Scottish Gaelic. His translation of “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil” became  “as well as we could benefit and if we let her scatter free to the bad”.

Mr Kisch successfully obtained a declaration that the decision to deport him was unlawful on the basis that Scottish Gaelic was not a European language for the purpose of the legislation but was only a rarely used dialect. The decision caused an uproar in the Australian Scottish Community who were (rightfully) incensed at the downgrading of their language to “dialect”. The popular press apparently ran hot over the issue.

This story is told more fully in Crock and Berg “Immigration, Refugees and Forced Migration“, Federation Press 2011 and for the supersized version see: Zogbaum “Kisch in Australia: The Untold Story” Melbourne: Scribe 2004.

Creative commons attribution for the photograph.


5 Responses to “Dictation Test”

  1. Buff McMenis Says:

    Good grief!!! I find it hard to believe we were ever this bad with immigration! Ohhhhhh, wait … there’s always Manus Island and Nauru, isn’t there???

    • Paul Cutler Says:

      Don’t be surprised – the White Australia policy was only abolished in the 70’s and in some respects it’s still with us, in the form of high English proficiency being required for skilled visas

  2. eddyfurlong Says:

    So dictation test is a euphemism for language barrier..

  3. Another case with a somewhat different outcome is R v Davey (1936) 56 CLR 381; [1936] HCA 58. Evatt J clearly points out the racial basis of the test. According to the Museum of Australia Democracy, nobody passed the test between 1909 and its abolition in 1958.

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