Could you pass the test? International citizenship tests are often more interested in cultural quirks than national knowledge

The World
New citizens are naturalized during a ceremony in Oakland, California, on August 13, 2013.

To become a citizen of the US, an immigrant needs to learn when the constitution was written. In Australia, the meaning of Anzac Day. In the Netherlands, whether homosexuality is tolerated. These are questions on each country's citizenship test — the final barrier to becoming nationalized in most wealthy countries.

(Editor's Note: This story is part of a new series all week on PRI's The World about citizenship. There will also be an online discussion about citizenship and its place in the immigration reform debate on on Thursday.)

The general concept behind every citizenship test is constant: immigrants must learn basic language skills and civics knowledge before they can become a citizen. But when it comes to how each state determines those qualities, there's quite a bit of variation.

Let's start with The Vatican City. It has one of the most narrow set of requirements to be nationalized. Only about 500 people have citizenship. They are the cardinals, diplomats and Swiss Guards of the Catholic Church in Rome and some lay employees. There’s no exam to become a citizen. The condition is pretty straight-forward: you work for the state. 

That's an extreme example of national unity. Yet at some level, all countries push new citizens to integrate. That's where civics and language citizenship tests come in. Antony Kunnan teaches English Literature at the Nanyang Technology University in Singapore, and he's considered the go-to academic on citizenship tests. “The basic idea” for countries, he says, “is that this test of language ability and some history of government will bring them this civic nationalism or social cohesion.”

In other words, the exam will somehow instill a country's ethos into a new immigrant. 

Japan's test is a good example. “The general requirement,” he says, “is that you should have a certain amount of 'Japanese-ness.'”

Now, how exactly you go about proving that, Kunnan says isn't made clear on any of the websites or preparation material.

South Korea is more direct. The emphasis is on language skills: reading, writing, speaking — and singing. Yes, that's right, singing. You need to belt out South Korea’s national anthem to pass the exam. Kunnan says the high language bar makes the test hard for South Korea’s large Chinese immigrant population.

South Korea's test exemplifies how the exam can be used to try and bar immigrants from achieving citizenship. Kunnan says countries usually implement tests amidst rising concern over immigration. The US, he says, was one of the first to have a test back in the 80s, and other countries have followed suit. 

Tim McNamara is a linguistics professor at Melbourne University who’s studied the testing trend. He says if you look at the political rhetoric that surrounds the institution of these test, it usually has to do with a kind of national crisis of multiculturalism. A country is concerned about increasing immigration and wants to solidify a national identity against that influx. McNamara says theses tests are mainly political tools — a way to score points by looking tough on immigration.

“It seems to me,” he says “that the function of the test, really, is to achieve something politically for the mainstream parties.”

The recent test history in France and the UK illustrate McNamara's view. 

In France, President Francois Hollande's socialist government is enacting policies to help more people pass its citizenship test; while in England, the conservative government has recently made its test harder. Applicants now face tough cultural questions about Rudyard Kipling, The Beatles and Monty Python. Yes, the Flying Circus. The Daily Telegraph calls the new test in Britain a bad pub quiz. The Guardian has posted a few sample questions in a quiz online users can take on their website.

And if you start asking why certain questions are on the test, it's hard to justify them as anything more than trivia. Why The Beatles instead of The Kinks or The Clash? Why Rudyard Kipling instead of Phillip Larkin or Sylvia Plath? Because the exams aren't constructed using the science of standardized testing, critics call them arbitrary — a kind of cultural grab bag of facts forced upon potential citizens by those in power. 

McNamara says the content on the Australian test has suffered just this criticism. The country first imposed a citizenship test in 2006 under the government of Prime Minister John Howard. McNamara says because Howard was a cricket fan, he believed every decent Australian needed to know Don Bradman — a famous cricket player for all you unfamiliar with wickets. 

Australia threw the Bradman question out during a test revamp, but McNamara says they still didn't standardize the language difficulty of the exam. He says it's still far above the basic level of English that the law requires for immigrants to become citizens. He says many of the citizenship exams haven't done a thorough linguistic analysis to ensure the language difficulty of the exam meets the target level. 

Even when the questions seem relevant, critics say they often lack enough context to make them meaningful. Question number 33 from the Dutch exam irks Massimiliano Spotti, a professor at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, for its total lack of context. It asks “Why was Anne Frank famous?” Spotti says immigrants don't learn that Anne Frank was a Holocaust victim — nor that she died at a concentration camp. Instead, the answer they are told to give is that she's famous because she has “written a diary.”

Spotti says the bigger issue with these tests is that they impose a kind of top-down definition of cultural identity. On the Dutch test, for instance, the “questions spell out what is the canonical knowledge of what someone should have to live in the Netherlands.” They try to establish through authority the definition of Dutchness or Japanesness or Britishness. 

Professor Kunnan in Singapore adds that there's little public input into that cultural definition. He says the tests are created — and evaluated — largely behind closed doors. And without citizenship, immigrants have little political power to push for more transparency.

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