Me Fail English? That’s Unpossible!

In recent years, some news stories have emerged from Australia of would-be Irish immigrants failing the English test required for entrance, the IELTS General-Training exam.

One of the most common responses to such stories is to laugh: Ha, serves them right, how can they not even pass a basic English test if they’re English speakers!

But the situation is a little more complex than that.

First of all, what is IELTS? It stands for International English-Language Testing System. It comes in two forms, Academic and General Training (for those of who, sadly, are familiar with the Academic exam, the General-Training one is basically the same, just with different topics). The exam is quite a difficult one that tests a person’s ability in reading, writing, listening and speaking. This is not just simply a case of determining if a person can speak or write English quite well, but tests a variety of different subskills of each of these four main skills. In the reading section, for example, a candidate will have to infer information implied in the text, or determine the author’s opinion or intention, choosing from very similar choices. In speaking and writing, more than just grammar or spelling is being tested: examiners want to see if an argument can be presented clearly and coherently, with information organised in a logical manner, and appropriate linking devices used (e.g. however, although to show contrast, in addition to or furthermore to show you’re making an additional point).

Basically, it’s not looking to test everyday conversational English, or the casual reading, writing or listening most people engage in on a daily basis.

Even as an experienced teacher who has taught Academic IELTS a lot, I admit that for some of the more difficult reading questions I have to take some time to find the answer, and that if I wasn’t really trying to write an exceptional answer to a Writing-Task 2 essay, I probably wouldn’t get a 9 for it (for the record, I’ve also found a small number of TOEFL reading questions to be a bit tough, but the topics are so much more interesting than IELTS that it makes it much easier).

It’s also impossible to fail the IELTS exam: candidates are given a mark out of 9 to show their level. Many Irish people wishing to receive a visa found themselves in the position of needing to score 7, which is considered to represent proficient English. Given the time constraints of the exam, that’s actually not so simple, especially for someone who hasn’t prepared for the exam. How often do we parse a magazine article to find sentences demonstrating the author’s point-of-view, or use furthermore or moreover when we’re trying to convince someone that they should see a certain film? I can easily imagine someone strolling into the exam assuming they’ll have no problem, then getting a rather rude awakening.

Many have criticised the Australian government’s use of the exam for immigration purposes, as it doesn’t really reflect the everyday English most immigrants would actually use and encounter. I’d also question the use of the exam. Something like TOEIC would be much better, as that uses much more realistic contexts in its questions. Though I really I don’t see the point of testing the English of native speakers at all.

I’m also sure though, that maybe people have gone into the exam unprepared, assuming that as native speakers they’d have no trouble with it. Which is understandable, really. It shows though, how we can really take our native tongue for granted. We assume that because we’ve grown up speaking it, we’re masters of it.

However, the downside of being a native speaker is that we’re only going to use a relatively limited range of vocabulary and structures, as that’s sufficient for everyday use, and for most of us that’s fine.

But I have a noticed a number of people struggling to transition from using English among friends and family, to using it in professional and academic contexts. The particular register and forms needed for academic writing is something that young people aren’t really prepared for, but are expected to be able to use pretty quickly in university. Similarly, I’ve come across many professional emails which shocked me in their sloppiness in terms not only of tone but also spelling, grammar, punctuation, capitalization and vocabulary. There is a degree of personal responsibility involved in knowing who you’re writing for and how to write to them, of course. But I also think we should take some time in secondary school to prepare young people for how to best use English in the real-life situations they’ll soon be thrust into.

And maybe then we call all go to Australia and enjoy the sunshine and koalas which I assume are hanging out of every tree.

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