Just How Bad is Donald Trump’s English? (Putting him to the Test)

 

It’s easy to say that Donald Trump has poor English. It’s easy to say that the level of English that he uses, in terms accuracy and tone, is far below the minimum expected of any public speaker. And of course the reason it’s so easy to say these things is that Donald Trump actually has really bad English. So inspired by a colleague’s idea, I’m going to test him, to see exactly what level of English he has. Specifically, I’m going to assess Trump’s spoken English using the assessment criteria of the spoken section of the IELTS exam.

First a little background on the exam. It’s an Academic-English exam, usually used to assess the level of non-native speakers wishing to attend university in English-speaking countries (I wrote before about how Irish emigrants to Australia have had trouble with the General-Training version). It involves four sections based on the four major language skills: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Grades are awarded between 0 and 9, in increments of 0.5. 0 would involve basically not attempting the exam at all. 9 would be perfect, not just indicating a native speaker, but also one with the knowledge of the appropriate semi-formal register of Academic English, and how to structure language in a coherent and logical manner.

I’ve chosen the IELTS exam because the degree of formality of political and academic language are very similar, and the two spheres are quite intertwined. An English-speaking politician should expect to get a very high score in the speaking section. Perhaps not necessarily 9, but certainly 8.5, and a lower score would be disappointing. The speaking section is made up of three parts. The first is very short and simple, consisting of basic personal questions to relax the candidate. In the second, the candidate is given a card with a topic to discuss, and some details to include (e.g. Talk about a memorable summer day out you’ve had. You should mention: who you went with,  where, when it was, some interesting things that happened.) Candidates have one minute to prepare, and about two minutes to speak. The third part is a discussion with the examiner for about four to five minutes, based on some of the topics in part 2 and focusing on more abstract ideas.

I’ve also chosen IELTS because I’m very familiar with the exam through preparing students for it, supervising it, and conducting mock speaking exams (I’ve even got a How to Teach IELTS certificate from Cambridge English Teacher!).

Here are the criteria I’ll be using to judge Mr. Trump’s speech, and I’ll be using an excerpt from the following speech (a.k.a the one wherein he encourages police brutality).

 

I’ll look at a five-minute section, from about 19.00 – 24.00. I’ll be a little stricter on Trump than I’d be with the average IELTS candidate, because he had significantly more time than their one minute to prepare this speech, as well as professional help. Here’s my assessment:

Fluency & Coherence: 5.5

Trump can certainly speak at length, but loses coherence due to diverging from the topic of his speech regularly, without clearly indicating when a tangent either begins or ends. This might still have qualified him for a 6.0, were it not for the fact that Trump fails to use a variety of connective features or discourse makers. His sentences are isolated from each other, with no clear indication of how they, and therefore his thoughts, are connected to each other. This is compounded by his constant digressions to more personal topics, which serve to render his arguments difficult to follow.

Lexical Resource: 5.5

Trump’s vocabulary is very limited, and consists of many simple words commonly found in the lexicon of young or low-level learners, such as big or bad. These simple adjectives can also lead to confusion, e.g. in the phrase one of the old people (which was clarified afterwards). A phrase such as a representative of the previous administration would make his meaning clearer, and be more tonally appropriate.  To receive a score of 6.0 or higher, he would need to display a wider range of synonyms to provide variety in his speech, and to achieve the appropriate tone for his speech.  Trump would have received a score of 5.0 were it not for his occasional correct use of technical and political lexis, and occasional use of idiomatic language. This language, though, is not always used correctly.  The phrase turning the tide in the battle against… may be slightly confusing due to the mixing of metaphors, and the idiomatic language is not always tonally appropriate (e.g. paddywagon; oh boy, oh boy).

Grammatical Range & Accuracy:  5.5

Produces simple forms (present and past simple, direct voice with I or We as subject) with general accuracy. Fails to correctly use more complex forms (e.g. perfect tenses, reported speech, conditional structures, relative clauses) which a native speaker would be expected to produce naturally. Instead, short, simple sentences are frequently used, or simple clauses are occasionally combined with basic conjunctions such as and. Continued use of impersonal pronouns whose referents are not clear cause some confusion. Frequent basic errors (e.g. very little problems, every gang member and criminal alien that are) impair coherence, as do frequent sentence fragments and non-sequitur interjections (e.g. THE SWAMP!).

Pronunciation: 6.5

Displays general ability to pronounce words in native tongue accurately. Occasionally unclear due to diction, and does not always engage listeners due to monotonous delivery and lack of appropriate sentence stress at all times. Roughly equivalent to delivery of older child or young adolescent.

Total Score: 5.5

(5.75, normally rounded up to 6.0, but rounded down due to candidate being a native English speaker, and having time and help in preparation)

Equivalent CEFR Level: Lower B2 (Upper Intermediate)

Comments:

Overall, Donald demonstrates the ability to achieve a grade of 6.0, but will need to study to do so, needing particular care in basic grammar, developing his vocabulary, and connecting his ideas. However, Donald also runs the risk of dropping to 5.0 if he continues to fail to structure his speeches. Lack of connection between ideas, and the use of sentence fragments and pronouns with unclear referents, may cause him to further lose coherence. Donald’s score meets the minimum requirement to allow him entry to most undergraduate degree programmes, but he will need to improve if he wishes to engage in postgraduate education. I recommend he engage in a six-month intensive IELTS course, with the first six weeks consisting of 15 hours of General English lessons and 7.5 hours per week of IELTS preparation in order to improve basic grammar ability, followed by full 22.5-hour weeks of IELTS preparation.

25 thoughts on “Just How Bad is Donald Trump’s English? (Putting him to the Test)

  1. He’s hard to follow because logical flow seems to be missing a lot of the time. Mind you I once heard Tony Blair speak when he was in his ‘New Labour, New Britain’ phase. I don’t think he used anything bar ‘adjective noun; same adjective, different noun’ for about half an hour….

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is why I shake my head when my students say they want to speak English like a native speaker! Of course I know what they mean, but being a native speaker and a fluent or eloquent speaker are not the same thing. This was an interesting read and I will be sharing your post with some of my learners!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, I hope they find some things to avoid 😊. I always find it interesting when students begin to notice how native speakers don’t always use English well. Like when they learn the past perfect and notice that none of us use it!

      Like

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