Language tests for immigrants in Canada

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According to Nicholas Keung, "All immigrants face mandatory language test", The Star, 7/20/2010:

Born and raised in New York, Dodi Robbins graduated from Harvard University and has been practising law for 13 years.

Her first language is English. Yet like all other skilled immigrants applying to settle in Canada, the American corporate lawyer must now take a language test to prove her English is good enough to settle here.

“I was outraged, insulted and floored,” said Robbins, who obtained her law degree at Benjamin N. Cardozo Law School in New York. A mother of two, she has been working in Toronto on a work permit for four years as compliance and regulations counsel for an international financial services company.

“I almost fell off the chair. I’ve been practising law here for years and I have to prove my proficiency in English?”

Last month Ottawa made its language proficiency test mandatory for all skilled immigrant applicants, including native English and French speakers. The so-called “ministerial instructions” stipulate officials are not to process applications without language test results, starting June 26.

There seems to be some substantive controversy over the way the policy was introduced:

Critics say the government is now trying to use the ministerial instructions to circumvent public scrutiny and consultation, ramming through changes without parliamentary oversight.

But Ms. Robbins' case seems to be an odd one to lead with.  It's legitimate for her to be annoyed at having to spend a half a day and $285 taking the IELTS. But the article describes her as sweating the outcome:

Robbins says she is juggling her full-time job and two kids to prepare for the IELTS test in August.

Does a native speaker with a college education really need to "prepare for the IELTS test"?  If so, it must not be a very well-designed instrument.

I recognize that "language exams" can be (and sometimes are) designed to test something other than language proficiency. When I was a graduate student, we needed to demonstrate proficiency in two languages other than English. In principle, all that was required was the ability to translate a linguistics article,  with access to a dictionary. Having achieved roughly that level of competence in German, I planned to take the German exam. Then one of my fellow grad students, a native speaker of German who had an undergraduate degree from a well-regarded institution in Austria, told me that she had failed that exam.

Apparently the gentleman who administered the German exam had a chip on his shoulder about all the grad students who didn't take the courses his department offered. In any event, he apparently set my friend to translate a particularly fiendish passage from von Humboldt, which she found so impenetrable that she occasionally got confused about who did what to whom.  Or perhaps she suffered the fate that Mark Twain described in The Awful German Language:

You observe how far that verb is from the reader's base of operations; well, in a German newspaper they put their verb away over on the next page; and I have heard that sometimes after stringing along the exciting preliminaries and parentheses for a column or two, they get in a hurry and have to go to press without getting to the verb at all. Of course, then, the reader is left in a very exhausted and ignorant state.

Anyhow, I abruptly changed course and arranged to take my German exam in Latin.

And then there's the traditional Japanese method of determining English proficiency, which apparently is a version of the cloze test that in effect requires students to commit large numbers of classic works to memory.

But I find it hard to believe that the IELTS is designed in such a way that a highly educated native speaker really needs to study for it. Can someone who's taken it recently comment?

If I understand the situation correctly, this is roughly the Canadian equivalent of a U.S. H-1B visa, for which a language proficiency exam is not required, rather than the Canadian equivalent of the U.S. Naturalization process, which does have a language proficiency requirement, though a rather minimal one:

During your interview, a USCIS officer will test your ability to read, write, and speak English and your knowledge of civics.  You must read one sentence out of three sentences correctly in English, and you must write one sentence out of three sentences correctly in English.  Your ability to speak English is determined during your interview on your naturalization application.  Finally, you must answer 6 out of 10 civics questions correctly to achieve a passing score.

[Update — other stories suggest that Ms. Robbins has had a Canadian work permit for several years, and is now applying for citizenship. But it seems that what she is actually doing is applying for status as a "permanent resident" — like having  "green card" in the U.S. — which may or may not be a step on the way to naturalization. It's not clear to me yet whether similar language tests are required in order to get a work permit.]

[Update #2 — Apparently there is no "passing grade" on the test. According to this page,

You must provide proof of language proficiency by taking a language test from an agency designated by CIC. With your test results, you will be able to see exactly how many points you will receive for the language selection factor.

The "points" are part of the system described here:

Also, this is part of the application for admission as a "permanent resident" under the "skilled workers and professionals category", which is not the same as applying for citizenship, but is a bigger deal than getting a limited-term work permit.]


  1. jfruh said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 9:24 am

    I can understand Robbins's annoyance, but really, if all it takes to get out of taking the test is for the immigrant to self-report that he or she is a native English speaker, what's to stop people who want to take the test from simply claiming to be native English speakers?

  2. Mark P said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 9:27 am

    There is this description of the test:

    "The test is divided into academic and general streams. Each stream includes 30 minutes responding to questions from recorded tapes, 60 minutes reading passages with various tasks, 60 minutes on a writing assignment and an essay, and a roughly 10-minute interview with an examiner to test oral skills."

    This seems like a very inefficient way simply to determine whether a person is fluent in a language. I think I could do that job in 20 minutes, allowing some time for bathroom breaks.

    [(myl) This seems unfair. If you want to test reading, writing, speaking, and understanding; and if you want the test to yield a reliable score that won't vary all over the place because of sampling error relative to particular vocabulary items and constructions; then the test is going to take a bit of time.]

  3. john riemann soong said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 9:28 am

    A lot of people ignorant of linguistics don't really know how to administer fluency tests, which are not quite the same as literacy tests or hell no, not familiarity with classical literature tests. These tests really should be as simple and elegant as a Wug test, just testing more than plurals, of course.

  4. Mark P said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 9:31 am

    On rereading the article, it seems to me that something is missing. How could a 2:40 test be required simply to determine English or French proficiency? Is it possible that someone who wants to practice law would have to take a different or more extensive test than others?

    [(myl) I don't think so — apparently there are two tests, a general one and an "academic" one that's designed for would-be college students.]

  5. Janne said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 9:35 am

    "And then there's the traditional Japanese method of determining English proficiency, which apparently is a version of the cloze test that in effect requires students to commit large numbers of classic works to memory."

    Say what?

    Now I don't feel I can trust that anything else in this post is factually correct.

    [(myl) Apologies for the lack of details, and for information that is surely out-of-date at best, but I've been told by Japanese colleagues that at some point in the past, the English-proficiency exams used in Japan often involved filling in blanks in passages chosen from a published list of well-known works. According to what I was told, the blanks often could not be filled in "correctly" (i.e. with the original word) just on the basis of a knowledge of English; and as a result, this encouraged students to spend their time essentially memorizing the works on the published list.

    This may be false — my point was only that it's possible in principle to design a language proficiency test that a native speaker might not be confident of passing.]

  6. Matt M said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 9:50 am

    As an ESL teacher who has helped students to prepare for the IELTS test (including one native speaker with a limited education who was terribly self-conscious about his Northern English accent, which he described as "awful"), I would advise even an educated native speaker to buy a book of practice tests and do a few timed practice tests first – especially if they haven't done an exam in a while and have forgotten the skills of working to a tight time limit and thinking through what a "comprehension question" is really asking the candidate to do.

    The IELTS mini-essay is a little genre to itself – easy enough to master for an educated native English speaker, but definitely worth familiarising yourself with first so you know what the examiners are looking for.

    I reckon a lot of native English speakers would score well below 9, which is supposed to reflect the level of an "expert user" of English.

  7. Someone said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 9:50 am

    I've taken the TOEFL and the IELTS as an immigrant in my teens. Native speakers with a decent education should be able to pass without issue, especially a practicing lawyer. That being said, some parts of the tests are like the SAT or the GRE, in which there are absurd word matching or fill-in-the-blanks in which you must have known how the test designers did. In other words, it makes sense to buy a book of test questions and take them, so you don't see questions that you don't know what to do with.

    The US immigration language test is not really a test, which I highly approve of. It's just the immigration officer speaking to you and making sure that you can communicate. It did not last more than 2 minutes of my interview, although I spoke English without accent at that point.

    East Asian tests for English do tend to involve cloze tests. They do it with their native languages anyway, just an artifact of Asian educational systems.

  8. Julia said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 9:54 am

    When I applied to graduate school in the US, I was told that I would have to take the TOEFL, which floored me. I'm Canadian, a native English speaker, and have completed my previous university degrees in English. I contacted someone at the graduate school, who questioned me about my education. When I told him that my elementary education had been in a French immersion program, and that I had done two university degrees in Quebec (at English institutions), he sounded aghast, and told me under no circumstances to mention these facts to the people who would be deciding my case.

    In the event, I was able to get out of the TOEFL by writing an essay instead, which was apparently fluent enough to impress whoever was making the decision.

  9. veronica said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 10:04 am

    I took the test a couple of months ago for my UK work visa and it is a standard language test without any hidden agenda. It is that long because the result is not just pass/fail, but rather a grade (which is even split by reading, writing, etc), as usual for all the language tests. It tests different aspects of communication skills – an ability to understand spoken word and written texts, as well how good your grammar and vocabulary are. You would also speak with an native speaker for about 10 minutes.

    There is definitely no need for a native language speaker with a college degree to spend more than half an hour preparing for it. The half hour would just go into reading the rules and procedures.
    (I'm not a native speaker and although my English is fairly good I was a bit paranoid, so I spend about 5 hours preparing for the test. My result was 8.5 out of 9, whereas the requirement was 6.5…)

    As far as I understand, Australia also requires all the immigrants to take the test, and it was quite funny to see several Brits in the audience with all the staff having rather thick Eastern European accents.

    The UK, however, doesn't require an English test from the native speakers or people who have degrees taught in English (from a list of recognised universities). The latter i think makes perfect sense.

  10. john riemann soong said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 10:05 am

    "I reckon a lot of native English speakers would score well below 9, which is supposed to reflect the level of an "expert user" of English."

    This is a hallmark of a badly-designed test.

    A test of English fluency should not be a test of skills in language and textual analysis, which are quite two different things.

  11. Mark P said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 10:06 am

    @myl: It seems to me that it depends on the purpose of the test. If, as the article says, it's to "prove her English is good enough to settle here" then surely it doesn't take a test of nearly 3 hours. I could understand something like that as part of the requirements for a graduate degree, but it seems like overkill simply as a requirement for immigration, unless one of the purposes of the test is to reduce the number of immigrants allowed into the country. And if there really are tens of thousands of people who will be affected, the testing process would certainly be a long affair.

  12. John Cowan said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 10:10 am

    When Tom Shippey, the mediaevalist and Tolkien scholar, was in the final stage of applying for U.S. citizenship, he was asked to say and write a sentence of English to prove his fluency in the language. He wrote down an aphorism from The Lord of the Rings: "Need brooks no delay, but late is better than never", referring to the nine years his application had been pending. The official then had the bald-faced audacity to say "That's not English."

    But all's well that ends well: in good American fashion, he had his lawyer present.

  13. kip said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 10:36 am

    > I recognize that "language exams" can be (and sometimes are) designed to test something other than language proficiency.

    Reminds me of how I scored higher on tests in high school Spanish class than most of the hispanic students in the class.

  14. Pavel Iosad said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 10:49 am

    Well, it is true that most such test (not just IELTS) do not so much test actual ability on the language as skills honed to specific tasks, such as figuring out what the hell the "comprehension" question is about or how exactly to write a summary of a text. When I was in high school, our English teacher taught two groups, some of whom were in a stream which had a math/science concentration and some of whom were of a more humanities-oriented persuasion. The teacher used to tell us that the first group consistently did better on the tests, even though the second group actually had better language skills.
    Similarly, when I took my Norwegian test (which is built on basically the same principles), I got my lowest marks for the "summary" part, and I am quite sure that the reason was that the summary was too long. Basically, I got about 20% less on the summary than I got on the free writing part, and I find it hard to believe that my grammar and general writing skills would vary that much within one test. However, I basically wrote most of the text down, while the terms of reference state that it must be short. So yeah, the score is indeed influenced by extralinguistic factors.
    That said, IELTS should not be a problem at all for an educated native-language speaker – not to the extent that they will fail it.

  15. SeanH said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 10:52 am

    jfruh: if all it takes to get out of taking the test is for the immigrant to self-report that he or she is a native English speaker, what's to stop people who want to take the test from simply claiming to be native English speakers?

    A university with the same requirement will (in my experience) be satisfied with proof that I have completed an undergraduate degree/high school in English. Surely Dodi Robbins' New York law degree is proof she is proficient in English?

  16. Joe Y said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 11:11 am

    I agree with those who say the test must be poorly designed if it cannot get an accurate measure in a minimal amount of time.

    On the larger moral issue, however, I find the whiny lawyer (forgive the redundancy) dead wrong. Aside from the simple fact that she's a newcomer in a country that has generously allowed her to emigrate there (assuming the Canadian government didn't beg her to move in), Canada has extraordinarily complex, and at times volatile, linguistic politics. They may have an excellent reason for the test, a reason that is only tangentially related to language competency.

  17. Lucy Kemnitzer said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 11:11 am

    Kip, your fellow students who were native speakers of Spanish had different needs in a Spanish class from you. That's why there are "Spanish for Spanish speakers" classes. Remember how you have English classes that impart the ins and outs of more formal registers (usually wrongly, but in ways that are generally considered to be acceptable)? Imagine that you never got those — and maybe never were even taught to read in English — but someone started teaching you that formal register of English as a foreign language after you'd been speaking in an informal way for fifteen years.

    You might have some conflict between what you know and what you're expected to know. And some people who had never spoken English before in their lives might in fact do better than you in that class.

  18. Jayarava said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 11:12 am

    In the UK you have to sit the 'Life in the UK test'. The level of English used in this means you must be proficient in English to pass the test.

  19. veronica said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 11:28 am


    "Life in the UK" test is needed for settlement/citizenship, not for work/residence visas. For the latter you still need to pass the language test (which can by any approved language test, not only IELTS). "Life in the UK" is not counted towards language requirements.

  20. Fluoxr said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 11:29 am

    Even professors of English literature must take the test. (Globe and Mail) It appears from the article that this test is part of the naturalization process.

    I have no problem with the underlying principle. I just don't trust the government's implementation of the details (much like their recent decision to make the census voluntary while claiming the results will be just as good).

  21. veronica said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 11:34 am

    Btw, here is some interesting data to look at

  22. C Thornett said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 11:46 am

    This sounds very similar to recent non-parliamentary regulation in the UK. The aim is almost certainly to limit immigration rather than to ensure a knowledge of English. One of the latest proposals of the UK border agency is that anyone over 19 from outside the EU who wishes to study EFL in the UK must first have the equivalent of secondary school (GCSE) English.

    The regulations are being rushed in (one set has already been thrown out by a court) because in the past there were many unregulated and uninspected businesses which called themselves language schools but which appeared to do most of their business circumventing immigration regulations.

    My colleagues and I are very much in favour of eliminating fake institutions (including those that would 'deliver' an instant ESOL and citizenship course with 'examination' in a single day for enough money), but are very strongly opposed to asking genuine academic institutions and exam boards to do the work of the immigration and security services for them. Sorry, I tend to rant on this subject.

    IELTS is generally used by UK universities to test English competance prior to admission to degree work; different subjects have different grade requirements. Courses such as mathmatics may set 5.5 as a minimum, 5.5 being roughly equivalent to the standard of English expected of a young person passing a GCSE in English at 15/16 and to Level 2 in Adult ESOL and Literacy (which I teach). It seems unreasonable to demand IELTS of someone who has taken a degree in a subject as language-dependent as law in English.

    As I said before, this may have more to do with limiting immigration than with language competance; the aim is generally to appear not to discriminate against certain nationalities or ethnic groups.

  23. Pat said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 11:55 am

    I have to take the OQLF's French exam every year to retain my professional license, and it's the same format as Mark P describes. I would consider my French to be functional but not conversational; i.e., I can communicate well enough at work and in stores and stuff and I can get the gist of most conversations but I have trouble adding to philosophical discussions.

    The two recorded parts are easy; I passed those on the first try. I have never come close to passing the two subjectively graded portions, the essay and the interview.

    The essay is listed as "university level," and I've heard they grade it very, very strictly. If so, I only know one or two native Francophones who would pass it. For the interview, my grade has varied so wildly that I can't explain the criteria. And they don't give you any explanation for the grades.

  24. Theophylact said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 12:14 pm

    To pass the exam, do you have to randomize your use of -our/-or, ise/-ize and -re/-er endings, as my native-born Canadian students used to when I taught in Ontario in the '70s?

  25. Rodger C said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 12:17 pm

    @John Cowan: I can easily imagine a bureaucrat reading "Need brooks no delay" as a crash blossom.

  26. Alan Gunn said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 1:13 pm

    In light of update # 2, it is hard to imagine this candidate failing, even if she somehow got a mediocre score on the English test, as she'd seem to deserve a very high score on many of the other selection factors. A long time ago, when I was studying for the bar exam, our instructor used to tell us repeatedly that all we had to do was pass; getting a good grade wouldn't get us anything extra. It was very comforting.

  27. Fluoxr said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 1:26 pm

    Ms. Robbins cannot technically "apply" for citizenship since she currently holds only a work permit. She can start on the path toward citizenship by first applying to be a "permanent resident" (this is similar to the US green card). When she does become a permanent resident, she becomes a landed immigrant and is eligible to apply for citizenship after three years of residency.

  28. Clayton Burns said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 1:29 pm

    Perhaps an interesting way to begin examining IELTS would be to choose Cambridge IELTS 6 (Past Papers) and read the model and sample answers for writing tasks at the end. (Mark is providing a valuable service by covering this practical topic).

    What strikes me right away in reading these ten pages or so at the back of IELTS 6 is just how bad the material is for learners as compared with what surely must be the best alternative, the Collins COBUILD Intermediate English Grammar. (I would choose the units in this COBUILD on adverbial subordination for comparison).

    One might say that the COBUILD grammars are not tests, but that would not prevent us from creating tests based on them (and on J.G. Ballard's "Empire of the Sun," a beautiful text to read out loud with international students). Those who uncritically accept IELTS seem not to grasp that by default the IELTS manuals and materials become how students learn English. A bizarre result, in my opinion.

    We need a comprehensive study of how big the factitious English business is (larger than Walmart's in revenues each year?) Then we need to determine how we can get traction with real English. Instead of marketing IELTS, Cambridge should test its Dictionary of Psychology intensively–starting in Japan–as the basis of real English courses (along with COBUILD, LDOCE, and Ballard).

    I have worked on English for immigrants in Canada–especially in Vancouver–in detail. You really would not believe the way this work is (not) being done. Often on the walls of local colleges you will see posters for the Canadian Language Benchmarks. Worth a study for someone who has nothing better to do.

    If you have a test without a curriculum, you end up with negative value because of the opportunity costs alone.

  29. Cameron said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 1:50 pm

    I never realized that my practice of indiscriminately using either -or/-our, -ize/-ize, and -er/-re endings was characteristically Canadian. I've never even set foot in Canada – my excuse is that I was educated using mostly British textbooks prior to high-school, and have lived in the US from high-school on.

  30. Bryn LaFollette said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 2:03 pm

    My wife attended and graduated from one of the French schools here in Los Angeles (Lysee International Los Angeles, an overseas French school). It being part of the French school system, she took the Baccalauréat test. She was born and raised in Los Angeles, although her parents immigrated here from France, and speaks both English and French natively. But, the test is essentially testing your ability in UK English as a second language, making it seemingly more of an impediment to have been a native speaker of American English. She ended up have a far higher score in Latin than she received for English, so she often jokes that according to the French education system she's more fluent in Latin than English.

  31. Sarra said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 2:52 pm

    I've just taken the DALF C1, and it sounds functionally identical to the IELTS based on the descriptions given here – there may be some differences, but the length of the exam and the range of different épreuves seems much th same, and the DALF too is what's required as proof of fluency for a foreign speaker to study at a French university (not sure if this is binding or just a recommendation).

    I don't have a reference for the specific standard of use of language required for the IELTS though – and by that I mean the large-scale structuring of thought which you need to have a handle on if you're to write a coherent essay. My experience of preparing for the DALF was an intense one of learning how to write and think in a very clean, coherent, Gallic manner.

    I'm not sure if I succeeded in the end (results day is Monday), and it may not be French/UK cultural differences at all that created this learning curve but simply my particular modern British schooling, in which I got by writing fine enough essays off the bat with no technique taught to me.

    In any case, though, that it was so much a test of large-scale language proficiency – large-scale enough to extend considerably into evaluating thinking/critical/editorial skills – meant that yes, as has been described in comments above, the native French speakers in my class who just wanted some certification (the qualification is more advanced than an A-level so has a numerical worth of sorts in the UK) found the syllabus quite bamboozling.

  32. cDonna F said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 3:54 pm

    Lucy Kemnitzer said:
    "Remember how you have English classes that impart the ins and outs of more formal registers (usually wrongly, but in ways that are generally considered to be acceptable)? Imagine that you never got those — and maybe never were even taught to read in English — but someone started teaching you that formal register of English as a foreign language after you'd been speaking in an informal way for fifteen years."

    Lucy, this is exactly the case in my daughter's high-school Spanish classes. My daughter gets better grades than her friend whose first language is Spanish. Her friend has difficulty spelling the words correctly because she seldom if ever reads anything in Spanish. Imagine taking a high-school level class in English without ever having learned English spelling.

    As someone who always "tested well," whatever my actual level of knowledge of the subject, I feel the need to point out the obvious. Tests like the IELTS actually show only whether or not someone is skilled in taking tests like the IELTS.

  33. anon said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 3:55 pm

    As an applied linguist in the language testing profession (though not involved in any way with IELTS), I feel a bit like the one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind here. I don't say that to put anyone down–we all have our areas of (semi-)expertise. Still, I think there's a lot of misunderstanding here about what goes on in developing and using language tests. I won't comment on the quality of the IELTS in general or the validity of using it for immigration decisions, but there are some considerations that should be taken into account when thinking about this policy and when judging the quality of the test.

    The idea of validity is central to testing, and these days in language testing it's mostly understood as an argument using Toulmin's argument model about the uses made of a test and the decisions based on test results. A test isn't valid or invalid per se; rather, a test-maker asserts that results from a test can be used to make certain inferences and decisions about the test-taker, and backs up that assertion with warrents based on data, along with consideration of potential rebuttals to those warrants. So any serious testing program is going to have a wealth of research backing its assertions, including (in the case of language tests) linguistic research. IELTS is no exception; you can find a list of the research here.

    I believe that IELTS was originally developed as a test of academic English for entry into universities, and also for professional purposes. So the questions that I think have to be considered are:

    Does the research into IELTS back those uses of the test?
    To what extent are the language skills needed to succeed at a university the same as those needed to succeed in a professional setting? And to what extent are those similar to the skills needed to succeed in Canadian society?
    Alternatively, why does Canada think that those are the language skills necessary for skilled immigrants?

    And can we assume that educated native speakers (a problematic construct in itself) have those skills?

    (I'm an occasional contributor here, but I'd like to keep this post anonymous.)

  34. Stephen Jones said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 4:42 pm

    The IELTS is the standard EFL exam used in most non-American EFL institutions.

    There is no pass rate, simply a set of grades. You are talking about a highly standardized exam. If you want to become an IELTS oral examiner then you have to go off on a two-day course in which you are tested on how you're grading the speaking tasks (I don't know the requirements for an IELTS writing examiner but presume they are the same).

    All the woman needs to do is one practice exam. Anything else can be put down to the fact she's a law professor. When they did a test of how fast people spontaneously read a general passage they found the lowest score belonged not to janitors or plumbers but to Supreme Court Judges, who managed 25 words a minute (A proficient reader manages four or five hundred words a minute).

    The level of English used in this means you must be proficient in English to pass the test.

    But you don't have to be clinically insane, which you do do to have written the test.

  35. Stephen Jones said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 4:50 pm

    Dear anon,

    I believe the IELTS was designed to replace the old Cambridge Proficiency and First Certificate Exams, which each consisted of five separate papers, some of three hours each.

    The idea was that a specific passmark was not needed, just a statement of attainment.

    I suspect the first exams were tested on people doing the Cambridge exams to see how they correlated.

    What lots of people forget about exams is that particular passmarks are historical. When the GCE O level system was set up in 1944 to replace the old school certificate, they decided the pass mark should be the old honours grade not the pass grade. This decision is still with us (now it's a grade C at GCSE) though grade inflation has probably meant that the old School Certificate is a lot harder to get an honour grade in than a GCSE a pass grade.

  36. Theophylact said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 4:54 pm


    I suspect that a related problem is the issue in Canada. Canadians are regularly exposed to books imported from both the UK and US, while Americans usually see only books specially edited for the US market; the latter have pretty uniformly US spelling.

  37. Ben said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 5:11 pm

    In my first quarter of graduate school, I discovered that a hold had been placed on my student records because I had not taken the TOEFL exam, which I needed to take because my undergraduate degree was from Quebec (although the language of instruction was English). This eventually got resolved without my having to take the exam, but while the matter was pending I thought that the GRE verbal score that I had partly been admitted on the basis of — 800 — was pretty impressive for someone who wasn't a native speaker of English.

  38. IS said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 6:51 pm

    The Toronto Star provides a sample test here.

    I'll admit that I couldn't tell until I looked at the answers what they wanted me to do for the first question. It isn't a problem with my language skills (I'm a native speaker of English and have lived in Canada all my life), I just never would have guessed that's the kind of answer they were looking for. I probably would have ended up rewriting the whole sentence.

  39. Stephen Jones said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 8:12 pm

    There are two correct answers to question 1, the other being 'spends an equal amount of money and entertainment and clothes'.

    A bad question, and sloppy editing that it ever got through.

  40. Nathan Myers said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 8:14 pm

    IS: Whoever designed that test should be exiled to the U.S.

  41. Alan Walker said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 9:22 pm

    > I recognize that "language exams" can be (and sometimes are) designed to test something other than language proficiency.

    A notorious example of this was the "Dictation Test", used to enforce the White Australia Policy in the early 20th century. Immigrants could be made to write down from dictation a 50-word passage in any European language – that is, a language chosen by the official administering the test. See This was abolished in 1958.

    Although the test was designed to allow the exclusion of "non-white" people, it was also used to try to keep left wing journalist Egon Kisch out of the country in 1934. Since he was known to speak several European languages, he was tested in a Scottish form of Gaelic. The High Court eventually ruled that this was not a language for the purposes of the Act. Details of the Kisch case are at

  42. Peter said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 10:25 pm

    When I finished high school, I had failed English (mainly because I can't write essays quickly and about 75% of the marks available were from in-class essays or exam essays). I ended up having to do one of two English competence tests to get into university, one of which was IELTS (I ended up doing the other one because it was quicker and easier).

    My father talked to a lecturer he knew at one of the local universities (said university wasn't interested in accepting me even if I passed a competence test, go figure) who was of the opinion that I couldn't possibly have achieved a 97.7 percentile ranking without adequate proficiency in the language. My mother likes to tell people that I got a TER (tertiary entrance rank) of 97.7 and failed the TEE (tertiary entrance exams)

  43. David Green said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 10:55 pm

    When I returned to the US in 1953 after a year as an exchange student in a German Internat, I took the (trial version of the) College Board advance placement exam in German. I could not answer a single question: they were all (content!) questions based on standard American high-school German reading texts. I had been reading the wrong authors — Goethe, Schiller, Kleist, Brecht ….
    I came away convinced that (many) tests are designed *not* to test what they claim to be testing, but look instead for some "correlation", which may be entirely spurious.

  44. Debbie said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 11:24 pm

    In every alphabet that I am familiar with, the final letter is 'zed'. As a Canadian I am amazed to find daycare providers and elementary teachers who say 'zee'. We have a profound influence from American media and even our colleges do not insist on Canadian spellings.
    "Americans usually see only books specially edited for the US market"…to this end, I have written a novel so entwined with Canadianisms and content that it'll probably never be picked up by an American publisher. The editing would be a nightmare – just try making the timeline work with Thanksgiving in the wrong place – before Halloween eh?

  45. Clarissa at Talk to the Clouds said,

    July 29, 2010 @ 11:28 pm

    I guess if by "most non-American EFL institutions" you exclude Asia…

    [(myl) What I wrote was that the IELTS "is pretty much the standard English proficiency test outside the U.S." Are there Asian countries institutions that have English-proficiency requirements for admission, and use a different test? Which?]

  46. Adrian Bailey said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 5:49 am

    I agree with Mark P: 20 minutes, tops. A test eight times as long costs eight times as much for only a small percentage of additional accuracy.

  47. ?! said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 5:57 am

    In the UK language tests are often imposed on foreigners. The catch is that European Union laws clearly forbid language tests being imposed at the point of registration on EU nationals. So my Australian colleagues have gone off in the past to work in UK hospitals but had to sit the IELTS exam in advance. They generally passed but accidents happen (getting your answers out of sequence and so on). Although born in Australia, I have German citizenship because my grandfather was a Holocaust refugee from that country – so I was exempted. So being a born-and-bred Australian working as a medical specialist didn't exempt you from an English test…but having a single German grandparent does. I always found it slightly comical that I could reassure employers that I wasn't subject to an English test because I had a Grandpa Hans from Prussia (whose uncles had fought the British during WWI).

  48. Dougal Stanton said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 6:56 am

    Commenter "?!" above may sympathise with Captain Darling from Blackadder Goes Forth, accused of being a German spy in WWI:

    Darling: … Look, I'm as British as Queen Victoria!

    Blackadder: So your father's German, you're half-German and you married a German?

  49. john riemann soong said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 10:38 am

    In Singapore, we design our own English proficiency entrance tests.

  50. Acilius said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 11:51 am

    @John Cowan: Not only do people who have been out of school for some time need to get back into a test-taking frame of mind before they sit for the immigration tests, but people who have been in school for too long need to reframe their thinking as well. Immigration officials do not expect applicants to try to impress them by coming up with the cleverest possible response, and cannot be expected to respond favorably when a question that usually elicits "The boy kicked the ball" instead brings "Need brooks no delay, but late is better than never."

  51. Rodger C said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 2:02 pm

    @Acilius: You mean they can't be expected to respond by recognizing it as an English sentence?

  52. Sili said,

    July 30, 2010 @ 10:01 pm

    It annoys me greatly when the privileged classes complain that they have to meet the same standards everyone else does. I'd be appalled by a system that deliberately advantaged one kind of applicant over another.

    We've recently had 'citizenship tests' introduced in Denmark, quizzing immigrants on various trivia about Danish history and culture (and they have turned out to be woefully errorfilled). Amusingly – and not surprisingly – when these tests are applied to the natives, a great number of them fail, and those who do the worst are the supporters of the xenophobic People's Party that's pushing the tests.

    While I realise this is more an issue of politics than language, I'd favour such tests to be applied indiscriminately. So you want to be a citizen? Pass the test! That goes for you natives who want to vote as well.



  53. Trevor Barrie said,

    July 31, 2010 @ 4:03 am

    Stephen, every question on that test has a lot more than two correct answers.

    If instructors are being told to only accept the answers listed, then that's appalling. (Although to be fair there's no evidence given that they are being so told.)

    [(myl) If you're talking about the "sample test" on the Toronto Star web site, you've been bamboozled by the Star's appallingly careless editors. That "sample" is not part of the IELTS test. It comes from a test preparation book created by some apparently incompetent third party. There are apparently no questions anything like that on the IELTS.]

  54. Laura said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 12:28 pm

    I am currently applying for permanent resident status in Canada after being here 5 years on a work permit from the UK. Being that me and my husband are both British and have been speaking English all our lives as well as holding Degrees and PhD's from recognised instiutions and we are expected to pay $265 to do an IELTS test is absolutely outrageous! In the UK and Australia (where this test was created) they use this test for immigration but only if you have not been living and working in an English speaking country and speaking English for 10 years. This I think is totally fair. The Canadian government are just making it harder for people to settle in their country and wanting to make more money for yet another fee as I am sure they take a cut of the cost of the IELTS test. Its also a way the government can cut down on costs as they no longer have to read through extra letters written (as before) to prove English proficiency. Its pure laziness on their part and cutting down on man power! I hope this changes in the future as it was thrown out in 2008 so how did they manage to pass it this time? If they do change it in the near future, I will be demanding a refund of the cost as they will proving they were in the wrong to make such a ludicrous decision!!

  55. nak said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 4:05 am

    I am immigrating from the US to Australia in one month. I was given a lengthy list of requirements, including that I would need to pass the IELTS. I wasn't concerned about my ability to pass the test but I didn't like the idea of paying for the test and wasting half day to prove I know English.

    In the end they were satisfied with a scan of my high school diploma emailed to them. Luckily I didn't have to provide transcripts as I never passed any English class in high school. Not for lack of ability, but for lack of showing up (and I was a smart ass to my teachers which pretty much guaranteed an F.)

  56. John Cowan said,

    December 3, 2010 @ 12:07 pm

    "Whiny lawyer" is not redundant. Anyone who met my father quickly found out that he was a THUNDERING lawyer.

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