An English fit for purpose?

February 21, 2012 02:21 1 comment

Examiner: “Ok, Andreas, where is the pen?”

Candidate: “Well, unless my eyes are deceiving me, it would appear to be on the book?”

Examiner: “And now?”

Candidate: “It is now obviously under the book.  Is this some kind of eyesight test?”

Bernard Milward

This is just one example of the absurd exchanges in an exam to prove that a foreign national can speak enough English under the new regulations concerning the Spouse/Civil Partnership visa requirements.

Indeed, much has been recently made of the Home Office’s supposed crack-down on immigration, which is under the auspices of the United Kingdom Border Agency (UKBA), and the new English language test requirements in order to obtain various visas.

To attain a spouse visa to enable a prospective migrant to join a husband/wife or civil partner of a British citizen or settled person in Britain, he/she must now acquire a certificate from one of five different examination boards listed by UKBA of Secure English Language Tests (SELTs) proving that they have at least achieved an A1 level of English.

This is the yardstick used by the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEF), set up by the Council of Europe.

An A1 level of English is in fact less than 150 hours of studying, and is defined as a basic ability to communicate and exchange information in a simple way.  For example, a candidate can ask very simple questions about personal details.

However, large numbers of candidates who are taking the A1 test to secure the spouse visa have a very high level of English, as there are those who have lived in Britain for years and who are now suddenly being forced to do the exam.

Many of these candidates are well-educated, and might be regarded as markedly more articulate than many a native speaker, with some even lecturing at our higher educational institutions. Masters’ degrees gained in the UK are not accepted by UKBA, as it is deemed that these are only one year’s study in the UK, whereas Bachelors’ degrees earned in the UK are accepted because that has required at least three years’ study.

And yet, to get a Masters’ would have meant significantly more than 150hours of study.

One may well wonder who in the Home Office has made these decisions as to who is exempt or not?  Citizens of so-called ‘English majority countries’, such as the  USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the former British Caribbean colonies are not required to do the exam, but it is necessary for citizens of countries such as South Africa, other ex-British African colonies and the countries of the sub-continent, many of whom still study a British curriculum.

To illustrate the charade of the current situation, the following is part of a reconstruction of an interview conducted in order for the candidate to prove he had acquired an A1 level of English under the requirements as part of the process to help a person attain a spouse visa from UKBA.

E = Examiner

C = Candidate

E: Nice to meet you Andreas (shakes hands). How are you, today?

C: Good, thanks.

E: Have you got any identification?

C: Sure.

E: So you are from South Africa?

C: Yes, from Stellenbosch, just outside Cape Town.

E: Oh. Have you got any brothers and sisters?

C: Yep, I have a brother, who is 35 and an architect.  You could say he is a bit of a high-flyer, and a sister, who’s 31 and over here working in some sort of bar.

E: Er, yes. Have you got any pets?

C: Yes, I have a little Jack Russell who must be about 2 now.  The bloody thing never stops barking.

E: Oh. How old are you?

C: I’m 35, but I usually tell people I’m 32.

E: Oh, ok. What’s this number (examiner points at some numbers)

C: It appears to be 23.

E: Er, yes. And this one.

C: Well, apparently 50.

E: Andreas, what’s the day today?  Is it Monday?

C: Er, no. I do believe it is Wednesday.

E: And tomorrow?

C: Well, if today is Wednesday, tomorrow would presumably be Thursday, right?

E: Umm. And what month is it?  Is it September?

C: No, it’s January.

E: And next month?

C: Well, as night follows day, January would be followed by February.

E: Umm, yes, I suppose it does. What’s your favourite sport?

C: Well, I follow rugger.

E: (examiner now points to some pictures) Is he playing tennis?

C:  No, he is clearly playing soccer because the ball would be considerably smaller if someone wanted to play tennis.

E: (Examiner now shows a picture of rooms in the house) Is this a picture of a bathroom?

C: No, because I can spot a TV and a chaise longue, so I can deduce it is the living room.

E: What is there in your living room?

C: Well, there is a 46inch plasma TV, a sofa and all the usual things one might expect to find in a living room.

E: Have you got a computer or any English books in your living room?

C:  Sure, I’ve got an i-Mac and heaps of English books.

E: Ok, this is my shirt.  It’s mine.  Is it yours?

C:  Well, obviously not because you are wearing it, so it wouldn’t be mine, would it?

E: Perhaps not.  Ask me a question.

C: Any question?

E: Sure.

C: Are you some sort of psychiatrist, because these are very strange questions in order for me to get a spouse visa. Mind you, my future wife is from Liverpool so perhaps I should be getting a Scouse visa instead?

E: Thank you, Andreas.  Finish.  Goodbye.

C: Ok, so you’ll tell the Home Office I can speak English.

E: Er, yes, sort of.

C: Thanks.

Even more perplexing, however, is that a non-EU student must have a significantly higher level of English to come to the UK to actually study English than someone who is intending to come to the UK to permanently settle here.

Prospective non-EU English language students need to have a B1 level of English (under the CEF), which is described as an Independent User with a minimum 350-400 hours of study required to reach that level.

Thus, effectively you need to be able to have already learnt a considerable amount of English before you can visit Britain to study it further.

Because of these new rules, many genuine English language schools have closed down having suffered a marked downturn in business in non-European markets, in particular the Far-East and South America.

The Home Office’s own statistics admit these new requirements will cost the UK economy somewhere in the region of £2.4bn over the next four years.

Clearly, The Home Office needs to rethink the level of English required for foreign nationals to obtain the Spouse/Civil Partnership Visa (and who should be exempt from taking this test), whilst lowering the language requirements needed for non-EU students coming to study English at English language schools here in the UK.

This would be in the interests of all concerned, and not least for an English Language examiner’s sanity. Now, “Andreas, where did you say the pen was again?”

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1 Comment

  • David Owen

    I totally agree with the author. There are now only two examination boards authorised by the Home Office to conduct these tests. Until recently I examined for one of these organisations. The exams offered are not sufficiently robust for immigration purposes. The language sample is extremely variable as elicitation is dependent on the rigour of the individual examiner (there is little quality control or standardisation) and assessment is also variable and often depends on the mood the examiner finds him/herself in on the examination day.

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