Language Learning and Misconceptions about Exam Taking

Why can’t you learn a language well? It’s not entirely your fault…
Exam Taking

Why can’t you learn a language well? It’s not entirely your fault.

Learning a foreign language is supposed to help people widen their perspective and take the first step towards understanding other people living on the other side of the world. NOT only for passing an exam! Only, our education system got it all wrong, and that’s why people would most likely strive for just a high score, or simply try not to fail. An additional language could help people open the door to a different culture, to be competitive in the global market, or even to live a new life. However, how could our education system help us get there?

Most of our education systems in the world demand high marks and overlook the natural and effective learning process. We have all experienced the process of trying to cram things into our head and only study for the exam. And as soon as the exam is finished, we forget it all. Yet, what is a natural learning process? Let’s take a moment to remember how you learned your first language, your mother tongue, or perhaps think of a little child learning a language. It was months of listening until you could speak the first word, followed by a few years of speaking before you started to read, and then finally learn how to write. During the learning process, we made our attempts, got corrected, and then once we succeeded we got cheered on, and finally gained confidence to learn more. Naturally, we understand that using a language can help us to achieve what we want. So there you have it, a motivation to continue learning further. Does our current education system reflect any part of this natural learning process?

On the contrary, most education systems, if not all, want us to develop listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills all at the same time. This would surely not help us digest the new language, but instead frustrate many of us at an early stage. As a multilingual teaching languages, I wouldn’t insist on students starting to write too soon. Especially for the Chinese language where we use a non-phonetic writing system, I would only introduce the characters at the beginning as part of introduction to Chinese art and culture.

The Best Way To Learn

Many people asked me how I learned English, but I didn’t know exactly what to tell them, until recently I realized I never really learned English just for exams. I was in a church where there were many foreigners and, out of curiosity, I wanted to get to know them more. That was my motivation. The school on the other hand only strengthened what I already recognized about the language, so tests were never an issue but a verification of my English level. When I tried to obtain my Spanish A1 certificate this year, as my online subscription was ending, I would power through many exercises but I didn’t feel good at all. Deep inside, I knew I wouldn’t remember much this way and surely wouldn’t be able to use it in future. Then, really, what’s the point of having a certificate?

A test should never be about how much vocabulary I have, and the correctness of my grammar. Instead, it should validate my ability of sending a message across. After all, language is a tool for communication and that is what we should be measuring against. Even if we have poor grammar, and use words wrongly, if we get the job done then we deserve some points for effective communication. This could encourage students to try, and not be afraid of making mistakes. And in fact, that is the real world.

On Peace Boat (a NPO based in Japan), its GET English program promotes task-based English, where the volunteer teachers would teach you words and sentences that you can use to complete a task. You then practice among the teacher and your fellow students. Interestingly, when the boat docks at the port, the whole group would then go on a mission to talk to strangers using what they just learned. Similarly, schools could follow this scheme. If this can’t be adopted by classroom exams, at least just let each student pick a random topic, and try to express his/ her ideas to any other English speaker. The point here is about using the language practically, and discovering how much more you can do each time.

The Best Language Proficiency Test

When you have reached a certain level in a language, what kind of test would be best for you? I have tried different language proficiency tests, and my advice is first to forget the tests which ask you to pick a level. Because if you don’t pass, does that mean you’re one level lower? Not necessarily and you won’t even get a certificate.

A test is supposed to help you understand where your level sits, not confuse you into choosing an unsuitable level, then waste more money to try again and again. When there are 5 or 6 levels like JPLT and CEFR, it just complicates things having to try to find the “right” level. Language learning is a continuous process. Consequently, only a continuous scoring system can best represent it. 

Second, generally speaking international tests are more useful if you’d ever consider going abroad. Here are some international English tests you can take: TOEIC, TOEFL and IELTS. These tests will give you a score with which you know where you are, how much you can improve, and that is the certificate. You can look up your level, as each score corresponds to a level even in the different systems.

Something to keep in mind is what your goal is with that language. TOEIC is a test for business English which consists of multiple choices only, no mandatory writing nor speaking tests. TOEFL is for studying in America, while IELTS is for entering schools, applying for a job, or for immigration in British commonwealth nations like the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. It really depends. For example, if you’re going to be a university exchange student, maybe the grades from your former English classes would already suffice.

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Hi, I am an amateur anthropologist from Taiwan, after traveling the world, currently residing in Northern Spain. I love connecting the dots between cultures and discovering things beyond the eyes of tourists. The more I know, the more I am fascinated by how different yet similar we all are.