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English Language Testing Issues

José I. Lobo from Colombia

José I. Lobo is an English Language Instructor at the Universidád del Atlántico, in Barranquilla, Colombia. He is presently a doctoral student at the Teaching English as a Second Language (TESOL) Graduate Program at the University of Cincinnati.

Many years ago when I started to learn this beautiful language, I thought that the only thing I needed to acquire was sounds that make up words that in turn make up sentences. I used to memorize tons of lexicon, hundreds of sentences, and I still remember a poem that reads:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.

God knows how much I loved those lines that still resound in my mind. Indeed, I continued learning other "elevated, art-related" materials, and I will always think that they have helped me to make ends meet in the English Speaking World.

However, many things get untold in foreign language classes. Certainly not everything is form, sound, syntax, and semantics. For example, as an international student in the U.S., I didn't know that when asked a question in oral English language interviews, I needed to answer immediately even if I did not have the right response in my mind.

In these academic situations, what really matters is to provide a personal, coherent, cohesive, and appropriate discourse that should fit the discourse of evaluators and administrators. This also may apply to other non-academic contexts.

I have come to understand that defining words, as part of oral English proficiency tests is pretty much culturally related. Americans and English people define words very directly. The Webster dictionary presents the definition of, for instance, "scalars" as a disignating a quantity that has magnitude but not direction in space, as volume or temperature. This definition is pretty clear and direct for native speakers of English. Americans and British people would probably provide examples to further clarify this term.

Nevertheless, after interviewing Chinese students and colleagues, I have discovered that when defining words, people in China usually present examples to finally end up defining the terms they wish to illustrate. Also, Spanish speaking individuals like myself use a very indirect approach for definitions, and we run the risk of never completing what we wanted to say in the very end.

I would conclude that learning a second language for academic as well as for other purposes needs to be related to the host nation's cultural practices that are reflected in schools, government institutions, private companies, and so on and so forth.

Finally, as a non-native speaker of English in the process of learning it, I consider that second language acquisitiion goes beyond the point of saying "whatever", as an example. This expression is determined by context, i.e., where s/he says it, who says it, where s/he says it, how s/he says it, when s/he says it, and to whom s/he says it, among other possibilities. Indeed if words were gold, then we could say that all that glitters is not words because there is much more behind them. 

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