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Keith Tse


  • Writer's pictureKeith Tse

Language Proficiency Exam

As a professional linguist, I have sat through quite a few specialist exams which are designed to measure and qualify one’s proficiency in foreign languages. These exams come in many sizes, shapes and forms, since in addition to the traditional written-style tests in which one answers a mixture of short and long answers (Multiple-Choice, gap-filling, essays etc), there are also oral and listening tests which are designed to stimulate one’s ability to respond and react in simulated language scenarios. From a scientific perspective, one may consider these the ‘practical exams’ in language learning, even if there is no need to wear lab-coats or helmets (though there is of course no prohibition from dressing up). I have had a mix of good and bad experiences with doing language exams, which explains the fact that I have had some good and bad results. There was one particular exam, however, which left a big impression on me, especially on the perenially important theme of language acquisition. In Summer 2006, I sat an Advanced Spanish exam which I sought to use to prove my credentials as a Spanish linguist. Throughout the academic year 2005-2006, I tried to get as much practice of my Spanish as I could by befriending lots of Hispanic people at my alma mater (Oxford) and I especially enjoyed my numerous conversations with my friends from Argentina, who, in addition to generously tolerating and correcting my many mistakes, gave me an overview on the dialectal variants of Spanish across the Atlantic. It was fascinating for me as I had always learnt the Iberian variety which most learners of Spanish study when they get into it, and it is easy to forget that there are dozens of national languages in Latin America which are no less prominent politically and these display fascinating similarities and differences from their historical homeland. I thoroughly enjoyed my interactions with my Argentinian friends at Oxford, which laid the basis for our long friendship which has lasted until this day. I also kept my language learning going by refining my knowledge of Spanish grammar and acquiring new vocabulary, but the main acquisition process of my Spanish in 2005-2006 was mainly social and informal, as I relished the opportunity of chatting with my newfound Latin American friends and we would converse frequently, at times at great length, on all kinds of topics and themes in Spanish. Gradually and unconsciously, my level of Spanish probably grew in ways that were quite different from how it would have developed under formal instruction, as it became part of my communicative core and a linguistic tool which I slowly felt confident in using in day-to-day scenarios. When I was preparing for my Advanced Spanish exam, I routinely went over all my language notes and academic material, and when it came to sitting the actual exam, the whole process seemed surprisingly smooth for me in that I did not find it nearly as difficult as I had anticipated. I was totally expecting a huge, if not impossible, ordeal, since this was the highest qualification from a well-accredited and internationally recognised institution who advertised this level to be near native, but to my utter and pleasant surprise, much of the material on paper seemed quite transparent to me, and I completed it with few accidents. This was one of the very few times in my life that I came out of an exam feeling content rather than obsessing about every single detail which I had got wrong or was not sure about, and when the results came out some two months later it came as no surprise to me that I achieved the highest possible grade (in all humility). It seemed that my regular informal training throughout the academic year turned out to be the perfect preparation for this otherwise tough hurdle. I have mentioned before how one’s perspective need not match reality, especially when seen externally by others, and this episode is especially interesting for me in terms of language acquisition. Throughout our education, we were constantly told to learn grammar, make vocabulary-lists, memorise tables etc etc etc, all of which is fine with me as I am a formal linguist and I would be the last person in the world to ever complain about learning grammar/vocab (in fact, if anything, I would be encouraging this formal way of learning languages and inflict my masochistic tendencies on all language learners who come my way). However, one of the takeaway lessons from my first year at university is that there is another kind of informal language learning which has proven to be most effective, since instead of trying to get to grips forcefully with every single aspect and detail of the language at hand, I was encouraged to let it sift through me in regular real-life social interaction. It became an unconscious acquisition process which probably struck deeper in me that any grammar books/manuals that I had ever encountered then or since. Another paradox of life.

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