Testing the limits of language

There’s something rotten in the state of standardised language assessment.

Levels of CEFR testing from beginner to advanced

Intelligence manifests in different forms. This was made obvious to me in primary school when  I completed the mandatory Howard Gardener multiple-choice test designed to measure the “nine-types-of-intelligence”. My result stated I had a mix of “intra-personal” and “linguistic” intelligence. In other words, I was a pretentious, bookish introvert with no friends. The test also found I had no ounce of “bodily-kinesthetic” intelligence: it revealed my inability to participate in the beep test without having an asthma attack. But at least the test demonstrated intelligence is multi-pronged, and that we can’t rely on a standardised model to determine competence.

Apparently this mindset doesn’t apply when it comes to language.

For decades, the Coalition Government has pushed for higher standards of English language requirements for migrants. Just this month, Citizenship Minister Alan Tudge called for formal requirements “that encourage English proficiency”.

Minister Tudge’s conception of ‘proficiency’ is no doubt drawn from  stipulations of the different competency levels within the five standardised English language tests accepted by the Department of Home Affairs, including the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). This kind of testing is not only common for English. Competency in many European languages is measured by the Common European Framework of Languages (CEFR), a comparable language-proficiency test. European nations, along with Australia, have either entertained, or even implemented methods of standardised language testing in vetting migrant intake.

If you’re learning a European language at USyd, each of your classes probably aims for students to reach certain CEFR level by the end of the semester. Dr Carolyn Stott of the University’s French Department told Honi that demonstrating one’s competence according to the CEFR can be useful in terms of applying for exchange or even general employability.

The use of the CEFR in is held in quite high esteem; it is an international competency standard used for 40 different languages. The CEFR encompasses six levels of competence: from breakthrough (A1) to mastery (C2). Like IELTS, the CEFR tests different aspects of language learning such as reading, writing, listening and speaking.

Yet its usage is still problematic. The idea that the CEFR provides a holistic assessment of a person’s ability in language is a fallacy. When you really scrutinise the specifications of the six levels of competence, the pedantic differences between them becomes clear. For example, the differences between a C1 (Effective Operational Efficiency) and C2 (Mastery) level in reading are so subtle that their diagnoses seem only to paraphrase each other.

This raises questions about the way  people are assessed in their competencies, when the criteria appears so interchangeable. Philia Thalgott, head of the Education Policy Division at the Council of Europe, maintains “the CEFR is descriptive—not normative–and must be adapted for migration contexts.”

Author Jean-Jacques Weber, in his 2015 book Language Racism, goes even further and suggests the use of the CEFR within Europe developed from the residual influence of  eugenic theory, where only migrants who are able to reach the highest plateau of what is supposedly an ‘objective’ and ‘scientific’ standardised language test are the ones who could possibly integrate themselves into a civilised European society.

This idea isn’t all too far fetched. In the parliamentary debate leading up to a vote on new citizenship laws in Luxembourg in 2008, the A1 level threshold proposed for migrants by left-leaning parties was chastised by more conservative parties as not constituting high enough an intellectual hurdle.

It’s possible that the CEFR guidelines are helpful for students when it comes to getting a job, or going on exchange. But it’s evident that standardised language tests of its kind are increasingly being used as a tool to curb migrant intake under an agenda that merits individuals only on the basis of their ability to speak a foreign language. The danger lies in the dubious nature of these tests, and the authority they carry.