[lg policy] Pointing to the pitfalls of language testing

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Fri Sep 23 14:55:45 UTC 2011

Pointing to the pitfalls of language testing

The best way to test a language is not always black and white (Keystone)
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by Clare O'Dea, swissinfo.ch

As much as language is an important symbol of identity and belonging
in a society, it can also be used as a barrier in times of tighter
immigration policy. While there is no universal language test in
Switzerland for residence or citizenship applicants in Switzerland,
with three sets of naturalisation requirements to satisfy – federal,
cantonal and communal – most applicants come up against some form of
citizenship or language exam.

Tim McNamara, applied linguistics professor at the University of
Melbourne and a language assessment specialist spoke to swissinfo.ch
about how the use of language assessment is evolving. McNamara, whose
research focuses on the social and political context of such tests in
immigration and citizenship procedures, says people can participate
successfully in society even if they are not fluent in the national
 The academic was in Switzerland to give a workshop on the subject at
Fribourg’s Institute of Multilingualism.

swissinfo.ch: Could you give an example of how language assessment is
being used in immigration and citizenship procedures?

Tim McNamara: A number of countries in Europe in the last few years,
partly as a reflection of tensions within the countries associated
with immigrant communities, have gradually begun to use language
assessments at different stages of the immigration process.

Obviously there has been a tradition in some countries for many years
of requiring knowledge of a national language for citizenship, though
that has increased so that more and more countries are following suit.

Language tests are also now being used at earlier stages. Recently in
the Netherlands and the United Kingdom to be able to marry a citizen
of the country concerned, foreign nationals need to take a language
test even before they leave their own country to get a visa.

swissinfo.ch: Is there a problem with the validity of these assessments?

T.M.: As part of the professional development of language tests we
need to be sure that the conclusions we are reaching about individuals
have some sort of basis. It’s very easy, as we know, to reach a
conclusion about a person based on a limited amount of evidence that
we find out later to be wrong.

So validation of tests involves a process for finding out more
information about a sample of the candidates, for example, to see if
the conclusions that the tests arrived at are borne out by other kinds
of investigation and other kinds of evidence.

I think with immigration and citizenship there is another issue as
well. One of the aspects of validity is what are the social and
cultural values which are involved in the practice of the assessment?

Sometimes there is a heated discussion in a country about the presence
of immigrant communities and as part of this discussion there can be a
resort to language testing on grounds that are sometimes not entirely

swissinfo.ch: When you have this political context, would you then
conclude that it’s not possible to test somebody fairly or
objectively, that it will always be coloured by personal views?

T.M.: No, you might be able to test them fairly and objectively but
you can ask what is the relevance of this? What is the real meaning of
this testing practice? This has been studied in the United States and
in Luxembourg and the Netherlands and it seems to me that while the
tests appear to be in the interests of the immigrants, it’s pretty
clear that what is going on is a debate in society about the symbols
of belonging and not belonging and language is a pretty convenient
symbol for that.

We need to be able to understand the meaning of tests in two ways –
one is as a practical instrument for making decisions about people and
these practical instruments can be of good quality or of poor quality.
Obviously they need to be as good quality as we can make them.

On the other hand the very use of the instrument at all needs to be
considered and thought about. Here there is no correct answer of
course because we’re entering into the realm of values and policies
and political discussions but I think it’s important to recognise that
that’s what’s involved in the language test. It’s not just a technical
instrument for making a decision about a person in a scientific way
but that it’s an expression of social and cultural and political
values and these will necessarily be contested.

swissinfo.ch: If we look at a society as a club that outsiders may
wish to join, then surely it’s fair to say, as the Swiss justice
minister recently did, that knowledge of a national language is not
too much to ask as a condition for integration?

T.M.: Well I think that there’s a difference between entry to a
society and participation at the highest level through citizenship.
Studies in immigrant countries have shown that effective and
successful citizenship does not necessarily depend primarily on

In more traditional societies a more traditional view prevails and
that’s certainly the case in many European countries. They are
struggling with their identity as immigrant societies. In many ways
the argument about competence in the main language of the society is a
reasonable one, especially for citizenship, but for other kinds of
participation in society we know that people can participate
successfully even if their competence in the national language is
rather poor.

It’s very easy for policymakers to reach for the gun of the language
test but even though I agree that there is a strong argument for
including language as a criterion for readiness to participate, I
think that what it means to be a good citizen is a much more complex
matter than that.

Clare O'Dea, swissinfo.ch


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