English language requirements for immigration

Today was an interesting day for me: I took an English language test. This was a test designed to see whether I could function in English speaking countries — in my case, Canada. It is a requirement for permanent residency and is, indeed, something required of people coming to work in Australia and also the UK. I queried this requirement as to why it applied to everyone and they said, “it even is a requirement for people from the United States.” Well, I guess there is no higher gold standard on English language proficiency than that!

To my keen economics mind, I immediately hypothesised that the International English Language Testing folks had some pretty good lobbyists but in actually, I guess immigration people just got sick of arguing with people over why they had to take the test. “Yes, I know you are an English literature professor going to teach at the Australian National University but you are an Indian citizen, etc …” It was probably easier just to force everyone to do it.

Now this test was no “walk in the park.” It was a 4 hours experience designed to probe the intricacies and subtleties of the English language and all without the help of the spell check feature that I used right now for intricacies and subtleties that regular readers will be surprised to learn actually improves language and exposition in this blog.

The first part was a speaking test. This is where a tester sat across from you and carried on the most unlikely conversation for someone you just met. He read a scripted piece which I filled in the other side of the conversation from. It started off standard and friendly enough with some exchange of basic information before he somewhat ominously decided to put a question to me where I would be allowed some “thinking time” before I answered. The question was to describe a job that I believed helped the world and to explain why I thought that. Of course, my first thought was “well, not your job because this is clearly a waste time in some broad sense.” But as I was the only person in our family required to take this test, I had been ordered to be on good behaviour. So I went with scientists and put in a solid discussion of the microfoundations of endogenous growth theory for a minute. I don’t think he was that intrigued because when my minute was up he cut me off mid-word — apparently more desperate to be free of this than I was. He then decided to provoke me by asking whether I thought that “industry destroyed the environment.” I said I thought that by definition all human activity, including industry, destroyed the environment, what of it? We then meandered back into whether technology was making people’s lives more enjoyable (I said, “it is me! I have an iPad”) but before I could get onto the Easterlin Paradox, my time was done.

It was then time for the listening part of the test. This turned out to be a rather difficult 30 minutes. The first conversation I was forced to parse was a discussion of the hotel, travel and accommodation needs of a marketing professor visiting some random university. Suffice it to say, I have been expertly trained to filter out all detail from such conversations which was exactly the handicap I did not need for this exam. It was hard work. But not as hard as the next part of working out the fishing license requirements in some random English village and then on to a request by a student — and I am not making this up — for help in understanding the bureaucratic requirements of an upcoming overseas field trip. To say it was a struggle is an understatement. I had to work with every inch of my attention to concentrate on this. That said, the field trip — if you are one of the marine biology, 3rd year undergraduates eligible to take it without the express written permission of your BIOL724 tutor — did sound cool.

Next came reading. This was an hour long one. Well, I spent 30 minutes at a slow pace on it. But it had to do with Australia. Yes, indeed, our local testing facilities were hard at work here. First, I had to understand the entry requirements on what is the back of form you fill out when you come to visit Australia. It is harder than you think and let me tell you, canned goods have to be declared! Then I had to understand the various things to do in Macarthur in NSW which, by the way, was an important link in the intercontinental telegraph system at one point before turning on to — again, I am not making this up — industrial relations. Namely, I had to read through the Sigma Pharmaceuticals (an actual company) guidelines on working from home — did you know you had to have your own private insurance if you bring a computer home? — before turning to the grievance manual at I think the same company.

And as I sat bored for the remainder of the test I realised what an opportunity had been lost. My guess is that a good share of people taking these tests are dealing with Universities. Universities in turn have all manner of procedures and manuals they want new-comers to read. This test was the opportunity to do that. Instead of trying to understand Sigma Pharmaceutical’s procedures I could have been handed the University of Toronto’s. There is no other way I was going to read that. There is a real economy to be had here.

The final part of the test was writing. You know I hadn’t taken a test for 20 years and I pretty much hadn’t hand-written anything for that same period of time. It was only like four pages but it was hard going. What a stupid way of testing people that is in this day and age? Anyhow, the written part asked me first to write a letter to a local community organisation helping the elderly to offer my free services. I decided to make up “Grey Power Button” whose motto as “we’ll find that damn power button.” I had to explain how I heard about it (answer: overhearing and Apple store conversation with an elderly gentlemen whose cable modem was clearly unplugged) and why I thought they would be useful (answer: because people need to make sure that when they download adult material using their neighbour’s wifi their grandkids broke into, they need to close their browser afterwards — or something to that effect). The final task was to explain why some people like to live in big cities and others like to live in small towns and who was right. The answer, of course, was no-one and if everyone acted on some universal preference they would destroy the very thing they liked about where they lived and so should just shut up about it. Hey, it was the end of a long day, my hand was tired and I was in the mood for rant.

Anyhow, I cannot recommend against doing this enough. There has got to be a better and quicker way to assess language — maybe some two step procedure. I’m glad it is over — assuming I pass that is. If I don’t pass, it will turn out I am not recognisably proficient in any language!

[Update: Eric Crampton observes that New Zealand has it right.]

9 thoughts on “English language requirements for immigration”

  1. Sorry about that, Josh. It’s not a bad intro to Canadian bureaucracy overall though.

    There is indeed a far more efficient way of handling the English language regs: <a href=”http://offsettingbehaviour.blogspot.com/2011/07/wasting-josh-ganss-time.html”>New Zealand’s</a>. If you’ve a recognized qualification from a course taught entirely in English or other evidence proof of competency in English, that’s good enough. When I migrated to NZ, for the third of a page asking for evidence of English competence, I listed a couple of pubs and offered to send them a copy of my dissertation. That was good enough, as it ought to have been.

    It would be interesting to get a measure of the overall time cost of Canada’s English language regs…


  2. The UK have quite a good rule too – you only have to sit the IELTS if you are “not a national of a majority English-speaking country or do not have a degree taught in English.”

    Of course there are only 16 countries which are recognised as majority-English speaking..


  3. It reminded me of the difficulty of applying for Australian Citizenship: list the ten rights and ten obligations of a citizen. If you could understand the questions and give the answers you had enough English. Total time: under ten minutes.


  4. Uhmm, none of the requirements mentioned thus far are necessary, nor are they sufficient, to indicate any level of English.
    Even a degree taught in English can be a low threshhold, though it might well be ‘good enough’ in general.  Conversley, I have seen better levels of English from German or Nordic undergraduate students compared to native English speakers.
    Perhaps more interesting will be to understand how the Canadians work out the trade-offs across skills … ie English/French language vs entrepreneurial ability vs physical prowess vs musical ability. 

    Would they keep out an Australian Economics Professor because his accent is too difficult to understand?


  5. I have been following this blog for quite some time and I must say I that I have enjoyed your humour, so much that I have to make a comment. It is blatantly clear that this test is just not testing English requirements for immigration.
    Also, do you still teach at the MBS? (I have deferred my M. Eco until next year).


  6. But are you prepared for the similar four hour French proficiency test that I’m sure the Quebecois will insist on?


  7. “The final part of the test was writing. You know I hadn’t taken a test for 20 years and I pretty much hadn’t hand-written anything for that same period of time. It was only like four pages but it was hard going. What a stupid way of testing people that is in this day and age?”

    Sounds familiar – university exams!


  8. In our ‘globalized’ economy there is no longer any reason to assume that citizenship in one country guarantees proficiency in the ‘official’ language of that country.  There are at least millions of Americans who are not proficient in English: they mostly speak Spanish but there is a lot of variety.  So as unpleasant as it was for you, I can see the necessity.  


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