What is the best kind of language testing?

For English learners.

If the person being tested is going into an English language school or English language program I think it is unnecessary to test the learner. I believe that language programs should be constructed in such a way that any learner can easily find content to learn from that is interesting and at his or her level. The learner should be able to start any time and start at any level.

The responsibility of the school or teaching program should be to make a full range of learning opportunities available to the learner and then encourage the learner to explore the language and learn from it. Language learning is an individual task. You do most of the learning on your own, reading and listening and absorbing vocabulary.

The teachers are there to explain where necessary, provide feedback and encouragement, but not to set the learning agenda. They have to stimulate the learners to set their own agenda. Most of the learning has to be done by the learners. If the learners do not become autonomous, they will not learn very well.

It should not be necessary to do an evaluation of the learner’s level in order to place them in an appropriate class. In any case, any attempt to classify the learners will be in vain. Different learners will learn at different speeds. All have different interests, regardless of how they do on a placement test. As long as they pursue their interests in a systematic way, they will learn.

It may be advisable to have learners of similar levels join in the same conversation class. Even here, however, some weaker learners may benefit from joining an advanced discussion group. In any case the interests of the learners should be the main determining factor. If discussion sessions are available on different subjects, the learners should have the freedom to attend the sessions that interest them. If some learners are simply unable to follow the conversation they can easily be asked to (also) attend other groups that are closer to their level. In any case, prior testing is not necessary.

For students attending university in English.

Universities have a need to decide if non-native speakers have the ability to follow university courses in English. However, the students’ ability to pass TOEFL is not proving to be a good measure of their abilities. Some students simply master the techniques of passing these impersonal tests. They spend a lot of effort on this activity, which is a waste of their time. Other students may not do as well on the tests but may improve more quickly once they are in an English speaking environment. Should they be passed over in favour of a student who has mastered the techniques of multiple choice tests?

I think any test of English ability should be dynamic and cover a period of many months. All of the efforts of the students to prepare for their evaluation should be captured. Students being tested should have to follow a relevant course of study on line and regularly answer written and oral questions. The accuracy of their syntax, the richness of their vocabulary and their ability to understand English and to express themselves can be measured quite accurately over time. This can be represented in a statistical profile of the learner. We do this at The Linguist.

The learner thus builds up a profile of his or her English ability while improving at the same time. The student’s effort is thus directed towards learning English rather than preparing for the TOEFL test.

At any time the learner should be able to submit to a testing agency to confirm that this longer term profile accurately reflects the learner’s present situation. In other words the profile is confirmed on a pass/fail basis. These results and the whole profile are made available to any university the learner is applying to enter.

For employees.

A similar language profile system could easily be adopted to provide an employer with an accurate, statistics-based profile of an employee or potential employee’s language level.

In this way the learner’s preparation for language evaluation is not separated from the process of learning and using the language as is now the case. The profile that is developed is easily viewed, in terms of statistics and in terms of examples of the learners writing and recorded oral expression. When required this profile only needs to be confirmed.

This above is the kind of testing process that we are developing at The Linguist.

Easy English. Phrase by phrase.

I am starting a personal diary. The diary is for members of The Linguist system and for readers of my blog. I will set this diary up as a separate blog, but not right away.

Even though I am using easy English, I hope this diary can help many of you. I hope it will make your English more natural. I hope you will communicate with me by email, or if you belong to The Linguist, on the voice-chat discussions.

Hello. How are you? How are you doing? I hope you are well.

Can you speak English? Can you speak English well? Would you like to speak English better?  Do you need to write English better? I will show you how. Just follow my diary.

Before I start my diary I have something to say.

There are two very important things in language learning. The most important thing is your attitude.  Tell yourself you are going to enjoy English. Only do those things that you enjoy doing. When you listen to English, try to enjoy it. When you speak English, try to enjoy it. Do not worry about how you sound. Enjoy communicating in another language.  If you enjoy learning you will learn faster. If you enjoy learning you will continue. You will get better and better.

The second most important thing is to learn phrases. Grammar is difficult to remember. Words are difficult to remember. Sentences are all different. Phrases appear everywhere in the language. Phrases are really useful.

A phrase is a group of words that naturally belong together. Phrases give words meaning. Learn phrases so that you can sound natural in English. Even when you become an advanced user of English, you will need clear and natural phrases. Build up your knowledge of phrases. If you have a lot of phrases that you can use, your writing will become clear and powerful.

Today I am starting my diary for our language learners. I will post my diary on my blog and put it in The Linguist Library at www.thelinguist.com. I will also record my voice reading this diary. I will place the recordings in The Linguist Library for our learners to download and listen to. Each sentence will be a separate MP3 file so that learners can practice their pronunciation and intonation.

I have one more thing to tell you. A language learner needs to be independent. In The Linguist system there is no Lesson 1 and Lesson 2 and Lesson 3. You choose what you want to read and listen to. You choose things that interest you and put them into your own files. This is very important. You must choose what to learn. You must be in charge.

So far I have highlighted phrases. I have done this to show you what a phrase is. You now know that a phrase is any group of words that naturally belong together. But now I will stop highlighting phrases.

You must learn to notice phrases yourself. Users of The Linguist system highlight phrases themselves and save them to their database to learn them. They learn to notice the phrases and choose them themselves.

Now I have started highlighting certain words. These are “trigger” words. These words can help you notice useful phrases.

If you are a user of The Linguist you should save some of these “trigger” words into your personal word database. You should do so even if you know what the words mean. In this way the system can automatically save sentences with these “trigger” words into your database. In the “ words I am learning” section you will then see many examples of how these words are used in the content that you have chosen to study. It is not enough to know what words mean. It is important to know how to use the words correctly in natural phrases.

Now I will start my diary.

Today is a sunny day in Vancouver. I am sitting at my computer. My wife is playing the piano. I can see the ocean. There is a little bit of mist over the ocean. I can see eagles, and other birds. I can even see little sailing boats waiting in the harbour. Soon there will be people to take these boats out on to the ocean.

Later today I will play some golf with my wife. This evening we are going to my younger son’s place to baby-sit. Now I have had enough of sitting at the computer.  I want to go outside. If I spend my day at the computer it will be a waste of such a beautiful day.

While sitting here, a thick fog has come in. I can no longer see the ocean. My wife is still playing the piano.

I do not care. I am reading a book called “In Praise of Slow”. It was written by my older son’s friend. My older son lives in London England . The book basically tells modern people to slow down and enjoy life. I am enjoying my wife’s piano playing. I am enjoying communicating with language learners around the world. I hope you all enjoy learning English. But enough is enough. Now I will end today’s entry in my diary.

Bye for now


What is coming next?

Over the next few posts I will talk a little bit about testing. How effective are the existing language tests for English? How do we know what our skill level is in another language? How can other people best judge our skill level? Is our own subjective evaluation enough? Is it possible to standardize the evaluation of language skills? What are the advantages and disadvantages of doing so?

I do not know much about tests for other languages since I have not taken any language tests since I did my British Foreign Service Exam for Mandarin Chinese in 1969. Not taking tests has not prevented my from becoming fluent in a number of languages since then. Not having passed any tests in Japanese, Spanish, Swedish or German does not prevent me from conducting business in these languages . These are all languages that I studied very hard on my own after the age of 25. I did it using my principles but without the tremendous advantages of modern technology, like the resources of the Internet, MP3 players, and on line dictionaries etc.. I know what my level is in these languages even without taking a test. I know what I need to do to improve further.

I am studying Korean now, and what is holding me back is not the lack of tests, but rather the lack of interesting content. I am tired of reading and listening to text book content in Korea and this really affects my motivation.

For English there is no shortage of standardized tests. TOEFL and TOEIC are perhaps the best known. Many people achieve high scores in these tests and cannot communicate properly in English. Millions of people, especially in Asia, put more effort into learning the tricks of how to pass these tests, than into learning English itself. In the long run they are the losers. Their English often does not reach the level required for professional communication. Here in Vancouver our schools have many international students who cannot write a proper essay or report without the help of an editor or tutor. Once they graduate form our indulgent universities and colleges they face a rude awakening in the workplace.

Yet schools and employers want some measurable standards of the English competence of students and employees. What is the solution? More on this later.

I also want to talk more about the psychological dimensions of language learning. What are the mental blocks that inhibit language learning? How can we best overcome them? It is not enough to learn efficiently, it is also important to be able to use what we learn efficiently.

Language is behaviour. In addition to the words and phrases that we must learn, we need to cultivate the behaviour of the speakers of a new language. Yet we are conditioned to many behaviour patterns that inhibit us. How can we overcome these ingrained behaviour patterns? More on this later.

Another subject I will talk on is the greater difficulty experienced by language learners from unrelated language groups. French speakers learning Chinese, or Korean speakers learning English, or English speakers learning Russian, all face somewhat different problems. Obviously a Spanish speaker will learn Italian more easily than a Swedish person, or at least should, and in fact in most cases this is true. But there are exceptions. Many Cantonese speakers never learn to speak Mandarin as well as some English speakers. Why? What should be the strategies for foreign language learners from similar language groups? What should be the strategies for learners who come from very different language groups? This and much more will be discussed on this blog in the upcoming posts. I welcome your comments.


I often get resistance to the idea that language learning should not emphasize grammar instruction. At The Linguist we believe learning should be driven by enjoyable input and a systematic approach to learning words and phrases. We also favour using writing and writing correction as the best place to catch problems and improve language accuracy. We do not believe in learning the language just by talking (the conversation club approach) nor do we believe instruction in grammar rules will promote fluency.

This idea does not got down well with many teachers and learners. “You have to learn grammar to stop making mistakes” is the refrain. However, just understanding the “why” of a grammar rule will not ensure accurate language. Chinese speakers regularly say “he” when they mean “she” and vice versa. They understand the principle, they just cannot say the correct word when speaking because spoken Chinese does not make this distinction. You would think that this rule would be easy to learn, but it is not. It is not the understanding of the principle, but the development of the correct language instinct that will enable the speaker to be accurate and fluent. Only enough exposure and the gradual training of the brain will make that possible. The emphasis is on the word gradual.

Learners can have a grammar book for reference, although the smaller the better. It is interesting and feels more helpful than it actually is, to look up different questions of grammar. I have often done so myself. I have looked up verb conjugations  and noun declensions in languages like Spanish and German. It did not help me to speak. It did not help me to use the right declension or conjugation. I needed to learn phrases from real contexts, to notice phrases when reading and listening, and to repeat these phrases when speaking, in order to gradually improve. And the improvement was uneven, with frequent lapses. But I was happy communicating, or reading, or listening,  and happy in the  knowledge that I was getting better just by listening, reading and using the language. My lapses and inaccuracies did not bother me.

One of our learners was told by a friend that she needed to work on her grammar. She always said “deal a problem” rather than “deal with a problem”. She had problems with prepositions. But to me the problem was not one of grammar. Why do you “deal with a problem” but “manage a problem”? You cannot create explanations for every possible situation. The learner just needs to make “deal with” a phrase that she knows, uses and masters. Any rule would only get in the way.

Obsessive compulsive disorder and language learning

In Jeffrey Schwartz’s book The Mind and the Brain, he points out just how constantly adaptable the human brain is. Research has shown that this adaptability or plasticity continues throughout our lives. The brain is constantly retraining and rearranging itself in response to different stimuli. He describes clinical examples of how people can use mindfulness to will their brain to change its neural circuits. This is  mind over matter, or since the brain is matter, maybe it is mind over mind or matter over matter!! I am not a scientist, obviously, just curious.

Schwartz shows from actual clinical experiments how people who have some kind of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) can in certain circumstance train themselves away from that behaviour. In so doing they actually alter the metabolism of the OCD circuit in the brain. I remember as a child that my father could wiggle his ears and I could not. However, by spending a lot of time willing my ears to move, they eventually did. Mindfulness therapy at work!

Schwartz talks about “mindfulness-based cognitive therapy” and a four step treatment process. The four steps are Relabel, Reattribute,Refocus and Revalue. It begins with the patient not blaming him or herself for the disorder but recognizing that it is a function of the brain circuitry sending some faulty messages. By accepting that the circuitry was playing tricks, the patient was better able to resist the irrational obsessive impulses when they arose.

I am still digesting this book but I sense it has applications for language learning. If language learners are constantly discouraged because of their inability to express things correctly in a new language, or their inability to remember words when they need them, or to pronounce properly , or the fact that they freeze when they have to speak to a native speaker, this discosuragement is only building up tension and making learning more and more difficult.

I believe that the learner’s potential ability at a new language is usually far greater than what he or she actually achieves. Schwartz’s Four Steps may help the language learner. The Four Steps of the mindful language learner would be as folows:

Relabel by recognizing that the learning process is one of training the language fitness of the brain, rather than some hopeless struggle against a perceived inability to learn languages.

Reattribute by recognizing the need to develop new brain circuitry, taking advantage of the fact that the brain is known to be plastic throughout one’s adult life. Until the circuitry develops it is pointless to be disappointed at mistakes or less than perfect pronunciation or communication in the new language.

Refocus, away from a vain attempt to master the rules of grammar, or lists of words which one will inevitably forget. Instead focus on systematic and repetitive training based on meaningful content. Recognize that consistent effort will bring gradual improvement in the new language even if it seems that so much is contantly forgotten.

Revalue by enjoying whatever level of communication in the new language one is able to achieve. Look for enjoyable content and experiences in the new language. Make learning and using the language part of one continuum, where constant improvement and not perfection is the goal.

Send me your comments and questions directly. steve@thelinguist.com


The following from our Linguist Forum may be of interest. One of our learners, Assad, sent an MP3 file of him reading a text. This enabled our tutors to pick out areas to work on and provide the following recommendation on improving pronunciation.

Assad. I have listened to one of your sound files and attach the text with some of the key sounds you need to work on by going to The Linguist PRONOUNCE page.

The hyper relaxed Fockers and the tightly-wound Byrneses are woefully mismatched from the start, and no matter how hard Greg and Pam try, there is just no bringing their families together – which all adds up to a disastrously funny time of ‘getting to know you

1) Your ‘p’s and ‘t’s and ‘b’s need to be more aspirated. Breathe out as you say them.

2) Prounounce the endings of words more clearly. ‘ed’ gre’g’ etc.

3) Pronounce all words clearly. You leave out the odd ‘the’ and slur words together. As a learner you must enunciate even more distinctly than a native speaker. Once you have the pronunciation mastered you can afford to get sloppier, but not at this stage.

4) Wound is pronounced to rhyme with “cow” in this instance. Wound is pronounced to rhyme with “soon” when it means an injury.

5) Practice your intonation on our PRONOUNCE page by listening to sentences, recording your own voice and then comparing.

Spend 20-30 minutes a day on our PRONOUNCE page working on the individual sounds and sentences that are available as individual MP3 files there. Focus on sounds that cause you problems.

Then find a text in The Linguist library whose voice and intonation you like, listen over and over to a short portion of that text, then read the text aloud yourself many times, imitating the speaker. Then record yourself and compare. Learn to pick out the sounds that you are not pronouncing like the speaker. Work on those individual sounds at our PRONOUNCE page. Do this over and over.

Pronunciation improvement requires two things. 1) You must develop the ability to hear the difference between you and the native speaker. 2) You must practice making the sounds. Both take time and improvement is gradual but certainly achievable. Good luck!

More on vocabulary and learning

I read the following books on vocabulary, all published by


and purchased through Amazon:

Vocabulary in Language Teaching  by Jack Richards,

Learning Vocabulary in Another Language, by Paul Nation,

Vocabulary, Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy, by Schmitt and McCarthy.

There was much duplication of course. There were things I agreed with and things that I found somewhat academic or at least less relevant to the independent learner as opposed to the classroom learner. I am more interested in the independent learner, usually an adult.

I agree on is the need to focus on the first 2,000 high frequency words first. This can be done using graded readers, or a system like The Linguist where we offer a lot of conversations with transcripts as well as other easier content. Conversations are heavy to high frequency words. The Linguist content is gradually graded to each learner’s vocabulary level as the system discovers what each learner knows. It is interesting that the first 2000 words are over 60% of Anglo-Saxon origin, whereas thereafter the Latin and to a lesser extent Greek origin words dominate.

Plenty of repetitive reading and listening are important to absorb new words. Individual review of the words needs to accompany this massive input as in The Linguist system. Furthermore, writing is important in order to identify how these words, often only passively known, are used incorrectly.

The Academic Word List developed by Nation is an excellent and useful development and should be learned even before the first 2000 words are fully mastered. This helps the learner approach more serious and interesting subject matter for both reading and writing.

Thereafter the learner must pursue his or her interests in reading and listening. It is recommended to stay with a particular subject or interest for periods of concentration. I believe the distinction between intensive and extensive reading is overdone. There are so many words to learn that all reading needs to have at least 5% new words. The idea that it takes an immigrant 7 years to reach an academic level is simply too slow. The Linguist system, taking advantage of modern technology, speeds up the process considerably.

To learn a new language rapidly and with intensity requires massive input in a systematic way. When it comes to output (writing and speaking) a major issue is reducing anxiety so that the learner’s brain can create the new neural networks that will enable him/her to recall what h/she has learned and express concepts correctly and naturally in a new language. Here Jeffrey Schwartz’s book “The Mind and the Brain, Neuroplasticity and the power of mental force” has some interesting insights that we will be using at The Linguist.

I also feel that a learner should not make a distinction between written and spoken language in his/her language output. In this way writing becomes an effective quality control system for the entire learning process.

I will talk later about academic writing and the need to focus, not on superficial form issues like the topic sentence but on issues of logic, cause and effect, contrast, amplification etc. I will suggest that the ancient classical practice of rhetoric an be helpful especially to learners of English or other Western languages who are not natives speakers of Western languages.

I will also talk about testing later.