I speak English, and I can prove it

One of my prized possessions after having lived in the UK for five years now is a “Pass Notification Letter” which I received on 30th October 2007 when I sat for the Life in the UK Test administered by the Border and Immigration Service of the Home Office. The letter states:

Following your test today in knowledge of life in the United Kingdom this is to certify that you have reached the level required for the purposes of obtaining indefinite leave to remain – Your success in this test also demonstrates that your level of competence in English meets the required standard for naturalisation or indefinite leave to remain. No further proof of this is needed.

I had to sit the test because my work permit ended on 10th November and I wanted to apply for “indefinite leave to remain”, ie. permanent residence (rather than apply for a further 5 year work permit extension). Since April this year everyone applying to stay in the UK or become a naturalised citizen has to sit and pass the test, or else take a certified ESOL course. The test is administered by computer and has 24 questions that must be answered within 45 minutes – a pass of at least 75% is required. I bought a Life in the UK Test Study Guide (which says on the cover it is “the essential study guide for British citizenship & settlement tests, over 100,000 copies sold”) for £7.99 and boned up on the five chapters (A Changing Society, UK Today: A Profile, How the United Kingdom is Governed, Everyday Needs, Employment) and took the 10 sample tests in the back. Feeling apprehensive but somewhat prepared I paid my £34 fee and joined 25 other hopeful applicants in the basement of my local registered test centre where we were shouted at by a Test Authoriser that we were “under examination conditions – if anyone looks at another person’s computer screen they will be removed from the test room, reported immediately to the Home Office for cheating which is sufficient grounds for deportation”. Thanks, just what we all needed. Anyway, I managed to answer enough questions correctly and passed.
So what does the test actually test?

Well the questions I was asked, and the sample ones in my book, show that you need to be able to:

  1. process negation, especially double negation, eg: “The only country in the UK which does not have a representative parliament is Northern Ireland — TRUE/FALSE”
  2. understand specialist vocabulary and idioms, eg: “Scottish banknotes circulate as legal tender in England – TRUE/FALSE”
  3. manipulate numbers and do mathematical operations, eg: “What proportion of UK children do not live in two-parent families?” (The study guide book tells you that 65% of children live in two-parent families, 25% in single-parent families, and 10% in step-parent families, so you either have to be able to add 25+10 or subtract 100-65 to get the correct answer of 35%).
  4. memorise a bunch of statistics, eg: “What is the distance from Land’s End to John O’Groats?” (see also (3) above)
  5. memorise a bunch of facts that the test makers think are important, eg: the names and celebration dates of the patron saints of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and whether these dates are public holidays or not.

Whether any of this actually tests what you need to know in order to live here successfully or whether it demonstrates that you have a functional level of English seems rather questionable. I tried out sample questions on a number of UK citizens born in England and none of them could answer correctly.
Australia, in its usual fashion, has copied Britain (and Canada and the US) and is introducing its own “Australian Citizenship Test” – you can take a sample test to determine “if you deserve to be an Aussie” by answering questions like “Give three Australian colloquialisms for swimming suit”. At least the UK test doesn’t include questions about slang! The Australian test has apparently brought forth a range of opinions, if this story in the Daily Telegraph and the 41 comments it aroused are anything to go by.
Having passed the test, gone to Birmingham twice for interviews, and parted with £950 in fees I am now the proud possessor of a permanent resident visa in my passport – but the best part is I can now prove I speak English proper.
PS. For those who are interested, the question in (1) above is false – it is England that lacks its own parliament, while question (2) is true, though you sometimes have trouble convincing your local off licence owner that it is.

6 thoughts on “I speak English, and I can prove it”

  1. Peter, colleagues here at UCL who’ve done earlier versions of this test tell me that they were warned that there’d be ‘dire consequences’ if they revealed the test questions. 🙂

  2. Adam, actually the particular questions I cited are all in the study guide sample tests – my group too were warned about the knock on the door in the night if we revealed which of the 400 questions in the computer system we had been asked. Thanks for pointing out this additional aspect of the testing system.

  3. Pity the poor ESOL tutors who are supposed to know all of this information to teach students in their Citizenship classes!

  4. Thanks for this. An experience amusingly told but which has serious points. Some of us in the UK teaching ESOL students can testify to how important this test is for those students. They don’t have the L2 skills to pass the test. Can’t really afford to pay the test fees. Yet stubbornly they persist. I guess the point I’m making is how limited ability in a dominant language can exclude some from ‘official’ acceptance into a supposedly multicultural society.

  5. Thanks for the great information about Life in the UK test, what is your opinion about the recently planned introduction of staged tests for British citizenship?

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