But Can You Speak English?

One of the first requirements for Rebecca to get her New Zealand Nursing License and to get a work visa was to prove proficiency and competency in the English language. This required her to take a standardized English test termed the International English Language Testing System (IELTS), which is administered throughout the world. Fortunately there was a center in Denver, Colorado, some 60 miles (we had not yet begun measuring distance in kilometers) from our house. The test would be given in one month’s time and consisted of four parts: listening, reading, writing and speaking. Having been born and raised here, I had no doubt Rebecca would do fine on the reading, writing and speaking portions. Particularly the speaking portion, as my son had once pointed while he was still at a young age, “She’s a talker.”

My only doubts about Rebecca’s ability concerned the listening portion of the test, having been in a fair number of heated arguments with my beloved wife over the years. And, of course, I took in on myself to remind Rebecca of this. And added that was also what our couple’s therapist had also said several years earlier. Albeit, it did seem unlikely that the listening portion would consist of Rebecca having to listen to a man complaining about her disinclination to use her turn indicator when driving. In return, Rebecca suggested that if I were not cautious—hey, we might be meeting with that same marital therapist again shortly.

But after all, how hard could this English test be? This test was designed to show competency by people who had never spoken English as their native language. Surely Rebecca would clean up. Almost as an afterthought, we decided to look at some of the on-line practice materials. For the reading portion, there was a sample essay. It concerned, yes, dung beetles after which one had to answer questions. The essay began—

“Introducing dungbeetles into a pasture is a simple process: approximately 1,500 beetles are released, a handful at a time, into fresh cow pats in the cow pasture. The beetles immediately disappear beneath the pats digging and tunneling and, if they successfully adapt to their new environment, soon become a permanent, self-sustaining part of the local ecology. In time they multiply and within three or four years the benefits to the pasture are obvious.” Then there were some diagrams.

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Yikes, this looked pretty hard. Despite having essentially lived her entire life here except for a brief eight-year sojourn on Caribbean cruise ships (another story), my wife began to doubt her test-taking ability. And that was only the reading portion. One could only fear that at some crucial point in the speaking portion, a lapse in grammar might occur, and torpedo the whole process.

“I wants to move to New Zealand.”

“Well, it does not appear that will be occurring,” the testor might respond.

The test was to be four to five hours in length. She decided to order the sample practice test materials. Perhaps even the CD. One can’t be too careful.

As an aside, I was curious about the requirements for applying for a work visa in the United States. Here in the United States I had been rehabbing houses for the past few years. Often I would hire subcontractors to complete a portion of the work. Invariably a large group of Hispanic workers—illegal aliens, can I say that—would be brought in to do the job.

Attempting to speak to any of the workers would lead nowhere. This was before the radio would be brought in and cranked up to a horrific level, which would end any possibility of conversation and also be my signal to leave. Do all Mexican songs sound exactly the same or is it just me?

Before the radio, when I would try to talk to the workers, they would just stare at me. Or sometimes just nod. I would even try to use some of my Mexican-resort Spanish which mostly consisted of pleasantries and other phrases ill-suited for the construction industry. ¿A que hora necessitamos salir nuestro quarto por el aeropuerto? (At what time do we need to leave our room for the airport?)

Obviously these workers hadn’t been required to pass the IELTS as a requirement at their entry point into the country. No border station midway across the Rio Grande, no checkpoint halfway through the tunnel leading to San Diego, no rest area stop to verify fluency in the sardine-packed truck ride.

Just for the fun of it, on reviewing the US’s visa requirements, I also came across this passage.

                              Speak for Yourself

Do not bring parents or family members with you to the interview. The consular officer wants to interview you, not your family. A negative impression is created if you are not prepared to speak on your on own behalf.

Needless to say, I concurred. Whether interviewing for a visa in the United States or in another country, I could see no benefit in my mother-in-law, Rebecca’s mother, being brought in and speaking.

Rebecca left me a note a few days ago. It said, “Runny late. Be home for dinner.” Runny late. And this was the one that all our hopes and dreams, our very future, rested on to pass the English test.

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