What is “Competent English”?

What is “Competent English”?

“PR” is probably one of the abbreviations I have heard most since coming to Australia. Despite the fact that PR – “permanent residence” for the non-initiated – is the much-coveted subject of many conversations, I found out that it is extremely difficult to obtain. Recently, I received an email invitation to a Permanent Residency Information Session for international students at my university. Out of curiosity, I decided to join. The speaker was a lawyer working primarily in Australian immigration and citizenship law. He opened his speech by seriously reminding us, all international students obviously, not to believe any prediction on which academic major would enhance our chances of success when applying for PR. The rules keep changing, as he went on to say, and a major change came into effect this month.

I am particularly intrigued by the fact that the required IETLS test scores have been raised. A band score 6 average, “Competent English,” earns a hopeful applicant 0 points towards PR; at band score 7, “Proficient English,” is worth 10 points, and band score 8, “Superior English,” is valued at 20 points. When the audience collectively gasped at these high scores, the lawyer blithely informed us that some Australians would not be able to obtain a band score 6.

Right now I am happy with my student visa but if I ever were to wish to stay in Australia after my studies, I would have to apply for a general skilled migration visa and take another IELTS test. However, what does doing well on IELTS actually say about my English competence? Coming from Taiwan, I’ve obviously passed the language requirement to study here and obtained an IELTS score of 7.5 prior to admission. Even so, I am finding it hard to claim that I have “competent” English, let alone “Superior English,” of which I’m officially only 0.5 IELTS points short.

Does my tested and certified English enable me to confidently deal with every aspect of daily life here in Sydney? No. For example, I have to endeavor to improve my academic English for my study by reading, conjecturing, memorizing, and practicing the formal academic English genre and fighting with numerous elusive vocabulary items along the way. In three years, I will be expected to produce a PhD thesis which reads as if it had been written by a native speaker of English.

In addition to higher degree research, I, as every other overseas student, need to deal with daily life involving interactions with many different people who speak with various accents and with different levels of proficiency. I regularly read rental ads with grammatical errors; I rented a room from an immigrant landlord who spoke hardly any English, and now I share a unit with other overseas students. I make phone calls to ask information about things like health insurance, medical treatment, or driver’s license and each time I have to deal with different operators who speak too fast with all kinds of different accents and sometimes mysterious ways of explaining things. I have also been trying hard to make local friends by learning some Australianisms (in Taiwan we are expected to learn American English) and by trying to figure out interesting topics for young people (from Cricket to MasterChef). Of course, I am trying to figure all this out without asking too many questions so as not to bore or scare away potential friends.

In sum, there seems a large gap between the English I learned from textbooks and teaching materials and which enabled me to score relatively highly on the IELTS tests, and the English I am encountering in real life in this multicultural and multilingual country, which is supposed to be English-speaking.

However, after having worked hard to study, to overcome everyday problems, and to learn a lot about Australian English as well as all kinds of other Englishes, overseas students who would like to stay in Australia after graduation are being sent back to Square One. To apply for PR they will once again face the official view of their language competence. Once again they will have to sit an IELTS test, a test that is very much about the so-called Standard English that is found in textbooks and teaching materials. From a language perspective, it’s hard not to wonder what the point of studying in Australia is then? What does this Australian experience bring us in terms of English competence if everything I am learning here is not valued should I ever want to settle in this country? Because I could just as easily learn what IS valued – standard English as expressed in an IELTS score – back home in Taiwan.

Author Grace Chu-Lin Chang

Receiving a 2011 Endeavour PhD Postgraduate Award from the Australian Government to fund her research, Grace now holds a PhD degree in Linguistics from Macquarie University in Sydney. Building upon her experiences in student services as an English teacher, a student affairs coordinator, a translator and a researcher, Grace devotes herself to cross-cultural communication and social participation of transnationals.

More posts by Grace Chu-Lin Chang
  • khan

    Dear Grace Chu-Lin Chang,

    Wonderful post. Looking forward to reading more from you.


  • Jean Cho

    Thanks Grace for such an insightful posting! Last year, I was required to present IELTS scores to do PhD at Macquarie, because I didn’t have any overseas academic qualifications to evidence my English competence. They simply disregarded the fact that I had taught at an Australian university for 5 years and Ingrid and I worked so hard to convince them that my English was sufficient to pursue a higher-degree. We lost the fight and I had to sit the test to prove my English skills through “official” methods… The whole process took about 4 months and I cannot help but wonder what my 5-year teaching experiences in Australia mean…

  • Dariush Izadi

    Excellent blog, grace!
    If IELTS is a standard test and claims to set the “Standard”, why is it that the candidates I know take the test first to get rid of the formality and then strive to improve their real English! As a nonnative speaker of English, I had to take the test twice and the outcome of my first attempt was much better than that of my second one, though I had been living in an English speaking country for about a year at the time of my second attempt! In addition, although IELTS is used as an entry requirement to demonstrate English Language proficiency for universities and as a requirement for immigration purposes, research into IELTS writing (Academic Modules, 1&2) and speaking shows that the topics in IELTS are not in line with those of university assignments! (Chalhoub-Deville, M. 1995: Deriving oral assessment scales across different tests and rater groups. Language Testing, 16–33). By the way, what is meant by “competent English”? Oh, let’s take the test and then figure it out!

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