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Culture in “Language” Tests
By the way, culture being a key element of “language” Tests is not unique to IELTS whatsoever. One study question for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) in a Japanese-language study guide concerns what to say when a customer calls a corporation’s customer support help desk.
For this comprehension question, the essay described what to say, and what not to say, to a customer calling a help desk. If you say, “I’ll have an answer for you in ten minutes,” and you take twenty minutes, the customer will be upset. Similarly, if you say, “I’ll have an answer for you in thirty minutes,” and you take thirty minutes, the customer gets much more anxious between 20 and 30 minutes while on the phone, so even being on time feels late to the customer. On the other hand, if you say “It’ll take 30 minutes” and you reply after 15 minutes, the customer may think you were deceptive by claiming it would take so long and that you are not being completely honest.
Therefore, the essay went, you should tell the customer “It will take some time to get back to you.” The Japanese for “some time” can imply anywhere between 30 minutes to an entire week. While it is obviously better to answer sooner rather than later, this vagueness avoids making any promises you cannot keep.
Now, understand that this is a cultural decision. What is true for Japanese culture may be dramatically incorrect for American culture. Americans want specificity, and they want the best effort possible, so specificity may be far better than vagueness. Also, while it is more convenient for the help desk responder to be vague to a Japanese customer, this should not be mistaken for the customer being happy. Taking a week to get back to him may not get you yelled at, but the customer will not be pleased, even if he keeps that to himself!
Thus, the answer is an answer appropriate to the culture of Japan. Even though technically, the question was about “language comprehension,” the culture is what needs to be understood.Here, the (Japanese) language is merely the tool we use to understand the cultural question.
As a linguist, I can tell you the difference between a language and a culture. However, the people who create these tests do not recognize any difference; and, even if they did, they would argue that the difference is completely unimportant. They would argue that a language test should test a person in the culture, because it is the culture in addition to the language that will allow a person to fully and properly function in society.
In this example, the society is Japanese society. However, I will demonstrate in future entries how the IELTS test is full of cultural background (a less kind would be to say “baggage”). Knowledge of the culture behind these questions is extremely valuable – and moreover, learning about culture will keep your mind focused. This way, your English language skills will also improve, even without your being consciously aware of the process.
Thanks for reading.