As an English tutor, I like to present contrasts. By using “Vs.” (versus), I define a word or phrase not by what it is, but what it is not. This is often the easier and better method by far.


In this case, I am presenting a contrast between helping you “with your English” and helping “with a test,” such as the IELTS (International English Language Testing System), a four-part test used to test English for immigration purposes, and separately, for suitability to attend an English-language university. (The test was originally designed for the second purpose: suitability for unviersity.) IELTS is used by the United Kingdom (U.K.), Canada, and Australia.

You may think that the part I had in brackets ( ) above is an insignificant detail. It is not.

As I reviewed questions used for the speaking portion of IELTS, I quickly saw that these are “hot button” questions among English native speaker teachers and professors in British Commonwealth countries in particular, and more broadly, across the entire English-speaking world. They are questions that any teacher of English or Social Studies would be expected to be extremely familiar with. They are current issues involving, in many cases, political questions about the proper direction society should take.

These are not just questions about language. They are questions testing your familiarity with the culture of education in these countries.

This is why I say that there is a difference between helping you with your English, and helping you with the test. In this case, the test is the IELTS, but the principle is the same: for the test, you need to know more than just English to guarantee success. You need to be aware of the cultural assumptions behind the test questions. You need to know the context of the test.

Even if an individual tester is a saint among men (or women) and attempts to test you according to your language

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alone, the real world of English education, or the English-language workplace, is not so pure. The listener’s conscious and subconscious biases do play a role in his/ her judgment of whether or not you are using good English. It is very possible that giving an answer that the listener finds too strange, or radical, will be interpreted as “oh, you must not have understood the question, it must be a problem with your English fluency,” even if this is absolutely not the case. I fear that you might innocently answer these questions in a very literal manner and not have any regard for what the tester wants to hear, because unfortunately, in the real world, understanding what the listener wants to hear is a very important part of communicating.

In general, you have to understand the limits of your listener. Telling him something that is either a) too much, too fast, or b) totally outside what your listener wants to hear, will result in failure. The listener will probably blame you for being a poor speaker or for having a wrong argument, even if you spoke well and are absolutely correct.

The world will not change for my convenience, or for yours, but we can do our best to work within the limits imposed upon us. This means presenting to you the cultural background of questions that you might otherwise be facing without warning.

The reason for this is simple. The speaking component of IELTS is intended to grade you on your ability to use English to make arguments and to express your thoughts clearly and coherently, both for things you are familiar with, and things you are not familiar with. However, appearing to be familiar with everything is very much a good thing, demonstrating command of not only the English language itself, but the education culture behind it. Since the IELTS questions come from English native speaker teachers and professors to begin with, this is how to demonstrate authoritative knowledge and linguistic competence.

In other words, this is how you sound smart, and sounding smart is a good thing here.