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The Good Power of Official Language Exams

language-testing-officialLanguage learners have regularly been told (also by me) to do what they love, use the language in an enjoyable way and to aim for foreign languages that motivate them to meet people. This remains true – but recent news that reached me make me wonder about the future of more formal language study. What good are state language exams – and why should you care about them even if you’re just learning a language for yourself?

1. I’ve seen the future of language learning, it is gloomy

Every week I get angry and shout at my newsletters.
Recently, the news that make me mad are related to languages: they don’t get sufficient funding here in the UK. That’s old story: lately, several new voices were added to this narrative. The news that reached me lately are about language exams: Polish is about to be scrapped, and ancient Greek may no longer be available at a local school that always stood for inclusive and ambitious learning.
Why does this matter exactly?

2. Language exams and the big picture

I repeat one thing on this blog quite often: language learning is political. Multilingual countries fare better. And the tendency to reduce the language diversity of a country is rarely productive, or just, or even doable. It is worth thinking about it: should you aim to live in a multilingual country?
For any education system, state exams are some of the most important signals that can be sent and interpreted. If you fund and support a state exam in your country, then the subject is considered relevant. And if there’s no funding – no support – then the message (in these “interesting” economic times) is that “there’s no future for this subject.”
It is very hard to predict the future of education (listen to Sir Ken Robinson telling you this…over, and over again). And people who have jobs in education are sometimes the worst people to predict those.
Official state exams in foreign languages are, in my opinion, the best signal you can send to learners at home, and visitors abroad. It means your country is listening, and speaking in a number of voices, about a number of perspectives.
But there’s another aspect of a formal language exam that interests me too.

3. Language exams and the personal perspective

Why should you care about it? You, personally – a single language learner, sometimes a visitor to a country whose language you study – sometimes with several things on your mind apart from the foreign languages?
There are lots of reasons to take an officially recognized language test. Let me just focus on three of them:
They tend to test the right stuff. There are common frameworks which today influence most language exams. These are built on “can-do” statements – so by taking a language test, you’re likely to see how much you can use your new language for.
They tend to help you learn. Practice testing has been reported to support good learning. So when you learn for a test and you do some quizzes beforehand – your foreign language gets better, and is more likely to stay better.
They tend to motivate people. This will not work for everyone: sometimes all you want to do is lots of talk, fun and games in a foreign language! But if you’re motivated by deadlines, rewards, projects and high stakes, then studying for an official language exam may be just the thing you need for your language study.

4. Bringing it all together: become a state superhero

And just like that, you have a recipe to increase your awesomeness. You’re already a language learner, or at least a multilingual wannabe – but now you can do more.
You can learn better, learn the right stuff and learn with more motivation thanks to an officially recognized state exam.
And if you do that, you will be helping a country talk, listen and communicate better – going beyond the “one official language” system that makes things, well, boring.
Do you fancy giving it a go? Let me know how you could go about it – I’m very attentive on Twitter, lately 🙂

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