I eat chicken, I have a wife: Survival English

We have picked up side work by helping proctor English exams for government employees, students, and any one wishing to further their English skills. This came about through Joe’s work and like several events in Viet Nam, we are informed casually or in passing or sometimes with not much notice/no notice at all about something going on. The first time, with two days notice, we were excitedly asked to help proctor an examination with additional pay. We thought “why not?” We are still new and it would be a good way to make a positive impression. It would be on a Sunday at 1:00pm and someone would walk us through the whole process. On Saturday evening we received a call from a colleague indicating Joe’s divisional director wants us there at 6:45am to observe the entire examination process. Eek. Our weekend quickly turned in to work (remember when we mentioned our workaholic colleagues).

The exam is ranked in two tiers (B1 and B2) and candidates sit for a listening, reading, and lastly, oral component. It is our understanding that candidates must reach the minimum score in B1 in order to remain employed even though they may not need English for their day-to-day tasks. Nearly everyone gets the minimum and a fair amount reach a B2. One can certainly understand why this exam causes a lot of anxiety. Our co-examiners informed us that each examinee has the option of choosing Chinese, Khmer, or English; but most choose English.

The teaching part: The hardest part of the exam, and the hardest area to cheat is the oral component. It is the area we are most desired for our native English. While one might initially think that provides an advantage I believe it does the opposite. First, they all seem to be surprised and then nervous when they have to speak in front of native English speakers. It is amusing watching them walk up to the chairs then realize one of the them will be in front of the Westerner and they make a dash for the other chair. Aside from us looking different, I think it is harder for them because they are used to hearing English from non-native speakers and they are used to hearing words pronounced with a heavy accent. On numerous occasions both Justine and I say a phrase slowly and clearly and they look at us with panic. Our co-examiner repeats the same thing, but with an accent, and they understood what she said. Overall, the exam has some flaws and most candidates do not need English to do their jobs. At times, Justine and I have both felt like apologizing because the highly experienced and competent engineer or medical doctor is struggling to muster up a few coherent phrases in English.

As most candidates do not know English and likely spend more time trying to memorize their lines rather than actually learn them, we also get to experience some amusing moments. First, I find it funny when a secondary English teacher actually knows very little English and the co-examiner (almost always an English professor at the University) calls them out on it. The opposite is also true. Sometimes, the candidate speaks very well, perhaps better than the co-examiner, and I get the feeling the co-examiner is maybe a bit jealous as their score seems disproportionately low to their ability. The most enjoyable part is catching a key word or phrase that is repeated by most of the candidates. Someone taught them what to say but that someone did not always teach them correctly.

Here is the Oral Exam: They receive a piece of paper that has directions for us as examiners and then a small picture scenario that asks them to discuss options. Two people at a time have five minutes to prepare the discussion between themselves. Then, they come up alphabetically to introduce themselves, have a 3-5 minute discussion on an assigned topic (usually lasts one minute), and then have to individually answer five questions from a set list. Usually the discussion about the picture, regardless of the actual picture, goes something like this:

I think _____ is good. Do you agree with me?

Yes. very good. I agree with you. But I think ____ is better. Do you agree with me?

This occurs until they’ve commented on every picture in the discussion; almost never answering the discussion question itself. Justine frequently asks what they determined was the best and some answer, some answer exceptionally by saying why it is the best option, and most say it is good.  Sometimes, it doesn’t work out for them. One example that I enjoy thoroughly is below:

Discussion question: What after school activity should the students do? Review pictures and discuss which is best.

I think table tennis is good. Do you agree with me?

Yes.  I CAN NOT agree with you anymore but I also think that King’s Chess is good. Do you agree with me?

Yes. I agree but I cannot agree with you anymore. Very good. But I think art class is better….

Oops. When I first heard this I thought “maybe the are having a discussion in which they disagree on which choice they like best” After all pairs that day said the same thing I knew it wasn’t true. In fact I was puzzled by the disagreeing agreement. I later realized after discussing with Justine that they were trying to say “I couldn’t agree more” or maybe trying to say “I cannot agree with you anymore…. than I already do” Nonetheless, it has given us some comic relief through the examinations.

The learning part: While I find some of the expressions amusing, I am also fully aware that the broken, copied, or incorrect attempts at speaking English is still better than my Vietnamese. We struggle with the exams because we don’t find it necessary for them to take it if they do not ever need nor want it for their professions, however, we also become exhausted by the process. For some, it’s incredibly valuable and validating for them, but for others it’s stressful and exhausting. We understand that pain, too.

Justine and I have also started taking Vietnamese classes and can understand the complete overwhelming sensation of hopelessness in learning a new language. For instance, on the first night of the class, after we went through the alphabet, Justine was called on to stand up and repeat it back to the teacher in front of everyone. Panic stricken, she stood up and fumbled her way through it. Then the next student and then the next and so on. Of course, it’s all fun and games until I was called. Every Monday and Wednesday we begrudgingly go to class, and afterwards, we’re thankful that we are taking the time to do it. Learning Vietnamese has been a rewarding part of our time; but more importantly, it’s a commitment to immersing ourselves truly in our new environment and culture. We know it’s important because we can see how joyful the street vendors, restaurant workers, and our coworkers are when we can string some Vietnamese words together to form a semi-coherent sentence. They see it as a sign of respect for their lives and that’s important to us. Making fools of ourselves is a small price to pay to show our new community that we care.

*We don’t have any pictures of the examination because it doesn’t seem ethical to us. Just imagine 30 people staring at us in utter confusion and us trying to make them feel less nervous.

 

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