Note to ESL learners: This article about the IELTS speaking test contains a lot of complex vocabulary words. Some of them are written more than once. Many of these words are underlined, and this means that you can place your mouse/cursor over a word to see its definition. Try to check a definition only when a word stops you from understanding the whole sentence you are reading.
A few months ago, I had the privilege of teaching English at the College of Language and Culture Studies (CLCS) in the beautiful and remote country of Bhutan. While I was there, I also had the opportunity to teach an IELTS speaking workshop for the college’s English lecturers. The experience was incredible, and – as is the usually the way with intercultural opportunities – I learned a heck of a lot more from my students and colleagues than they did from me.
In general, the Bhutanese are friendly, inclusive and community-focused people who place great importance on cultivating relationships. Having previously spent time in Bhutan, I knew this but did not think it would have any bearing on the workshop I had been tasked with: teaching IELTS-specific speaking strategies to my colleagues. I couldn’t have been more wrong!
The IELTS Speaking Test Workshop
On the day of my workshop, I began with a quick summary of each section of the speaking test, starting with the “introduction/interview” component. In the first part of the speaking test, the IELTS examiner will “get to know you” by asking several questions about you. In addition, they will briefly interview you about one topic relating to your life (e.g. “What is your hometown like?” “How many people live there?” etc.) To get a sense of everyone’s level for this task, I broke my colleagues into pairs and assigned each person the role of interviewer or interviewee. It was up to the interviewer to ask the interviewee about themselves in the same way an IELTS examiner would on the real test.
Let me just preface this by saying that the introduction/interview part of the speaking test is supposed to take four or five minutes in total. My Bhutanese interviewees lasted less than two minutes. As the room fell silent around me while my timer was still obediently ticking down the minutes, I felt a wave of panic. Had my colleagues misunderstood the exercise? Had I poorly explained the time limit and made it seem like it was optional? I was dazed for a moment, but then someone spoke up: “Madame, we Bhutanese are not so used to talking about ourselves like this”.
The statement hit me like a ton of bricks, as did the realization that I had completely ignored a fundamental piece of Bhutanese culture; the Bhutanese almost never talk about themselves. You want to talk about the road conditions, the weather or your wife’s delicious cooking? You got it. But if you ask a Bhutanese person how their life is going, they usually re-direct the conversation away from themselves.
Why? Because the Bhutanese are careful not to be too proud, boastful or arrogant, and talking excessively about yourself can be seen as a demonstration of such traits. In a country that is built on modesty, public-service and collectivism, how could I possibly expect my colleagues to abandon their cultural values so easily?
It was at that moment that I understood just how much easier it is to succeed on the IELTS speaking test when you come from a culture that values individualism. With individualism comes a sort of forced extraversion in which people are encouraged talk openly and often, using themselves as the reference point for the world around them.
Generally, individualism and extraversion are part and parcel of Western culture. But here is the thing: IELTS takers very rarely come from a Western context. As a matter of fact, a substantial proportion of test-takers come from traditionally collectivist cultures such as India, Bangladesh and the Philippines.
Having said that, here is the other thing: English is not just a language. It’s the representation of a culture, one in which individualism and extraversion are both valued and encouraged. It is imperative for us to teach this concept to IELTS hopefuls before they take the test. If IELTS tutors aren’t aware of a test-taker’s cultural background and its inevitable differences to our own, we will fail our students time and time again.
The road is often difficult and frustrating for newcomers to Western countries, and everything begins with an arbitrary English proficiency exam that is riddled with hidden cultural assumptions. It’s our responsibility to explain these assumptions, just as much as we teach the fundamentals of language proficiency.
What do collectivists need to know about the IELTS speaking test?
IELTS Speaking Part 1
If you come from a culture that places emphasis on community harmony, it’s important to know that you will not be judged for talking about yourself on the IELTS speaking test. IELTS assesses your English proficiency based how well you can express yourself when speaking about a topic that relates to you. It’s crucial to practice talking about your personal experiences, background, goals and so forth so that you aren’t going to run out of things to say to your interviewer! Five minutes is a long time when you have nothing to say.
IELTS Speaking Part 2
If you come from a storytelling culture, you probably need to practice keeping your sentences short and concise. In part 2 of the speaking test, you have two minutes to read a topic on a card and make notes. You must then speak about the topic consistently for 1-2 minutes. In my workshop, I thought this task would be no problem for my colleagues because Bhutan is a nation built on storytelling; in fact it’s not uncommon for someone to spend hours presenting a single point in a workplace meeting! However, I quickly realized that this style of expression does not necessarily translate well to the IELTS criteria.
In Dzongkha (Bhutan’s national language), you almost always express one idea many different ways and, in addition, you must constantly communicate your respect if you are talking to someone with (any!) authority. In fact, a request that is not prefaced by at least five minutes of polite conversation could be considered quite disrespectful. Although I really enjoyed receiving class assignments from my students that began with the salutation “Dearest most respected and appreciated Madame”, I also had to explain to them that English is a language of “getting to the point”.
This applies when it comes to your IELTS presentation too; you must speak in an organized fashion that includes an introductory sentence, key points and a concluding sentence, and you must be careful not to dwell too much on a single point, as you have only 2 minutes to cover every point written on your card.
IELTS Speaking Part 3
If you come from a culture that traditionally “lives in the moment”, you may need to work on developing your abstract side. Western culture places a lot of importance on what we consider to be “critical thinking, in which individuals consider abstract ideas from different perspectives. Part 3 of the IELTS speaking test employs this concept and requires test-takers to discuss several abstract questions about the topic they presented in part 2. For example, if the topic was “Describe a friend from childhood”, you might be asked “What does friendship mean to you?” or “What does it mean to be a good friend”?
In Bhutan, most people live gloriously in the moment. The future is rarely discussed, and pre-made plans almost never work out because more important things come up at the last minute. This mentality creates a context of concreteness where everyday conversations revolve a lot around what is happening “right now” in the physical world.
Thus, some of my colleagues had difficulty discussing abstract ideas like the “meaning” of friendship at length– and often chose to give concrete examples from their daily lives instead (i.e. “For me, a good friend is someone who calls me every day”). While this approach is certainly not “wrong”, it usually doesn’t take long to describe the concrete aspects of an idea, and therefore many people will run out things to say long before their time is up.
In order to succeed in Part 3, it’s important to practice speaking about intangible ideas like emotions, thoughts and values. For example: “For me, a good friend is someone who displays loyalty to me and listens to me when nobody else will”.
For more IELTS speaking test tips, check out the video Jay made after he recently took IELTS himself!
* Check out the full E2 IELTS YouTube channel for more IELTS tips, methods and strategies.
Overall, I want to emphasize that just because test-takers will benefit from learning the cultural assumptions of the IELTS speaking test, it doesn’t mean that one approach to communication is “better” than another; one is not “right” and the other “wrong”. Rather, it’s important to recognize that there are significant differences in how we use language to communicate based on the cultural norms we have adopted.
The IELTS speaking test was created by native English speakers with the intention of measuring “English proficiency”, and it would seem that Western cultural values are integral to this definition of proficiency. Thus, IELTS caters well to extraverted individualists, and I think it’s important for test-takers to know this in order to succeed.
But don’t worry, you don’t have to magically transform into something you’re not. You just need to adopt some strategies to help you meet the test requirements. That’s where we can help you out! Sign up to an E2Language IELTS preparation course and let us show you how to maximize your IELTS speaking success on the first try.
Written by Kaia Myers-Stewart.