Opinion: Why is your English so good?
Evaluating classism behind standardized English proficiency tests
This article is an opinion piece and does not necessarily reflect the views of The Eagle and its staff.
As a Filipino international student residing in the U.S., I developed some morbid humor about being educated by my people’s colonizers. I almost laugh when I think about the pressure I grew up with to speak proper English at all times. Meanwhile, many of the native English speakers I’ve met since flying in still mix up “they’re,” “their” and “there.”
Nothing makes my blood boil more than being told, “Your English is so good!” Of course, it is. It needed to be. If I weren’t proficient in English, my application to graduate school would have never been considered.
At American University, only 12 percent of graduate students and 9 percent of undergraduate students enrolled in the fall 2021 semester are international students. One of AU’s requirements from international applicants is a test score from expensive, globally-recognized English proficiency exams like the Test of English as Foreign Language or the International English Language Testing System.
Thankfully, AU provides exemptions for applicants from certain countries, including the Philippines. Instead of TOEFL and IELTS test scores, I had to request a certificate from my undergraduate registrar saying that I was taught in English, a simple paper that cost less than $6. This saved me from spending at least $225 to take a test that proves I can speak English. If AU required me to do so, I would have given up my application from the start. There’s no way I’m paying to prove I can speak English.
For developing countries, English fluency is a sign of privilege. Sophie Zuluaga, a graduate at the Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines, grew up speaking English because, like many middle to upper-middle-class families, their parents believed it would give their children an advantage in the future. From a young age, Zuluaga was enrolled in private schools known for producing confident English speakers.
“Being an English speaker in the Philippines means you’re doing better than everyone else,” Zuluaga said. “Sheltered, even.”
The Philippines has two national languages: Filipino and English, owed to our American colonizers. While English is a mandatory subject in Filipino schools, it’s a common assumption that decent English speakers usually come from expensive private schools.
Of course, especially for developing countries like the Philippines, private education is a privilege most cannot afford. Being able to speak English is a status symbol. Tests like the TOEFL and the IELTS magnify the huge divide between classes — from the test price to the cost of quality education needed to pass. It reinforces the idea that only the rich can get good career opportunities because they have English skills.
“There is a lot of pressure to speak better English,” said Zuluaga, who works for a multinational company. “The prejudice from our English-speaking clients is very apparent, especially if you have a thick Filipino accent or worse, broken English. At its core, it really is a poverty issue.”
When there is pressure to excel in English to show academic and professional competence, what happens to those with the potential to excel but lack funds? Seeking better opportunities abroad becomes a steeper competition.
Public education in developing countries would produce globally-competitive graduates in a better world. English proficiency wouldn’t be a status symbol. Lower-income families wouldn’t have to scrape the bottom of the jar to ensure their child’s future in a system that’s already rigged to benefit the rich.
But that is not our world.
Are the TOEFL and IELTS still worth their price if they alienate lower-income students? Are they accurate measures of English proficiency? Higher education institutions should reevaluate the affordability of international applications and consider alternatives. No student should be deprived of better opportunities just because they don’t have the money to do so, especially if they need to pay to prove they can speak English just as well as their colonizers.
“Wow, your English is so good! I can barely hear your accent!”
That’s not the compliment people think it is. I don’t want to hear surprise and amazement. I don’t need to feel like my value is based on how “American” I sound. I’m sick of it and so are the rest of us.
Cieryl Sardool is a second-year graduate student in the School of Public Affairs.