On Turned Tables and Language Tests

~ Dunking Drake ~The police car speeds into the courtyard as though the people inside of it have just witnessed a shooting. The police leap out of the car and sprint into the building. There are about 25 people watching this happen. The police come out a moment later with a Vietnamese woman who is roughly the build, height, and perceived threat of a turkey sandwich on rye.

Now, we all know how dangerous and harmful tiny Vietnamese women can be, but this arrest seems a bit unusual. This is mainly because we are at a university building taking a Czech language test, as was the woman they just hauled away. The rest of us wonder if we will be arrested if we fail, or maybe she’s made some enormous #2 pencil faux pas.

All of us are foreigners, as in not Czech. To calm myself I put them into animal groups based on one of the member’s resemblance to an animal. Even after the arrest, there remains a Venue of Vietnamese; there is a Dray of Ukrainians, and a Knab of Russians. There are two Americans, we are a Raft.

Up until now we’ve done the listening, reading and writing sections of the test. And while the examiners grade those sections we are having a break. Depending on our score, we will either be invited to take the speaking section or told something like: “I’m sorry, go home.” Or, maybe, be arrested. Everyone is nervously gathering in their small herds conversing in a variety of languages under waterfalls of sweat. There is a certain Ellis Island atmosphere, but with fewer newsboy caps and more cell phones.

We have to take the Czech language test in order to attain our permanent residency in the Czech Republic.

If you are one of my students, then you are now laughing. And here’s why: I have been teaching non-native English speakers to take Cambridge English language tests for, oh, a decade. This includes test taking strategies, grammar and skills. I am a stickler for test strategies, organization and follow through. Now, today, the tables are turned. Sort of like that Twilight Zone episode when the SS guard gets stuck in his own camp. This irony takes shape more after the arrest.

Besides the Vietnamese woman, we go back to our room and await our results. After sitting a few minutes in tense quiet, an administrator comes in and calls out a few people’s names, telling them to follow her with a sympathetic look that barely conceals the smile beneath. It’s like something I imagine happening in a Shirley Jackson story. The people follow her out and the rest of us stare at each other.

She comes back and begins speaking at a speed that suggests that she has no idea we are there to take a low-level language test. The words fly out of her mouth with such speed that I am convinced this is part of the test. She leaves the room again, only to come back a second later and wave us to follow her; we did not understand her order the first time. As we stand there is an audible groan of annoyance. I step off with her and promise Samantha (the bikini clad language test deity) that if I pass, I will now take a breath in between syllables in words I utter to a second language English speaker.

The good news is that I have passed the first part and therefore I am allowed to take the speaking part.

We wait in the hallway, it’s warm and we are called in by number; I am #3. Everyone is sweating like me and I consider that I should take tests more often. One of the Ukrainians (#1) comes out, she’s smiling and we ask her how it was. Her dad gives her a hug, the rest of us say good job and pat her on the back.

A young Vietnamese girl (#2) comes out and we give her a laugh and shake her hand, she smiles as though she has just won a non-Shirley Jackson lottery.

I step in, they sit me down. There is one interlocutor, two assessors. There are a couple of questions about my job, my house and then:

“Nemáte děti?” Do you have any kids?
“Doufám, že ne.” I hope not.

Raucous laughter sounds the same in any language.

I step out and a couple of the Vietnamese girls (#11 & #4) laugh at me and the Ukrainian contingent is smiling, one of the women (#9) says “Gratuluji.” They have obviously heard the laughter. I wait as the rest go in and we slap them on the back and laugh with them as they come out one by one.

At the end of the day, they call us all into an office where the administrator goes into another machine gun language fest, but all of us jolt with happiness as we pick out one word from her rant:

“Gratuluji vám.” Congratulations.

This is the upside, I figure, the part I have never gotten to enjoy being the teacher – the actual success of passing the test. I leave to hold a solo celebration in the form of pork products and a malted beverage. It was a good day.

And at least I didn’t get arrested.

  1. #1 by Andy on May 29, 2013 - 10:18 pm

    Congrats! I hope your students enjoyed hearing about the tables being turned for a change.

    A belated “Go-bots and the 101st!” to you, my friend!

  2. #2 by Viťa on June 2, 2013 - 11:45 pm

    I certainly did 🙂

  3. #3 by Nik on June 8, 2013 - 11:27 pm

    haha, me too! 🙂

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