March 03, 2005

Speaking truth to TOEFL

There is much to shock the director of any program in the teaching of English as a foreign language (or indeed, the teachers) on the englishdroid site. For example, in its glossary of English language teaching it says this about the TOEFL test:

TOEFL  Bizarre American exam, in which candidates listen to robots intoning things such as, 'Wow, I sure hope my meticulously assembled entomology collection has not gotten misplaced by the faculty janitors.' A deep-voiced robot then asks, 'What does the woman mean?'

And there's more under "Types of classes":

TOEFL classes  Peculiar American test of a language deceptively similar to English. Combines archaic, formal grammar with folksy idioms. Mostly multiple-choice.

The listening test features unemployable actors or robots reading out unnatural sentences in plodding monotones, or with inflections in the wrong places. Childishly crude 'distracters' (red herrings) enable you to answer most of the test without even listening to the tape. There are some tricky ones, eg 'It is not impossible that the team will be less than successful in the final.' - 'What does the man mean?' (Answer: Fuck knows.)

TOEFL tests language structures that are obsolete outside the snootier American universities. For example, inversion after a comparative: 'Roger likes classical music more than does Rita.'

Ghastly stuff. But I fear it's not much of an exaggeration. This the sort of thing that does go on in the English language testing industry, as we have observed several times before on Language Log. The ETS is responsible for most of the sins committed in this area. Why should their Test Of English as a Foreign Language be any different?

I shudder to think that when I was a Dean of Graduate Studies and Research on my campus I had to oversee the process of making sure all foreign admittees had taken the TOEFL, and of denying admission to those whose scores were lower than the Graduate Council deemed acceptable. I really have been responsible for great evil. There must be dozens of talented Chinese physicists whose ambition to study at my university was forever frustrated because they could not tell from one hearing of a robot voice whether it was or was not impossible that the team would be less than successful in the final, or whether Roger did like classical music more than did Rita.

I feel honor bound to warn the casual surfer of the gross cynicism and unforgivable tastelessness of the englishdroid site. It can really only be excused on the grounds that teaching English as a foreign language is such hard work that after school hours its practitioners need a cheap laugh and a cold beer. And it will provide the former. You will giggle, as long as you can just prevent any goodness, decency, sympathy, respect or optimism from welling up inside you unbidden. I mean really, check this out: one-stop shopping for bad taste and slack professional ethics. Considering what a serious-minded, ethical, pro-feminist, responsible scholar I am, I can't imagine why I browsed this site for as long as I did...[Should that be "for as long as did I"? Just asking. —Ed.]

Especially since the glossary has the temerity to say this about grammar:

grammar  The G word. Once taught only by unimaginative fascists, but now possibly coming back into vogue.

(Possibly? Grammar is back, buddy, so watch it! And don't you call us fascists. Tomorrow belongs to us.)

On the other hand, you simply have to love a site that says this:

This site has no fucking pop-ups, no fucking adverts, no fucking Flash, no fucking frames, almost no fucking JavaScript (just the two quizzes, which wouldn't work otherwise, and the link on this page, an attempt to avoid fucking spam), no fucking fixed font sizes, no image rollovers that take fucking ages to load, no links that open in new fucking windows, no pages that 'work best' in Internet fucking Explorer, nor, I hope, anything else that drives cantankerous web users like me fucking bonkers.

The englishdroid site was recommended to me by Stephen Jones, who should be fucking ashamed of himself.

[All material in this post has been sent for review by the Federal Communications Commission for advance approval, though admittedly they have not yet reported back.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at March 3, 2005 06:50 PM