Exams reveal nation's bad English

By Hugo Tseng 曾泰元  / 

Sat, Jul 15, 2006 - Page 8

I've been an examiner of the English writing section of university entrance examinations for a number of years now. Poring over test sheets completed by high school graduates with six years of English study under their belts is a frustrating enterprise, full of sighs and head-scratching.

The business of correcting tests is like operating a factory assembly line: Incoming tests are stacked in an in-box, where they wait to be read and checked, after which they are placed in an out-box. As for the actual checking, that process is divided into initial readings, re-readings and final readings to ensure quality control.

In fact, come to think of it, the whole process is akin to raising chickens on a chicken farm -- there are designated reading rooms, desks and seats, where we sit among our stacks, clucking and pecking furiously at our "feed," which in this case is students' chicken scratches on exam sheets. Of course, if the feed is tasty then fine. Oftentimes, however, it's yucky, and the content seems to repeat itself in paper after paper.

The part of the tests that must be checked and corrected by hand are the translation and composition sections. Examinees often perform poorly in the categories of spelling, grammar, punctuation, structure and creativity. To give an example of spelling deficiencies: Despite the fact that No Smoking signs in both Chinese and English are ubiquitous in Taiwan, examinees routinely misspell "smoking," often writing "smorking" or "smolking" on their tests.

In terms of common punctuation mistakes, students will often put punctuation marks in blatantly wrong places or use Chinese punctuation. Grammar-related mistakes are even more plentiful -- a proper understanding of singular and plural forms of nouns, verb conjugation, appropriate word usage and articles and prepositions, is rare among examinees.

With regard to structure, the themes of most students' compositions are unclear -- oftentimes, there is none. Their narrations, for example, are prone to digression, leaving compositions without a focus or pace. Feeble structures are too often further weakened by misspellings and grammar and punctuation-related problems.

And as for the crux of their content -- if there is one -- it is often dry and boring; I suspect this is a reflection of the uninteresting lifestyles of high school students and their aversion to risk, which is something that teachers reinforce by rewarding students' use of cliches or other hackneyed or fluffy language.

The writing topics this year focused on experiences of being misunderstood or wrongly blamed. A good many students jabbered about their parents blaming them for stealing cash or eating something they shouldn't have; others yacked about mom and dad tongue-lashing them for watching TV or playing video games instead of doing homework. The list goes on.

In this sea of drab, cookie-cutter stories, if we chance upon a composition with a unique storyline, we relish it like a diamond. For example, one student wrote about his chucking a few rocks at what he thought was a mean stray dog walking next to a pedestrian, only to discover that it was actually not a stray, but the pedestrian's pet, which prompted a juicy confrontation.

Of course, every year, a certain percentage of students simply leave the translation and composition sections blank. I don't know if they do that because they run out of time, or are utterly unable to write and so abandon the section altogether. Many people say that Taiwanese people's English levels are the highest right around when they take the joint university entrance examination. Well, if that's really the case, then Taiwan is in trouble.

And in the light of students' performances in this regard, we have to ask if perhaps the government's proposal a few years back to designate English as a semi-official language of Taiwan was not a bit half-baked and naive.

Hugo Tseng is an associate professor of English at Soochow University and secretary-general of the Taiwanese Association for Translation and Interpretation.

Translated by Max Hirsch