When is foreign language testing necessary?

Foreign language testing got my attention when I read the article “Trained Interpreters Can Help Prevent Medical Errors” on NPR, specifically this section:

In order to pass training in medical interpretation at the Northern Virginia Health Education Center, students must complete at least 40 hours of course work, which includes study in medical terminology, medical privacy issues and ethics, says Dallice Joyner, the program’s executive director.

In addition, students must score at least 80 percent on a language fluency test to get into the program. “Not everybody passes,” she says. “Just because somebody says they’re bilingual doesn’t mean they’re actually fluent.”

I agree that being bilingual does not imply fluency, especially when it comes to specific terminology such as medicine or law. But when is official foreign language testing necessary? I don’t have all the answers, but I tried to find some information.

The Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) is most likely unfamiliar to people in the United States, even though it is given by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), the same organization that publishes the various standardized tests in the U.S., such as the SAT and GRE. It is a test for non-native English speakers to assess their ability to use English in the workplace. I believe it is a common test that job-hunters take in Asia since a good score can boost your résumé.

Many countries have their own exams to test the language skills of non-native learners of their language. The exams in Asia are divided into multiple levels, from beginning to advanced. Japan has the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test (JPLT). Taiwan has the Test of Chinese as a Foreign Language (TOCFL). Some language schools in Taiwan use the TOCFL as an assessment for their students. I think a good score on the advanced JPLT or advanced TOCFL would be favorable for a foreigner looking for a job in those countries. Passing a certain level may make a student eligible for scholarships to study in the country.

I think foreign language testing can be useful. It makes sense to assess a student’s proficiency after a course. I think it would also makes sense to be tested as part of a job, perhaps before or after training. However, it probably would not be best to take a foreign language assessment exam on just to figure out one’s ability in that language. If one is bilingual and learned languages in each language’s native environment, an exam for non-native learners of a language would probably be inappropriate. A different exam, or even an examination method other than multiple choice, would be necessary.

Based on the website of the program mentioned in the article, it looks like the exam is a verbal exam and focuses on translation and medical terms. I do like the verbal exam because it is accurately testing what the person needs to be able to do. I think the test is appropriate for the need of the program, rather than testing the general knowledge of the language.

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