Thursday February 13 2014

Language tests should feature in recruitment processes

By Nick T. Twinamatsiko

A few days ago, a Facebook friend tagged me in a photo that was really a scan of an application letter for the position of civil engineer in a construction company. The letter, headed “Application letter applying for the post of Engineer”, commenced as follows: “Dear sir/madam, having hard of advert of a job on paper monitor of….” Apparently, my friend shared the letter on social media to draw attention to the sort of English used by recent university graduates, and to draw opinions on whether or not to consider the applicant. He revealed, perhaps to explain why he had tagged me in the letter, that the applicant had been my student at university.

In my teaching years, I struggled to mark scripts written in appalling English. Had I been a teacher of English, my work would have been very easy – I would have simply crossed everything. But I was marking Civil Engineering scripts and had to scour through the incoherence, just in case some relevant points were hidden therein. So, my Facebook friend didn’t surprise me – I already knew that there are university graduates who may join in the general laughter at a certain Hajj’s gaffes, but whose own English isn’t any better.

If you really want to know the curse of the post-colonial state, it’s in Language that you have to look. The citizens of former colonies are linguistically limited. There is a misconception that language is irrelevant in some disciplines such as Engineering. But no professional works in isolation; he must interact with others by attending meetings, writing reports, and so forth – and language is a core part of this interaction. The information he passes on in this interaction becomes the basis for decisions. It’s not far-fetched to say that behind many ridiculous public or corporate decisions, there is a language problem.

To fully appreciate that the curse of the postcolonial state is linguistic, you look beyond the role of language in communication to its role in conception and comprehension. We use words to think and understand– and the effect of language limitations on the quality of our thoughts and understanding is more profound than we often realise. Over many years of reading books and newspapers, listening to talk shows, attending meetings, reading Facebook posts, and conversing with people, I have noticed a correlation between the quality of thoughts and the quality of the language in which they are expressed.

In the personal experience of marking test scripts that I have referred to, the quality of English had a direct quantitative effect on my output – marking one script probably took me the time that would have sufficed for three if the language had been clear. I, therefore, know that the language limitations of learners can lower the productivity of workers in the Education sector.

There is a worse problem if the language handicaps are on the side of the teacher, lecturer, or examiner. He may mentally conceive one question but, due to language limitations, put a different question, perhaps a nonsensical one, on the examination paper and, still assume, during marking, that the original question got across. The poor students will pay the price of their lecturer’s limitations. If the same lecturer is hired by a national examinations board to set questions, you can imagine the number of students that get unfairly assessed.

The Education ministry should seriously improve the teaching of English in our schools. Our universities should incorporate English tests in the admission process, or they will continue complicating work for their teaching staff and churning out graduates of limited value. Corporate bodies and the Public Service Commission should seriously consider making language tests part of their recruitment processes if quality services are to be realised.

Mr Twinamatsiko is a civil engineer and novelist.