Any situation from which there’s no escape can become a kind of torture, and speaking exams are no exception. It’s probably rare enough to get an incisive answer from students speaking their own language; it’s nigh on impossible when the examiners’ job is to assess just how badly prospective students can’t do the thing they’re applying to learn how to do.
The procedure is as follows: ask the same limited set of bog-standard questions that nobody in the real world ever asks (What are your hobbies? What is your favourite place in your country? What do you want to be when you grow up? etc) until the student changes their mind and goes away. At the same time you should write down comments (such as “HA!” and “PFFFF”) to enable graders to discriminate in the case of borderline candidates, before assigning grades based on a rubric that is specifically designed to be wildly unfit for purpose, as giving teachers something to rant about between interviews has been positively correlated with a higher rate of sanity retention.
And so you ask the same twelve questions in slightly different orders until the faces stop coming and the voices in your head fade away. After the fifth interview, the highly localized front-of-head pain sets in, the one that feels like a small but persistent imp is using the space between your eyebrows as a pin cushion. After the eighth, the nameless, unquenchable hunger. Come ten, feeling is lost in the lips and tongue. Any more than twelve and the shaking sweaty fears set in. The last teacher who did fifteen had to be stretchered out.
If left in charge of timetabling their own students, teachers will frequently start strong, rally, and end on a high, leaving those they imagine will bomb to hide in the middle and hopefully ride a wave of goodwill to glory. However for those of us that are wise to these ruses, there is only one thing that can jolt us from our cynicism: epic student failure.
I recall many a surreal placement test in which a pushy parent hovered behind their genius progeny, lauding their every achievement, top of their every advanced English class, their mastery of the art of public speaking, their rhetorical genius… while I waited patiently for an answer to the question “What is your name?” My most memorable testing moments would also have to include the elaborately beautiful gothic lady who burst in spectacular tears when asked to describe a picture story, then spent over an hour telling me, in near-perfect English, how worthless her English was.
But the best ones are where you actually, in spite of the system, conspire to learn something. For surprise value, nobody can quite top the Korean student who had a massive freak-out on learning that his speaking partner often slept with the fan on in summer. Apparently Koreans believe that this can cause ‘Fan death’, the only possible explanation for why people sometimes die alone in their beds with the fan on. I had no idea, and nearly fell off my own chair, thus creating a kind of culture shock domino rally.
From here on November 25th 2012.