Using A Speaking Test Can Minimize Verbal Assault Towards J-1 Students

using a speaking test can minimize verbal assault Reading Time: 5 minutes

Students come to the US with more confidence in speaking English when their English proficiency test includes speaking. Using a speaking test can minimize verbal assults like what happened on May 20, to Hector Torres. He arrived at the airport in Reno, Nevada, and decided to call his mom to tell her he arrived safe and sound. While chatting with her in Spanish, a man began to verbally assault him.

“Learn how to f_ing speak English, we live in America,” said the man. He also called Torres a ‘spic,’ an offensive term used to refer to Hispanics. Torres says he tried to keep calm. He recorded the incident on his cell phone and published it to social media, where it quickly went viral. Within hours, his story appeared on media outlets across the country, including Univision Noticias.

“It was a sad experience,” Torres said. “And it makes me sad because I know it happens a lot, I know. I see people hiding, talking quietly, fearful.”

In Kentucky, two Hispanic students were verbally assaulted by a white woman while waiting in line at a store. “Speak English, you’re in America,” she told them. “If you don’t know it, learn it.” In Tampa, Florida, a cashier at 7-Eleven shouted at a Cuban customer who was buying cigarettes in Spanish. He demanded to know if he was legal and if he speaks English.

The episodes all have one thing in common. They involve some variation of the phrase, “This is America, speak English.” That’s used to suggest that it is wrong to speak a language besides English in U.S. territory. Donald Trump himself made a similar statement during the 2016 presidential campaign when he criticized Jeb Bush for speaking in “Mexican.” “He should really set an example by speaking English in the United States,” Trump said.

 Of course, “Mexican” is not a language, nor is English the official language of the United States. That despite efforts by a number of lawmakers to establish it as such.

“Language is about culture, about identification in a country with many nationalities,” says Rocio Inclan, director of the Department of Human Rights and Civil Rights of the National Education Association. “All this talk of ‘This is America, America first’ only incites the idea of ‘the other’ in our country.”

On Feb. 14, 2019 — coincidentally, Language Advocacy Day — the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit against U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The suite was filed on behalf of two U.S. citizens who were detained on May 16, 2018. A Border Patrol agent who overheard them speaking in Spanish in a convenience store in Havre, Montana. When asked why he needed to see their ID, the agent responded that “it has to do with you guys speaking Spanish in the store, in a state where it’s predominantly English-speaking.”

As the ACLU complaint alleges, “America is a multi-lingual, multi-racial, and multi-ethnic country. Many United States citizens speak languages other than English. So do many non-citizens who have a right or permission to be in this country under our laws.” And yet for many language minorities — largely Native Americans and first- and second-generation immigrants — speaking languages other than English in public is still seen as suspect.

Attacks on non-English speakers in the US are not new

By the 19th century, both Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin had expressed fear that German – the most widely spoken second language in the U.S. until World War I – could compromise the Anglo-American identity of the United States.

When the U.S. declared war on Germany in 1917, patriotism surged. “There were bans on speaking German specifically and other foreign languages suffered too,” says Dennis Baron, a professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois. “Immigrant languages in America went into decline, including in schools.”

Before WWI, 25 percent of U.S. high school students studied German as foreign language. After the war, one percent, Barron says.

In 2005, a popular cheesesteak shop in Philadelphia posted a sign reading, “This Is America When Ordering Please ‘Speak English.'” 

Brian Levin, director of California State University’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, calls language a “sensory trigger” for racism. “We are becoming a more diverse country, and what are three things that are a symbol of that? Skin color, religion, and language,” says Levin. “And these are tangible symbols that bigots will rally against.” But when giving students an English proficiency test, using a speaking test can minimize verbal assault.

iTEP Conversation helps students overcome their lack of confidence in speaking English

Many students are hesitant when it comes to speaking this difficult new language. A lack of confidence can hold you back, but it’s important to remember that you’re learning something new! Some people have tons of confidence, while others don’t. Using a speaking test can minimize verbal assault by giving students speaking confidence.

Use of the iTEP Conversation test provides students the opportunity to practice their spoken English. They gain confidence in speaking English when they arrive in the US. iTEP Conversation is designed to give test-takers an opportunity to speak freely about things that they already know. Questions are friendly, fall within the A1-B2 CEFR range of difficulty, and cover topics one might expect to encounter in casual conversation. All questions are free-response (as opposed to multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blanks) to allow test-takers to speak as much as they are able to. During the test, students are encouraged to:

  • Take your time. There’s no need to be in a rush when speaking, and in fact, the best English speakers do speak slowly. Not only will you have a few more seconds to consider your next sentence, but speaking slowly also makes you appear more trustworthy. By slowing down a bit, you’ll feel more confident when speaking.
  • Practice reading out loud. Whether from a textbook, newspaper, or your favorite novel – stand in front of a mirror and read out loud. Pay attention to how you say the words. When you gain a bit of confidence, read for a friend or classmate.
  • Record yourself when you’re alone and speaking aloud. Listening to yourself speak, even if you don’t like the sound of your voice, is important. It improves in areas where you need to and getting comfortable with the sound of your voice. It’s also a great time to work on pronunciation!

Using a speaking test can minimize verbal assault, that is clear. There are many English proficiency tests out there. The iTEP Conversation test can go along way to encouraging students to use English as their language of choice.

Randy LeGrant
Randy LeGrant

In 2006, Randy founded GeoVisions Foundation with a few colleagues, who all believed that experiences are better than landmarks. He developed travel programs, so travelers were paid. While getting paid to travel, their lives also changed by living like locals. In turn, they changed the lives of their hosts, their new communities and their students. In 2016, Randy, along with Kevin Morgan, founded Academic Language Solutions to bring English evaluation tools to J1-Visa programs and make students safer and more confident when visiting the US.

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