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Immigrant language testing is not a level playing field

Many factors determine which learners will find it easier to acquire a host country’s language

Factors such as immigrants’ first language and general educational background predict success on second language test scores, according to a study by Ann- Kristin Gujord at the University of Bergen in Norway.

Learning the host country’s language not only supports employment and social goals, but is also increasingly a requirement for citizenship. This study collected test results (Norskprøve 2 scores from 2009 and 2010) from over 10,000 immigrants to Norway to find out which factors could predict better – or worse – scores on a test of Norwegian language (writing, reading and listening, but not including speaking).

The information collected when learners took their test included years of prior education, country of origin and first language, knowledge of English, hours of instruction in Norwegian, years of residence in Norway, general use of Norwegian, age and gender.

It is well-documented that the learning curve from some first to second languages is steeper than others and this was one of the factors Gujord wanted to examine. This was made somewhat complicated, however, as there were 167 languages among the learners – 105 of which were spoken by less than 10 people.

To clarify the analysis, the languages were split into just two groups: Germanic (so related to Norwegian) and non-Germanic. Having a Germanic first language proved a positive factor in the analysis, making learners 21% more likely to pass all three parts of the test. This advantage was second only to English proficiency, where moving from beginner to advanced level improved the likelihood of passing Norwegian by 25%.

Since the test scores used were from the written component, it would be interesting to see the impact of first language script, ie, Latin vs non-Latin. The non- Germanic group included the four largest language groups, having more than 500 speakers: Polish, Persian (ie, Farsi), Thai and Arabic.

Measuring typological distance, ie, how different two languages are, is notoriously difficult and controversial. Typical lan-guage tests, such as this one, often have components focusing on different skills – and, in this case, only the written component scores were analysed. Although Polish is a Slavic language, it uses a lightly modified Roman alphabet. Consequently, it does not seem realistic to equate the challenges of reading and writing Norwegian within the non- Germanic group. The possible advantages for Polish speakers could have been examined, especially by including the speaking test scores, where having a Germanic vs non- Germanic first language might be expected to have greatest impact.

Countries of origin, also being very diverse, were grouped into two regions: Europe and outside Europe. Coming from a European country was the next largest advantage, increasing the chance of passing by 17%. Gujold partly attributes this to differences in quality of education, but the effect could be reframed as Latin vs non-Latin script (predominantly Asian and African learners).

Younger learners tended to score better and females had a small advantage over males.

The effect of residency in Norway was only evident after four years – at five years, resident learners were 14% more likely to pass the test. There was very little impact at one to two years of residency. This may link to the apparent lack of influence of the scores on general use of Norwegian. When indicating, for example, whether they had social contact with Norwegians ‘never’, ‘seldom’, ‘weekly’ or ‘daily’: 45% responded ‘never’ or ‘seldom’.

Prior education of 10 years or more increased the probability of passing by 12% but, curiously, increasing hours of instruction in Norwegian had a small but significant negative influence on test scores. Gujord suggests that this may be due to the policy which gives more instruction to those with less prior education. If so, it is likely that formal second language instruction needs to be better adapted to the needs of adult learners (some refugees for example) who have very little, if any, previous formal education and who may not be literate in their first language (from the 2005 Literacy Education and Second Language Learning for Adults forum these have been termed LESLLA learners).

Overall, this study highlights challenges facing today’s immigrants as countries increasingly require language proficiency scores to obtain citizenship, as this disadvantages those with little formal education, especially non-Europeans, many of whom may be arriving as refugees. In these cases, there needs to more appropriate ‘catch up’ language and general educational provision. But we might also ask – should anyone running for their life be asked to pass an exam in order to be given sanctuary?


  • Gujord, A-K, H (2022), ‘Who succeeds and who fails? Exploring the role of background variables in explaining the outcomes of L2 language tests’. Language Testing, DOI: 10.1177/02655322221100115
Gill Ragsdale
Gill Ragsdale
Gill has a PhD in Evolutionary Psychology from Cambridge, and teaches Psychology with the Open University, but also holds an RSA-Cert TEFL. Gill has taught EFL in the UK, Turkey, Egypt and to the refugees in the Calais 'Jungle' in France. She currently teaches English to refugees in the UK.
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