Asking questions in the speaking test….

Today’s post is to address another student question, “What do I do if I don’t understand what the examiner asks?”, and to provide some guidance on what language to use to make a request for clarification.

So, is it ok to ask the examiner if you don’t understand something? The answer is yes. Will you lose marks for doing so? The answer is no. It is perfectly understandable that maybe, in your second or third language, you might not understand every single word the examiner says. Or maybe in your understandably nervous state, you simply didn’t catch what they said. It happens to all of us in our own language sometimes, nothing wrong there. As I have mentioned before, the speaking test is not an interview, it is supposed to more or less represent a normal conversation as much as possible given the conditions. Although, in a normal conversation, both parties would usually be speaking for an equal amount of time, whereas here it is you who will (hopefully) be doing most of the talking.

When the test begins, the examiner will identify themselves and ask your name and to see your ID, they may ask you what you want to be called. This preliminary exchange is not assessed, it is after this point that the test proper will begin. The exam then proceeds, as you know, through the three sections.

After the test begins, what you should not do is to ask about the topics nor to ask for a different question, they will not give you another. The examiner will probably ignore you if you do this, as they have a script to work from, which is to make sure the test follows certain standards. You can only ask the examiner to explain what an unfamiliar word means, nothing more, and this is to be used sparingly. Don’t ask them to explain every question, if you have to do this, then you really have no business being in the examination if you cannot understand all the questions being asked. Also, you need to always attempt an answer, even if you are not sure or have no knowledge about the topic. As I have said before, this is not a truth test, you can make things up, or say that you don’t know, but then go on to speculate and make some effort to address the topic.

Q: “Do you think film stars are over paid for what they do?

A: “Actually, this is not something I have ever thought about, I don’t have any clear idea as to who gets paid what in the film world, I suppose that some big stars make a lot of money, like Robert Downey Junior in Ironman for example. So, I reckon that maybe ……….”

Get the idea? So, how to ask the examiner? What you need to do is to ask in such a manner that is polite, not ask “What?” or “Eh?”, nor to sit in silence hoping that the examiner can magically read your mind and know what the problem is. Remember, they can only assess you on what you say, so if you don’t say anything…..

There are some expressions below that you might use, as with all the phrases I write for your edification, remember to mix them up and not overuse the same structures again and again. As I have written before, when giving your opinion for example, “I think, I suppose, I guess, In my opinion, As I see it”, etc, try to use a different structure every time. The same applies here, if you have to ask for clarification more than once, then use a different expression.

To be as polite as possible, remember in English, we tend to say things like please and sorry when asking a question, even if we don’t mean it, just for your information.

  1. I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch that, can you say it again please?
  2. Could you repeat that again please?
  3. Sorry, I didn’t get what you said, could you repeat that please?
  4. I’m sorry, I don’t know this word….can you explain it please?
  5. Sorry, I don’t really understand this word….can you repeat it please?
  6. Sorry, can you explain what …..means?

Now this should not really be a problem for you, as all the part 1 topics are familiar ones and are personal in nature, so you should have something to say, and as I have said many times, this is not a truth test so you can make something up if need be. The part 3 questions are more general and abstract so they may be a bit harder as they are meant to be. What you can do if you really can’t think of any answer, is to buy yourself some thinking time. Again, this is a tactic to be used sparingly, as I wrote above with the previous example, you can say something like “I don’t really know, that’s an interesting question, let me see…I suppose that…..” and attempt some kind of answer.

So, you restate the question, never use the same language as the examiner, regardless of the section or topic, say you don’t know, and try to answer. Once again, it’s not a truth test, your opinion need not match that of the examiner, nor is there a “correct” answer.

So, for this question. “How have people’s expectations about holidays changed over the last fifty years?”

You might say (paraphrase) “In what way have peoples ideas about their holidays changed from fifty years ago” (Say you don’t know) “Actually, I have no idea about that, I wasn’t around then of course” (Attempt an answer) “Well, if I had to guess, I suppose I could say that maybe in those times, air travel wasn’t as wide spread as it is now. You know, because of the cost, it hasn’t always been as cheap as it is currently. I seem to remember my parents telling me about their holidays as children, going to the coast in the UK, that was all their parents could afford in those days. So, I suppose the main change would be that people these days expect to go abroad instead of staying in their home countries”

Ok, not perfect but it does the job, you can speculate and say something, as long as it is not too nonsensical.

I hope that is useful, I will write no more for now but as always, if you have any questions then send me a message and I will try to address it in a future post.