When should you start working on the TOEFL?

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If you live a normal life in your own language environment, the first time you hear the term TOEFL would be the time you have to seriously start working on the TOEFL. Up until you graduate from university and start your career, English may have come across as nothing more than a school subject. Not now. Now you are a chosen candidate for your company’s next-generation MBA holders. Some business people may be already outstanding in their ability of English, which is why they are selected as such. However, most candidates are not that good at the English language and are selected therefore based on not so much their English ability but their performance and attitude toward work (which should be a better criterion because these MBA holders are supposed to contribute to management in the future, not to teaching English). Although such being the case, if you want to get a head start on your career, achieving a certain TOEFL score can make a big difference. You may not need it now, but will definitely need it by the time you become thirty. It is therefore that college graduates in non English-speaking countries should start working on the TOEFL test as soon as their career starts. If you are exempt from the score or passed over for the opportunity, so be it. But if you have been chosen as a candidate, you cannot turn back the clock any more.

Trade-offs between two topics

At different stages, TOEFL test-takers have a different impression on the speaking section. You start to seriously prepare for the test when you are a young adult, just as you come back from your exchange program (which most students of mine did). They have already gotten used to responding to everyday events, so all the familiar topic questions like “Describe your favorite food.” or “Do you prefer to get up early to start the day’s work?” are very easy.

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In fact, that’s what these young adults have been doing for the past year. At the same time, they find it extremely hard to effectively summarize a lecture on why dinosaurs became extinct (which, obviously, is an Academic topic). So this hypothetical young adult learner would receive a score report that says Familiar — G(ood), Campus — F(air), Academic — L(imited).

When this student gets older and seriously starts to get back to school (hopefully a grad school for his/her MBA degree), things will have changed. They will always see themselves struggling out of familiar topics. They cannot even develop their favorite food. “My favorite food is Chinese food. I have three reasons for this choice. First of all, it is delicious…” – a response that does not represent what they really have in mind. Such being the case, their score reports will say Familiar — L, Campus — F, and Academic — G.

Which results in the same score of this speaking section.

From my teaching experience – longer than the TOEFL iBT itself – ┬áthis phenomenon has always repeated. So much so that I have even hypothesized that there should be a trade-off between the two topics: familiar and academic. This is what makes this section extremely difficult, compared to the reading section, where you can improve your score by one if you get an additional correct answer. The result in the Speaking Section does not form a linear line.

One strategy that can result from the above hypothesis is to focus on the Campus topics, which seem to be topic-neutral. The topic itself does not determine the difficulty level of the prompt.

The next time you take the TOEFL, however, I do hope that you defeat my hypothesis!

Things you take for granted are not given at all.

I have always noticed the differences in learning environment between the Tokyo metropolitan area and the rural, countryside (where I was born and raised). When I was in high school, it was impossible to buy a foreign book in one day. I was lucky, because in those days, I couldn’t have enjoyed foreign books. But as a university student, I had a hard time ordering foreign books.

First off, I had to take a bus to get to the nearest train station, where I took a train to the terminal. Then I took a ferry (boat) to finally reach the mainland of Japan. Then I could finally get to the destination by train. It took a half day to get there. In the bookshop, I couldn’t find the book I was looking for. ┬áSo I ended up going to the counter to fill out the order form.

Still, I was lucky. The book would be sent to my address in a couple of weeks…or months.

Now I sometimes talk to some of my clients who live in a less developed country. They say it is very hard to get a prep book for the TOEFL. When it comes to those books in Japanese, you should forget about it once and for all. You will end up waiting forever in vain. I made one of my clients a promise to give materials he needs in an electronic form. Now he is lucky. He couldn’t get the material himself, but he was able to reach someone who can give it to him. That was another (regional) gap to be filled.