Soft steak: does international English need to be correct?

 Should I be critical or just let it go? After 30 years (sic) of learning Polish I still get endings wrong, so why criticize the language teaching in Poland when it is “nearly” right?

20 April is the date of the English exam for gimnazjum pupils, sat by over 85% of 15 Polish year olds. As the third exam in a three-day endurance test, it makes up a considerable portion of the final mark which will then be taken into consideration for entrance to the third and final stage of Polish schooling, liceum, hence students and parents alike pour over sample tests like the one I came across in the Saturday edition “Gazeta Wyborcza” . My eldest is taking the test today, so I took a look at the sample. It consisted of reading comprehension, listening, grammar etc. and all of the texts were duly printed.


Man: Julie, how was your meal?

Girl: The soup was fantastic!

Man: Well, mine was too salty.

Girl: Oh, really?

Man: Yeah. Anyway, I heard they have really good ice-cream here. We can order them later.

Girl: Sure! I love ice-cream!

Man: And what about the steak? Was it tasty?

Girl: Hmm… It think it wasn’t soft enough. And the tomato salad was nothing special.

From Gazeta Wyborcza 8 April Edition Język angielski [poziom podstawowy] – transkrypcja nagrań


What struck me was that many of the texts read as false and smacked of being prepared by non-native speakers: inappropriate use of exclamation marks, rather stiff dialogues, the occasional incorrect usage of vocabulary. If the writer of these texts was graded for their English skills, he or she would definitely get an “A+” but they would not have been able to pass themselves off as a spy behind enemy lines. A waiter in the Turkish Riviera or in the Italian ski resorts where the 15 year olds may choose to holiday will be forgiving of a Pole asking for a “soft steak” and when they go to London the waitress the local café will be from Riga or Cadiz anyway and won’t mind either. It seems obvious that the text has at some stage been reviewed by a native speaker, but the reviewer either did not have a critical enough eye or his comments were over-ruled in a later draft by someone who thought they knew better. A native speaker review by an English teacher is not enough in such a case, as teachers have the tendency to ‘forgive’, while a hard-nosed, experienced editor who has worked on monolingual teams, where every nuance is analysed, is relentless in producing natural copy.

We shall see what the official text looks like once it appears online, but from this mock exam it seems schools are happy to churn out speakers of “international English”, which is always a compromise solution for communication between non-native speakers, much of which takes place far away from the borders of UK, US, Canada, Ireland, NZ or Australia.

Whether natural English is all that important is a question which educated educators, editors, writers and translators feel strongly about. Are we the only ones who do, in an international environment? It certainly costs more and takes more time to produce top copy. Does anyone notice? Of the  billion or so English speakers in the world, fewer than a half a billion will really notice, so in the context of the Polish Gimnazjum exam board, maybe that is a not significant enough group?


One thought on “Soft steak: does international English need to be correct?

  1. Afterword: The actual test took place yesterday and the texts of the exam were published in Gazeta Wyborcza. The texts of the actual exam are still stilted but do not contain the kind of errors spotted in the sample text published before the exam. There was one error, though, in the listening comprehension questions, namely the use of the word “damages” i.e. compensation instead of “damage”

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