August 2013 issue

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Non-English language exams

Due to a range of social and economic factors – including the economic globalisation of many non-English speaking countries – citizens of the world increasingly need, and want, to learn languages other than English. Language exams provide a benchmark from which learners can prove their abilities – a benchmark that is often needed to gain entry onto a university-level course abroad, a new job or even citizenship of a foreign country. Claire Twyman investigates developments in the main non-English language exams.

Although ELT dominates the global language learning arena, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, the prominence of other languages within the market should not be overlooked. As the British Council recognised back in 1997 in a report titled The Future of English?, “In the next 50 years or so we can expect a substantial language shift to occur as the effects of economic development and globalisation are felt in more countries.” With this in mind, who knows what the future holds for language learning trends.

Upon completion of language exams, students have concrete evidence that they can speak the language at the level necessary for enrolling at an overseas university, securing a job or sometimes even gaining citizenship in another country. Currently, however, how popular are non-English language exams and preparation courses? Perhaps more popular than you think, as a number of sampled agents reveal. At the Swiss branch of Marshall Language Studies, Cyrille Marshall notes, “Quite a lot of my students going to Germany apply for an exam preparation course (around 50 per cent). I always recommend them if they [are at the right level].” Meanwhile, Karen Ong, CEO of Language International in the USA (an agency selling 5,000 different course options) says that she receives a small but noteworthy three per cent of requests for language exam prep programmes.

Exámenes de Español (Spanish)
With Spanish being one of the most commonly spoken languages in the world, there were around 66,000 candidates for the Dele exam in 2012, according to José Luis Marugán Santos from Instituto Cervantes, the organisation managing the exam on behalf of Spain’s Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport. With students needing a Dele diploma in order to gain entry to a Spanish university, “They also have infinite validity and international recognition,” Marugán asserts. As the most established Spanish language exam, introduced in 1988, the number of test takers is also growing year-on-year, he adds, explaining that the typical Dele candidate is a female university student from countries such as Italy, Brazil, Germany, France or Greece.

In line with other European language exams, such as Germany’s TestDaF, the Dele exam was restructured around the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) in 2010, which has six levels (see page 30), whereas originally the exam only had three. “This ensures a practical way of establishing a standard, international and objective measurement of the level that should be reached at each teaching stage, and in evaluating results,” explains Marugán. Meanwhile, Sarah Griffiths from don Quijote, one of the largest Spanish chain schools in Spain, also notes, “There has been a shift away from the focus on purely grammatical knowledge towards testing candidates’ ability to communicate.”

In 2012, don Quijote prepared 300 students for the Dele exam, and numbers have remained steady compared with previous years, says Griffiths. “Perhaps the profile of the exam needs to be raised worldwide,” she says. “For example, the Cambridge English exams are recognised by many people around the world and are held in high regard, but the Dele exam still has a long way to go to be on a par with this.” To combat this, Marugán reveals that Instituto Cervantes is looking to reach new niche markets by building partnerships with institutions or companies in countries such as the USA, Brazil and China.

Griffiths adds that since the recent adaptation of the exam, the difficulty of the pre-existing levels has risen. “Feedback from students suggests that this has not been beneficial,” she laments. However, at Lacunza IH San Sebastian there has been a 24 per cent boost in students taking the preparation course, caused by a rise in students taking the second hardest level of the test (resulting in a declining number of students taking the hardest level). According to Ignacio Grande Ruiz, Dele Exam Coordinator at the school, “[The second hardest level] is the level of Spanish required to be employed in the public sector. We believe this increase is linked to the current demand from employers and education institutions,” he notes, adding, “British students are now realising the professional advantage that speaking both English and Spanish offers them.”

Deutsch-Prüfungen (German)
Considered the language of business, German is another popular choice for language learners. The TestDaF exam, founded in 2000 and also a prerequisite for students entering German HE institutions, received 24,261 examinees in 2012, according to Martin Pauli at the exam board. This represents an overall increase in examinees of 13.5 per cent. “The test items of the exam are all concerned with the language requirements of a freshman student in various communicative situations,” he asserts. “Students should be able to understand lectures, read academic texts, speak out in a tutorial or in conversations with lecturers and fellow students and produce written text.”

The good international profile of German universities, combined with relatively low tuition fees, is fuelling the number of candidates for TestDaF exams, Pauli adds. The Chinese are the largest group of incoming students, as they enrol at German universities in the largest cohorts, while there has also been a rise in Southern European students taking the test recently. “In these countries – possibly due to the euro crises – the demand for university courses in Germany is growing.”

Observing a similar trend, Alisha Fields from F+U Academy of Languages says, “Due to the persistent economic crisis, we experience an increasing number of students on exam preparation courses from Spain, Greece and also Cyprus.” As well as the TestDaF course, the school offers a range of exam preparation programmes, including DSH, OnDaF, TestAS and Telc. “Numbers are definitely increasing,” she says. “In 2012 we had about 4,000 students who participated in our exam preparation courses, which makes a total of 80 per cent of the students.” Student nationalities that are common at the school include Chinese, Japanese, Tunisian, Russian, Israeli and Cameroonian.

Fields notes that TestDaF exam preparation programmes are most in demand, and are often fully booked a few days after applications are open, while Sabine Steinacher from ADK Augsburger Deutschkurse highlights similar trends at her school. “TestDaF is very popular at the moment because its validity is unlimited,” she explains. “DSH exam results are only valid for five years, sometimes even three, and all German universities recognise TestDaF.” While she adds that the TestDaF exam preparation course is popular with Europeans, at GLS Sprachenzentrum Berlin, Christina Schmidinger notes that as well as Europeans, students from Israel, Korea and Japan apply for the preparation course “because they want to apply for a university programme mainly in medicine or the arts. Many students still don’t know the exact procedure for TestDaF exams and studying in Germany,” she says, adding that the oral part of the exam has undertaken significant change, focussing on seven different communicative situations.

Predicting the future for TestDaF exams, Pauli notes that the German economy needs qualified experts as many jobs are currently vacant. “This development may also have a positive influence on the number of TestDaF candidates,” he relates.

Examens de Français (French)
While French is not as commonly spoken around the world, the popularity of the French language exams is substantially higher than the popularity of TestDaF and Dele. The number of Diplôme d’Etudes en Langue Française (Delf) and Diplôme Approfondi de Langue Française (Dalf) examinees rose from 316,042 in 2009 to 403,741 in 2012, while the number of Test de Connaissance du Français (TCF) candidates more than doubled from 53,835 in 2009 to 110,834 in 2012, according to the Centre International d’Etudes Pédaogogiques (CIEP) (the organisation managing the exams on behalf of the French Ministry of National Education). “This increase is explained by the widening of certification on offer as well as the increasing demand by authorities, in France and abroad, for proof of a level of competence in French language to undertake certain procedures,” relates Bruno Mègre from CIEP. Some of the reasons to take the test, he adds, include to follow HE studies in French, to obtain mobility in a French-language setting and to obtain French nationality.

Also structured around the CEFR, the Dalf exam tests students at advanced levels, while Delf tests students of beginner to intermediate ability. While the Delf and Dalf are certification tests, the TCF is an assessment test determining which level of the CEFR students are at. Some of the changes that have been made to these exams in recent years include the introduction of the TCF pour le Québec in 2006, according to Mègre, which “was made available to people who sought validation of their oral comprehension and expression skills as part of a procedure for immigrating to Québec, Canada”. Indeed, when the Quebec Ministry for Immigration and Cultural Communities made standardised tests a compulsory part of the immigration process in 2011, the TCF pour le Québec underwent significant development, he says. “This led to the number of TCF candidates in Québec to rise from 2,590 in 2011 to 24,988 in 2012.”

While the TCF is popular with Algerian, Chinese, Morrocan, Tunisian and Iranian students, among other nationalities, Mègre adds, “The best represented nationalities among Delf and Dalf candidates are German, Italian, Greek, Spanish and Indian. The Delf and Dalf are particularly developed in Germany, Italy, Greece, Spain and India, where they are part of the institutional educational pathway in schools.”

Under French law, public universities in France are presently only able to teach undergraduate degree programmes in French, although in recent months the French National Assembly has debated whether or not to introduce English-taught undergraduate courses in a bid to attract more international students. It remains to be seen what impact this would have on the number of Delf/Dalf exam candidates in the not so distant future, although Mègre thinks there would be little to no impact as the Delf and Dalf tests are not exclusively academically-orientated.

Hànyu Kaoshì (Chinese)
China has huge economic power and is second only to the USA in terms of nominal gross domestic product (GDP) and purchasing power. Therefore, Chinese has the potential to be a major player in the language teaching scene in the not too distant future.

The HSK exam, the Toefl equivalent of testing proficiency in the Chinese language, certifies students looking to enter a higher education institution in the country or gain a job working in or with China.“Learning a language can sometimes seem like an endless process, so aiming for a certain level and reaching it gives students a real sense of accomplishment,” relates Ben Winters from Mandarin House, a school located in the country that is also a HSK exam testing centre. “Preparing for the HSK also makes sure that students don’t sacrifice listening and reading practice while spending too much time on vocabulary,” he says, reflecting, “In my personal experience, I really appreciate the HSK exam and the Hanban – the common name for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language – for the way they have reorganised the test.”

Before 2010, the test had 11 levels in total, while it now has six. “The test used to be a bit academic and this was off-putting to many students,” Winters says. “I would say that for 90 per cent of Chinese language students, the test revision has made it more approachable and the number of test registrations certainly coincides with this,” he adds, explaining that on average, the school hosts around 100 HSK exam takers each month. “There is some seasonality with the number of participants, but registrations for the test are generally increasing as more and more people become familiar with the value of the HSK and the location of our test centre,” he says, adding that 60 per cent of students were HSK test takers in 2012. “We expect about 1,200 test takers in 2013, compared with 646 in 2011.”

While Winters observes that Japanese, German, Korean, French and American students commonly take the HSK exam at Mandarin House, Kevinn Hirsch from iMandarin notes that for the exam preparation course, “We do have a lot of American, French, British and Germans; these countries are very active in China and there are a lot of international companies coming. We also have more and more people coming from India and South America.” Around 2,000 students enrolled on the exam preparation course in 2012, a number that Hirsch expects to increase this year due to the dynamism of China, “The test is now evaluating speaking skills of the candidates to a greater extent, which I think is great because this is the most important aspect.”

Nihongo Shiken (Japanese)
In the neighbouring country of Japan, the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), created in 1984, “offers various advantages, ranging from recognition as academic credit and graduation certification at schools to preferential treatment at companies”, according to a spokesperson at The Center for Japanese-Language Testing, The Japan Foundation, responsible for organising the exam. A JLPT exam score earns candidates points for potential immigration to Japan, they add. They continue, “The year 2010 saw the introduction of the new JLPT, which focusses on communication abilities to meet the diverse student needs and is designed based on the analysis of data over the years.” With a fifth level now added to the exam, Hiroko Yamakoto from KAI Japanese Language School thinks this is beneficial to candidates, as previously they had to learn double the amount of vocabulary to pass level two. “On the other hand, there are some points that can burden examinees – the new test doesn’t indicate the number of learning hours and vocabulary necessary, whereas the old one did.”

With approximately 572,000 examinees taking the test in 2012, compared with 608,000 candidates in 2011, the foundation is currently analysing the cause of the decline. Yamakoto offers a potential reason, “Due to the effect of 2011’s earthquake and the strong yen, the number of students [on the school’s exam preparation course] decreased, and the number of examinees at the school also decreased in 2012 to about 70.” However, he expects numbers to increase in the future.

While the foundation identified Chinese, Korean and Taiwanese students as the most common JLPT test takers, “More than half of our students are from Europe... (the largest proportion are from Sweden),” says Yamakoto. Indeed, due to the relatively robust economy of Japan, “I think this is because those who think it is difficult to get a job in their home countries started to come to Japan for HE or career purposes.”

Interestingly, according to data from The Japan Foundation, 34 per cent of candidates took the test for no other reason than to measure their Japanese language abilities, perhaps illustrating that many people “just love Japan and Japanese culture, so want to enjoy their hobbies in the Japanese language rather than to gain qualifications”, says Yamakoto. However, the exam will probably become a tool allowing examinees to live in Japan after their studies, he adds, which will accelerate human exchange and thus the globalisation of Japan. “When analysing the tests for visa application purposes, it is assumed that more user-friendly tests, regarding the number of exam times, venues and costs, are likely to survive.”

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR)

Put together by the Council of Europe as a major part of the Language Learning for European Citizenship project between 1989 and 1996, the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) is a guideline upon which language exam boards across Europe can structure their tests around. Providing comparable benchmarks among all exams utilising the CEFR, the framework* is now widely accepted in Europe and beyond. In the United Arab Emirates, for example, the Eton Competency Test in Arabic (ECTA), created by the Eton Institute, was created last year with the CEFR in mind. See the table for a breakdown of the different levels.

Source: Council of Europe

*Due to the complexity of the data, this article is only displayed in the digital issue of Study Travel Magazine

Ones to watch

Alongside the larger non-English language exams are a handful of smaller tests primed to experience rapid growth in examinee numbers within the coming years.

Russia, part of the Bric family (an acronym used to label countries deemed to have new and emerging economic power), “is one of the biggest and fastest growing emerging markets in the world”, affirms Alena Lugovtsova from Liden & Denz. The Russian language school offers the Test of Russian as a Foreign Language (Torfl) exam preparation course, which is growing in popularity. With enrolments on the preparation course totalling a small but noteworthy two per cent of total student numbers in 2012, she adds that numbers are expected to grow. “Demand for modern and communicative Russian is on the increase, both for professional purposes and pure pleasure,” she says, adding the school prepares students looking to gain Russian citizenship.

While German-speaking (Swiss, German and Austrian) and Japanese students often take the Liden & Denz Torfl course, American and British students commonly take the Arabic Language Proficiency Test (ALPT) created by Egypt’s Arab Academy in 2002. “This could be due to their familiarity with standardised exams, good Internet connections and purchasing power,” says Hanan Dawah from the academy. Indeed, with the emergence of many Middle Eastern countries underway, Arabic could one day have a big stake in the language learning market. Designed to replicate the role Toefl plays in testing English language proficiency, the exam tests reading, writing, speaking and listening skills, and advantages include improved university admission decisions, as Dawah notes. And, “in 2007, Arab Academy successfully trialled its first computer adaptive test”, she says. “ALPT is endorsed by the Islamic Chamber of Industry and Commerce, of which 56 countries in the Middle East and Far East are members. It is the only standardised proficency test that has such recognition.”

In 2012, when 350 students took the ALPT exam, the Eton Competency Test in Arabic (ECTA) – founded by the Eton Institute in the UAE – joined the ALPT on the Arabic language testing scene. “ALPT is usually intended to help make predictions outside the classroom about what learners will be able to do in communicative situations,” states a spokesperson. “However, ECTA evaluates the language level of students in accordance with the Common European Framework for Reference for Languages (CEFR) and places each student in a definite level based on his/her needs. So far, the number of candidates has been steadily increasing,” they add, “with students from different nationalities registering for this exam.”

In Portugal, meanwhile, the number of candidates taking the CAPLE (Centre for Evaluation of Portuguese as a Foreign Language) exam preparation course at CIAL Centro de Línguas has slowly risen in recent years. Although the immigration rate in the country has declined, possibly owing to the current unfavourable economic conditions, “the interest in the language worldwide is on the rise, so we believe the number of students taking the exams will continue to rise”, says Director Alexandra Borges de Sousa. Additionally, “A recent law requiring immigrants to prove their proficiency in Portuguese before obtaining residency has caused a rise in a number of students taking the exams,” she says, enthusing that CIAL is applying to become an exam centre before the end of 2013. The exam also utilises the CEFR framework.

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