Why Do So Many Malayalis Fail IELTS?

This is a follow-up article to The Most Important Test Malayalis Are Least Prepared For.

It almost always starts with the same question.

“Could you tell me a little bit about yourself?”

And the reply almost always follows the same format. The individuals sitting across the table from me could be of any age, gender, education, religion, occupation and family status. But they shared a common bond.

They were all Malayalees.

“My name is Ashwini/Rejin/Fazil/Neethu/Christo…

“…and I come from a little/small/beautiful/wonderful town/village/city in…”

“…my father was a…”

“…and I studied Engineering/B.Com/Nursing/Diploma/M.Tech/B.Ed…”

“…and my hobbies include watching T.V. and reading…”

After three months as an IELTS Trainer I got tired of that.

“What was the last book you read?”

Most would look surprised, some giggled, others let the silence envelope them. I’d wait politely for a few seconds before letting them know, “Don’t say reading is your hobby. It might be okay, but what if the examiner asks you who is your favorite author or what is your favorite book?”

They’d nod dutifully, and it took several more months for the vague thought to fully form in my mind. The thought that’s directly responsible for this article you’re reading.

The IELTS Speaking test lasts for about 15 minutes. There are three loosely structured parts to the “interview”. The first is where the examiner asks you simple questions about your background, your job, your hobbies, maybe even the weather. What might be termed as “small talk”. The second part is referred to in IELTS training institutions as the “Cue Card session”. That’s when the interview gives you a particular topic, along with three sub-questions.

  • Why do you think IELTS is such a tough test to pass?
    • What has been your relationship with the English language so far?
    • What steps do you think can be taken to make this test easier for you and others like you?
    • Why do you think such steps haven’t been taken yet?

Of course, that’s not what a normal cue card sounds like. Generally, the questions are about your favorite childhood memory, or travel experience or just simply: Who is your role model? (Fun fact: Guess what’s the most popular answer? No, “Mother” only gets second place.)

The above question is just the one I wish I could ask every student. But I had a job to do, which meant the newcomers were given simpler topics. After all, they had to think for one minute and then speak for two without interruption.

However, over the months, once the students got over their initial hesitance and shyness, once the simple topics were exhausted, my sub conscious bewilderment at this seemingly unspoken social problem found small outlets of query. Basically, I got to ask them exactly why so many were struggling with IELTS.

“Did you…. speak English in school?” I’d ask.

Most would shake their heads and say they studied in Malayalam medium schools. Or worse, that they studied in English medium schools where everyone spoke in Malayalam, even the teachers.

Like a puzzle being solved in slow motion over the course of a year, I found my first piece.

“What’s a habit you’d like to develop?”

Almost always the answer was the same. Which should have made me happy, but over time it did the exact opposite.

“I want to start reading books.”

But they never did. We are all aware of, and sadly resigned to the fact that we as a society hardly read anymore. Most people barely read a book a year.

But you’d think that the candidates who pay about 10,000 rupees for coaching so that they can write a British Council run IELTS test that costs 13,000 rupees, would take this advice more seriously.

Yet in institutions all across the state, and perhaps all over India, it’s the same scenario. Students, both first timers and the more jaded ones who’ve attempted the exam multiple times while their worried spouses prayed and tired parents took care of the children, don’t read.

Reading, I’ve realized, is like yoga. Almost everyone around you knows the immense benefits of yoga. Yet how many people do you know who practice it?

I’ve gotten tired of telling students to read more. “Spend at least 60 minutes every day,” I tell them. They all nod sincerely. And then just never do it.

Part of it is because they don’t truly believe reading will improve their language skills. Telling someone who comes to an institute for 30 days of IELTS coaching that reading will solve their problem, is like telling a person staring at his fingers that his nails are growing. They don’t have the time to see the results, and hence, deep down, won’t believe you.

But there has to be a bigger reason for this reluctance. I realized what it was when I was talking to a nurse. She was extremely dedicated; the kind of person who takes notes, asks questions and follows advice.

“Why did you choose to become a Nurse?” I asked.

“Because of my cousin sister. She visited me from Canada when I was in 8th standard, and told me how wonderful it was there. So, I wanted to become a nurse just like her.”

And then it hit me.

“You’ve known you wanted to be a nurse since 8th Standard?”

“Yes,” she beamed proudly.

“You dreamed of going to Canada, right?”

Again she nodded.

I took a deep sigh and phrased the next question as politely as I could, for it was not meant to be an accusation, but simply a query laced with exasperation.

“You are 24 years old right now. You knew you wanted to go abroad when you were 13 years old. You knew your cousin sister wrote IELTS. You knew she lived in Canada, so spoke English at work. Then why did you never prepare for that? Why did you always speak in Malayalam at school, to teachers, to friends? Why did you never read books? Why did you never watch English T.V. programs? Why, out of the past 9 years, have you only worried about this issue for the past two months?”

I don’t know if I phrased it properly. But I do know I never uttered it. Instead I simply smiled, and asked her to read more.

After she got up and left, and before the next student entered the room, I had a few minutes to myself.

In those minutes I realized two things.

Firstly, that I’m thankful I didn’t end up as a lungi wearing Malayalee version of Ayn Rand. Someone who believed that the individual in front of me should succeed solely through their own efforts, and nothing else. Yes, there were students, such as a group of nurses who studied in Government Colleges. Through sheer hard work and sincerity they would overcome a Malayalam medium education in a village where the only “book store” was probably a street vendor hawking pirated copies of Chetan Bhagat.

Well, almost overcome. For even they would sometimes fall agonizingly short of the scores required. And the collective futures of the parents who raised them in the past, spouses who married them in the present and children that were yet to be born, would all hang in the balance. Until the next test date was set three months later, and the whole cycle started all over again.

The second thing I realized is that we as a society have to fix this problem. In high school, a Social Science teacher who I later realized was from Tamil Nadu, chuckled about the “Kerala Model”. He told me how the people in Kerala were highly developed but the state still ranked low in terms of industrial and economic development. Later my father simplified it by saying that the majority of Malayalees go out of state and send money back home.

I don’t know if the Kerala Model is good or bad. But I don’t think it’s going to change any time soon. Then why on earth can’t we perfect it? There are huge quotas of nurses, engineers and various other professions to be filled in the developed world. And people from every developing country are thronging to get in. But far too many Malayalees are stumbling at the gate, some repeatedly.

It’s time to change the system. Time to make English a priority. Enough with the hypocritical “Neeyara? Sayippo?” comments when one of our friends or relatives attempt to speak in English. Because the ones who make those comments are the same ones who, a decade later, sacrifice a major portion of their salary so that they can slightly improve their language within two months.

We should be encouraging every Malayalee child to read Roald Dahl and J.K. Rowling with the same fervor we show towards R.D. Sharma and R.D. Agarwal. Redirect some of the intensity from Entrance coaching to English Language training. Speaking, reading, listening and writing in a language for the entirety of your Adult professional and social life needs to be huge priority. Or at least as important as an education in Physics and Biology?

There are plenty of solutions for the age-old question, “Enganeya ee Naadu nannaka?”

Making English a priority so that more Malayalees can seek out and gain a better quality of life…. that definitely has to be at the top of the list. Right?

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