It is the last day of the year with a fully-crewed school. From next week we will run with a skeleton staff of students and teachers, and the atmosphere will change.
This is fitting for a mid-winter language school, which needs quietly to regrow itself from tubers in the dead of the year, like anything other institution. This, after all, is the True Meaning of Christmas™.
In keeping with the spirit of the season, one of our students will today hunker himself in seclusion in front of one of the computers in a quarantined room and compete a BULATS level test.
Computerised testing is the future, and to a great extent the present also. Students already have the option to complete Cambridge exams by computer, and BULATS will be going entirely computer from 2017. Many students are anyway more comfortable with a mouse and a keyboard than they are with a pen and paper, and papers can be marked more swiftly and accurately, and results delivered more quickly.
But there is also something telling about the fact that a skill so fundamental to and characteristic of human interaction is now judged with no humans present. BULATS is a listening and reading test, admittedly, but these are also, in life and to varying degrees, social skills.
Perhaps it is not language which is at issue, but the whole business – and it is a big business – of level-testing. The idea of a ‘level’ of English, rather than a highly variegated range of competences, and the idea that this needs ‘testing’ is one promulgated in the main by universities (who are eager to admit non-native speakers, but also to protect their reputations) and HR departments, who like their people to be measured and measurable. The language competence of a business can thus be reduced to a single number, a number derived from many unproductive hours interfacing with computers.