You can find IELTS in almost every country around the world. Globally, it is the largest English language test. We need it for everything from immigration applications, to employment requirements, to academic acceptance. Given this wide range of uses and wide global reach, it is normal to find people of every language and every culture taking IELTS. However, if you’ve ever studied English with people from other countries, you’ll know that we don’t all learn in the same way. For example, if you’re Japanese, it’s much easier to learn Chinese because similar written characters are used. On the other hand, if you are studying Hindi and your first language is Italian, you will find it more difficult because you need to use a new alphabet.
So how does this connect to IELTS? When you Google “IELTS Study Guide,” you will find thousands of materials to help you study. However, these materials don’t target one kind of student with one kind of language. So, if you get an IELTS Essay Guide, it will be meant for everyone. It probably won’t consider what certain cultures and certain language speakers need. For instance, imagine an Arabic-speaking student is preparing for the computer-based IELTS. In many Arabic-speaking countries, the computer keyboard layouts are different from standard English keyboards. This could cause trouble when trying to type using an unfamiliar keyboard for the writing test.
Let’s now focus on three common challenges Arabic speakers have during IELTS test prep. If this is your first language, this is a must-read!
The Writing System is Different
Because the Arabic writing system goes from right to left, Arabic speakers should be prepared to go from left to right when using English. This can be a problem for both paper-and-pencil tests and computer-delivered tests. If it’s computer-based, remember to practice on an English keyboard. The technical name for this layout is the QWERTY keyboard. Being comfortable on the QWERTY will improve your typing speed, your writing accuracy, and your test-day confidence. If the test is paper-based, make sure that you practice your summaries, essays, and letters on paper. If your hand gets tired and your writing is messy, this might distract you from the writing tasks. Anything you can do to mirror test-day conditions will help!
Sounds and Spellings Don’t Always Agree in English
When teaching Arabic learners, I sometimes notice they pronounce every letter in English words. After doing some research, I learned that in the Arabic language system, almost all written characters are pronounced. This is not the case in English. When you say the word “island” it is pronounced “eye-land”. It is not pronounced “eyes-land”. When you say the words “knife”, “know”, and “knight”, we don’t say the “k” sound. And how about “though”, “enough,” and “rough”? They are pronounced “tho”, “ee-nuff”, and “ruff”. When you are studying, pay close attention to silent letters. Also, notice how words are pronounced by using subtitles on the video. A final tip is to use speech-to-text apps. Speak into your phone or computer and see if what you say computes to the correct word. It can be very confusing trying to match spelling and pronunciation, but if you are not accurate on the speaking test, this could mean the difference between an IELTS 7 and an IELTS 5!
Know your prepositions!
I have graded thousands and thousands of essays and speaking tests for Arabic speaking students learning English. Maybe the most common “little mistake” is with prepositions. Prepositions are words used in time, directions, locations, and to introduce objects. Some common ones are in, on, under, over, at, with, and to. The difference between at the ocean and in the ocean is very important if you can’t swim, for example. At the ocean means you are next to it. In the ocean means you are wet.
As you can see, even the smallest misuse can cause trouble! In general, the complexity and range of prepositions in English is more than in Arabic. When translating from Arabic to English, there is often no equal preposition. You might say the prepositions get lost in translation. A good way to improve your accuracy is to learn English in phrases, not individual words. Include the prepositions when you study these vocabulary phrases. So if studying time, don’t just learn that “quarter to ten” means 9:45. You should learn “at quarter to ten” means 9:45. Don’t learn that the phrase “field of study” means in a university program. Learn “in the field of study” means a university program.
There are many more significant differences between English and Arabic that are important to be aware of when prepping for IELTS. These three are important, but they are just a few. So don’t forget that every language student learns differently. The better you understand your own learning, the faster you will improve. Good luck on test day!