The TOEFL iBT is one of the major tests that gauge applicants’ ability worldwide to use and understand English, and is commonly used as a requirement for admission to university level studies. Since the TOEFL is a test available globally and it assesses listening, as well as speaking skills, in addition to reading, writing and grammar, many applicants wonder if they should use American English or British English and whether speaking in a particular accent would affect their score.
These kinds of questions arise because the TOEFL, although global by nature, is a test made in the United States, leading test takers to believe that American English is the variant favored by the test’s makers. Indeed, the Test of English as a Foreign Language is, undeniably, an American exam. It is administered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), a nonprofit organization headquartered in the state of New Jersey. All texts found on the exam use American spelling. In addition, many of the speakers on listening and speaking parts of the exam will be American.
So, what should you do? Should you learn to speak in an American accent and use American spelling if you want to do well on the TOEFL, or is there no such requirement?
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Can I use British English on the TOEFL?
The good news is that yes, you can, and as long as you speak (and write) in proper, correct English, you will be fine. Assessment experts will not penalize you if your accent is Australian, British, or Irish. If you have studied British English at school and this is the variety of English you are most comfortable with, there is absolutely nothing wrong with using British spelling and speaking with a British accent.
Emilie Pooler, who is now Director of Client Management at Educational Testing Service (ETS) but previously worked as an assessment specialist for TOEFL, told the Hindu Education plus:
As long as the evaluator can understand what the test taker is trying to convey, he/she will make it through. The British or Indian accent will not be a criterion for disqualification.
You do not stand to lose points for having an accent, so do not worry if you are unable to pronounce certain sounds as native English speakers. Irrespective of your accent, however, you should have the right intonation and put emphasis on the right syllables, so your speaking is intelligible to TOEFL raters.
Regarding the Listening section on the TOEFL, ETS points out that there are other native-speaker English accents in addition to accents from North America. Test takers may hear accents from the UK, New Zealand or Australia. ETS explains that it had added these accents to better reflect the variety of native English accents students may encounter while studying abroad.
This is a very important clarification because it shows that while it is not obligatory for you to speak and write in American English, you still need to be familiar with different accents. It will definitely help if you have listened to British and American English extensively. You should not worry about it excessively, however. The accent, be it American, British, or Australian, will not be very strong. You can rest assured that you will not hear any extreme Scottish accents, for example, which have the potential to make life difficult even for native English speakers.
The risk of switching between accents
It is generally a bad idea to mix different accents and spelling styles. If you do that, your speaking and writing may become confusing to the reader/listener, or in this particular case, the TOEFL rater.
But even if you do switch a bit, it will not be fatal as long as you are using correct English words and grammar so that English speakers understand you.
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TOEFL is a global exam
To better understand why there would be no problem if you use a variety of the English language other than American, you need to put yourself in the shoes of the test makers. Being aware that people from all around the world will sit the exam, ETS removes elements of the test that may not be universally understood by anyone – slang, obscure words, strong accents, regionalisms, dialects, unclear references etc. ETS wants to make the TOEFL exam as universal as possible. Hence the accents you may encounter in the test, although noticeably different, will be clear and easy to understand by a person with a good command of the English language.
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ETS advertises TOEFL as an international exam. One of the first things you can read when you open the TOEFL website is this:
The TOEFL test is the most widely respected English-language test in the world, recognized by more than 10,000 colleges, universities and agencies in more than 150 countries…
The exam is built to have a universal appeal and its content designed to be understood by test takers anywhere in the world. The truth is that you will do fine in the test if your English is good, regardless of whether you have studied American English, British English or some other variation.