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TOEFL Tip #144: Speaking Really Well Vs. Knowing A Lot

by Strictly English TOEFL Tutors on February 24, 2012

People who are fluent in several languages are called “polyglots.” Those who have studied a wide range of subjects are called “polymaths.” (Note the prefix these two words share: “poly-,” meaning “many”).

Because the TOEFL tests someone’s ability to understand and communicate in English, it’s easy to assume that people who have achieved complete fluency in English will score far better than those who have less mastery of the language, even if they have a broader knowledge base. To be sure, a polyglot may be able to answer the vocabulary questions on the Reading section more easily, simply because he or she recognizes the words.

However, in Strictly English’s experience across 10,000 tutoring hours, we have consistently seen that a high degree of fluency in many languages is not as helpful as knowing something about many academic subject areas. Remember, the Reading passages and some of the Listening tasks cover a very wide range of academic topics, from paleontology to business letter writing. Therefore, the Polymath’s ability to answer questions comfortably within many subject areas will be of great help, both because he/she is familiar with the content, and because that familiarity will boost his/her overall confidence.

For example, consider a polyglot who only knows about fishing. That person will only be able to talk about fishing, even if he or she can do so in 10 languages. Since the TOEFL only tests English, the ability to talk about fishing in the other 9 languages isn’t very useful for the exam. Even if the topic of fishing happens to come up on a particular TOEFL exam, it’s only going to be on the exam once, which means that the polyglot who only knows about fishing will probably have a hard time on the rest of the exam.

On the other hand, if you have a body of knowledge of 10 academic topics, and a working knowledge of English (plus your native language, of course), you will probably do better on the TOEFL because most academic topics have cognates that cross what would otherwise be linguistic barriers. Having a general knowledge of a topic is probably enough for TOEFL because the test is geared toward high school seniors. You don’t need to be an expert in the topic; you just need to be familiar with its main ideas. Your general knowledge can help to fill in the blanks created by gaps in your English.

Take the extreme example of a person who has a Ph.D. in Chemistry, but has, at best, intermediate English skills. That person would probably score higher on a Reading passage about chemistry, if he or she can pick out key words and use them to extrapolate the meaning of the rest of the passage, than the Polyglot who speaks advanced English beautifully but who has had no exposure to the concepts of chemistry.

An important note of caution – it is the golden rule of TOEFL preparation that you should answer the questions from the knowledge in the PASSAGE and not from your own professional or personal knowledge. We are NOT saying that your general knowledge should REPLACE or SUPERSEDE the knowledge in the passage. We are saying that you can USE your knowledge to better understand what the passage is saying.

So, our advice: nurture your inner Polymath! Read widely on academic topics in both English AND your own language so that you build up a base of knowledge to draw upon when you take the TOEFL exam.


Categories: Listening,Reading,TOEFL for University,TOEFL Preparation

1 comment so far. Leave a comment.

  1. TOEFLspeakingnetwork.com

    wrote on March 2, 2012 at 7:29 pm

    I am finding your site quite interesting. I have dedicated many hours creating a site strictly for toefl speaking practice and have over 200 questions related to all toefl’s speaking questions and can concur that toefl has a wide range of topics. I wrote one lecture about frogs and another about social acceptance. One thing to keep in mind is, although they are completely different topics, you can answer them using the same pattern. Of course you need to understand the topic, but knowing a certain pattern will help speak fluently and allow you to focus more on understanding the topc.

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