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International Language Tests – an Overview for Masters Students

As more and more students decide to study a Masters abroad, language tests are becoming an increasingly familiar feature of the international applications process.

Not all prospective students have to take tests, of course. If you’re already a proficient speaker of the language of in your destination country it’s quite unlikely that you’ll be asked to prove it (there are no records of Australian or US universities asking British students to demonstrate proficiency in English, for example!).

More non-anglophone universities are also designing international degree programmes in English, allowing applicants to bypass the need for a native language test.

Nonetheless, it’s still common practice for some countries to require a language test score from overseas applicants to their Masters degree programmes. That’s why we’ve put together a series of guides for different language tests, worldwide.

If you’re looking for information on a specific language test, you should be able to find it using the menu on the left; we’ve covered most of the major international study languages, from English to Mandarin.

If you’re not sure if a language test will be required for your Masters degree – or if you’re looking for more information on international language tests in general – you can find out more below.

Who needs to take an international language test?

As a general rule, you may be asked to provide a language test score with your Masters degree application if all of the following apply:

  • You are studying abroad in a country with a different native language to your own
  • Your course isn’t designated as an international programme
  • You don’t have existing proof of the necessary language proficiency at an academic level

What are international programmes?

International Masters degree programmes are courses designed specifically for students studying abroad. Instead of being delivered in the local language, they are taught in a more familiar medium – usually English or French (though other international languages are sometimes offered).

They are most common in countries where the local language is not widely spoken elsewhere and are designed to help universities recruit foreign students. If your Masters degree is designated as an ‘international programme’ you probably won’t be required to take a test in the local language.

What counts as ‘academic proficiency’ in a language?

Language tests for international study confirm that you can speak a language at a level sufficient to successfully complete a degree programme.

Sadly, it’s not enough to be able to order a coffee, say “good morning” and ask when the next train is coming. These sorts of phrase are useful (especially when you’re commuting to your university, could do with a hot drink and would like to be polite to the person serving it). However, they won’t demonstrate your ability to comprehend complex academic concepts, discuss them with your tutors and write about them to a high standard.

Academic language tests prove that you can do this, but there are other ways to demonstrate that proficiency.

The most obvious is to have studied in that language before. Being able to order a sandwich in Paris isn’t proof of being able to complete a Masters degree in French, but having already completed a French Bachelor’s degree might be.

If you think you can demonstrate existing proficiency in a language at an academic level you should discuss this when applying for your Masters. If your prospective university is satisfied, they will probably accept your existing degree qualifications in lieu of a language test.

How can I find out whether or not I need to take a language test?

The best way to find out if your Masters degree requires an international language test is to ask your prospective university. Most will have information about language requirements on their website and their international office should be happy to help you if not.

You can also read more about language requirements for international students in our guides to study abroad.

What do language tests involve?

Tests vary for different languages, but most follow a similar format with sections on reading, writing, speaking and listening. These may be assessed separately, or as part of one long session, depending on the format for your test.

Paper-based and computer-based tests

Language tests may be either paper-based, using a traditional exam format, or computer-based, with dedicated pc software installed in testing centres.

Computer-based testing is becoming more common - particularly for listening tasks. Some tests still offer a paper-based format though (a good example is the International English Language Testing System, or IELTS).

The procedure for both mediums is quite similar for reading, writing and listening, with appropriate comprehension based-tasks.

The procedure for speaking tests varies. Computer-based formats will usually use voice recognition software, whilst traditional tests will usually involve an interview with an examiner.

Assessment and grading

You’ll need to achieve or exceed a stated result in your language test in order to demonstrate sufficient proficiency for your Masters degree. The exact requirement will depend on the nature of your test and the grading system it uses.

Some tests will be set at different levels for different applicants and will grade you as having passed or failed (or achieved a ‘satisfactory’ or ‘unsatisfactory’ result) at that level. As a prospective Masters student you will need to take the test at an appropriately advanced level (which may be higher than that for undergraduate study).

Other tests will issue scores across a wide range. Universities accepting these systems will usually stipulate a minimum result for admission to their courses.

How do I know which language test to take for my Masters?

It’s actually quite common for more than one test to be offered in a given language. You don’t have to worry too much about this, though.

All major academic language tests will be recognised by a majority of universities in appropriate countries and / or accredited by their ministries of education. It’s very rare for a specific university to completely discount a well-known test when considering postgraduate applications.

This means that you’re more likely to find yourself choosing the most appropriate test rather than the right test. There are a couple of factors that might influence your decision.

Local and international tests

Where a higher education system recognises two different tests, it is possible that one will be administered locally and the other will be available internationally.

This is the case for German, for example, where the DSH test is only offered by universities in Germany, whilst the TestDaF is offered at approved testing centres around the world. Both are recognised by universities.

Unsurprisingly, internationally administered tests are often more convenient for international students. You can probably take one in your own country, without the need to arrange travel and accommodation.

There’s nothing to say you can’t take a locally administered test though. In fact, this will probably be more convenient if you’re already living in your intended country of study. If your prospective university administers the test you may even be able to take it as part of a campus visit or interview day.

Tests for world languages

It’s possible that the national language in your country of study is also used elsewhere, or may actually be derived from the mother-tongue of another country.

This would be the case in Brazil, for example, where the national language is Portuguese; or in French speaking regions of Switzerland or Canada.

In such cases different language tests may be offered to examine proficiency in a language for different countries. Dutch language tests, for example, include the Netherlands’ own NT2 exam and the CNaVT exam, which is intended for international variants of Dutch (such as used in Flemish speaking parts of Belgium).

Unsurprisingly, tests for international versions of a language will usually be administered internationally, whereas national tests are more likely to be offered locally.

Universities themselves probably won’t distinguish between tests intended for slightly different contexts. If you can have a score that demonstrates proficiency in a language that will probably be enough.

Check which test is right for you

The best way to find out which language test is most appropriate to your Masters application is to check our individual guides. You can select these using the menu on the left.

Where and when should I take a language test for my Masters degree?

Language tests for Masters students normally take place at approved testing centres, designated by the organisation responsible for administering the test. Some of these operate throughout the year, whilst others open at specific points in the academic calendar.

Where to take a test

Testing centres may be located in the country requiring the test (your country of study) but there will usually be an option to take the test abroad too. This is particularly likely if you are taking a test designed specifically for international versions of a language.

Actual testing centres are often associated with universities, making it relatively easy to find one. You might be able to take a test when visiting your new university campus – or perhaps even find one offered by the university you’ve studied your Bachelors degree at.

When to take a test

Language testing centres won’t necessarily operate all year round. Their peak period – as you can probably imagine – is associated with applications and admissions windows in the countries they serve.

This means that some tests may be organised on specific dates throughout the year, requiring you to plan in advance. Other centres may operate more flexibly however - particularly if their examination procedures are mainly computer based and require less formal administration.

You can find information about testing dates by checking our specific guides.

Do language tests include language training?

Not usually, no. Most academic language tests check that you already have sufficient language proficiency to complete your Masters degree. They don’t include education and training, but rather confirm the level of your current skills.

So, if you want to study a Masters abroad in a language you aren’t proficient in, simply enrolling for a test probably won’t be a great idea.

Instead you should discuss the matter with your prospective university. They may be able to recommend language training from a reputable third-party, or offer their own. Some universities may even offer an initial period of language training and acclimatisation to international students before they begin their degree programmes.

What happens if I fail my language test?

You’re unlikely to fail a language test outright, unless you genuinely aren’t prepared to undertake postgraduate study in that language. If this happens you should probably consider a course of language training (see above).

If you narrowly fail your test, your university may be willing to discuss the result and consider your admission. Alternatively, you may need to resit all or part of the test.

Because most language tests are split into four core components (reading, writing, speaking, and listening) you may be able to take and resit these individually.

You can find more information on testing and resitting procedures in our individual guides to language tests for Masters students.

Language tests in Europe: the CEFR

Most language tests for international students in Europe correspond with a system of measurement known as the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR).

The CEFR provides a common scale for language proficiency, divided into six levels. This ensures that language requirements for the same purpose in different countries are comparable.

European Masters degrees will normally require proficiency at level ‘B2’ of the CEFR scale. This denotes ‘Upper Intermediate’ ability, meaning you will be able to understand complex materials involving abstract ideas and technical language, communicate easily and effectively with native speakers and present sophisticated and nuanced ideas in writing.

You can read more about the Common Framework of Reference for Languages at the Council of Europe website. Remember though that the CEFR is not directly involved in setting and examining language tests or determining the scores required for different university courses.

See our individual language guides for specific information on testing procedures. You can also read about language requirements for international students in Europe in our guides to European Masters degrees.

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