As a proudly South African company, IELTS for Afrikaans speakers is one of our most important research topics. It’s no secret that South Africans are currently seeking to emigrate in fairly large numbers. A large number of these people speak Afrikaans as their first language. Of course, English is one of South Africa’s 11 official languages, so most South African Afrikaans speakers are also proficient users of English. However, any multilingual person knows that when you have many languages in your mind, they can influence each other. Sometimes this interference is productive, but often it isn’t. It can have a negative effect on communicative ability, which can in turn reduce a person’s IELTS score.
At Highway IELTS we have helped thousands of Afrikaans speakers to achieve their goals in IELTS. We recently asked our academic team to give us a summary of the most significant errors that Afrikaans speakers make. In this article we will discuss two of the most salient ones, in order to help you tackle IELTS successfully. To that end, we will start with a discussion of the similarities and difference between Afrikaans and English. Then, we will look at how these factors play out in the sphere of everyday communication and especially in the context IELTS. Finally, we will outline some strategies for test candidates to employ.
Is my Accent a Problem?
Our Afrikaans speaking clients sometimes ask us if their accents will reduce their IELTS speaking test scores. The short answer is no. IELTS tests your ability to use English to communicate. If you pronounce English words in a way that other people can understand without difficulty, then you do not need to worry about your accent. If you are an Afrikaans speaker living in South Africa, then it is likely that you use English to communicate in your daily life or your professional life. So you will know if people are able to understand you. Don’t try to fake a more global accent, like American or British. There is no “proper accent”. However, if someone’s English is not strong enough for regular communication, then he or she might need to do some pronunciation work.
Now that that’s out the way, let’s look at some issues that can have a meaningful impact on your IELTS score.
Similarities Between Afrikaans and English
As an immigrant to South Africa myself, I’ve always found Afrikaans interesting. An English speaker who has received no instruction in the Afrikaans language will be able to identify a significant number of words that are similar in the two languages. Coexistence inevitably leads to sharing of words between languages. Furthermore, English and Afrikaans are both Germanic languages, like Dutch, German and the Scandinavian languages. What English and Afrikaans share, in contrast to all the other languages in this family, is a radically simple verb paradigm.
You can think of a verb paradigm as a kind of table or chart. It shows how verbs must change in order to match their subjects. In most of the world’s languages, verbs have about 6 distinct forms in the present tense alone. Consider this example from German:
1st person singular: kauf-e
2nd person singular: kauf-st
3rd person singular: kauf-t
1st person plural: kauf-en
2nd person plural: kauf-t
3rd person plural: kauf-en
We can see that in German, the verb changes a great deal, depending on the subject. This produces a large range of variation. In contrast, English and Afrikaans have far less variation. Consider the verb “to go” in English. I go, you go, we go, they go. The only variance comes in when we are talking about the 3rd person singular (he, she or it). In that case, we say that he goes. In Afrikaans, there is even less variation. The verb remains stable no matter the subject.
Differences Between Afrikaans and English
One important difference between English and Afrikaans emerges when we consider the behavior of one very special verb. This is the verb “to be”, known in linguistics as the copula. In English, you distinguish this verb according to the person of the subject. So, I am here, while you are here, she is here, and so on. Afrikaans handles all of these with one form: “is”. This makes things simpler, but it also leads to errors in English. These errors fall into two broad categories: concord and aspect. We will consider each of these in turn below.
IELTS for Afrikaans Speakers: Verb Paradigms and Your Test
It’s difficult for speakers of languages with simple verb paradigms (like English and Afrikaans) to learn languages with richer ones (like Greek and French). English speakers learning French make frequent errors in verb paradigms, particularly at the beginning of the learning process. This happens because their first language lacks this feature. Similarly, Afrikaans speakers make these errors when speaking English, even though English is only marginally more complex in this regard than Afrikaans. It seems that the close similarity of the two languages might actually be the cause of the difficulty here; sometimes Afrikaans speakers overlook what seems like a small difference. Unfortunately, the resulting errors can make a meaningful difference in IELTS. Let’s look at each of them, beginning with concord.
Concord is the grammatical term for the agreement between subjects and verbs. In English, it’s correct to say that I like coffee, but it’s incorrect to say that “he like coffee“. This is because when the subject of the sentence is “he”, the verb has to change form to “likes”. The verb in this form (“likes”) agrees with the subject (“he”). Similarly, it’s right to say that she likes tea but it’s wrong to say that “I likes tea”. These errors are very jarring and they will draw the attention of the IELTS examiner, because they impede the communicative effect of what you are saying or writing.
Examples of Common Concord Errors: Plural Subjects
Mistakes in concord become frequent when the subject of the sentence contains more than one person or thing. We touched on this issue in our post on grammar. Consider this sentence from a task 2 essay:
In today’s world, old-fashioned virtues like honesty, hospitality and kindness is becoming less common.
First, let’s identify the subject of the sentence. Is it honesty? Or hospitality? Or is it kindness? It’s actually all three. The subject of this sentence is very long: “Old-fashioned virtues like honesty, hospitality and kindness”. Is this singular or plural? There are two clues to help us here. Firstly, “virtues” has an “s” and is therefore a plural. Secondly, there are three virtues in the list. Therefore, we need to change “is” to “are:
In today’s world, old-fashioned virtues like honesty, hospitality and kindness are becoming less common.
This is more obvious if we make a long subject out of three people’s names. If I tell you that John, James and Jacob is coming, you will immediately perceive the mistake.
Examples of Common Concord Errors: Singular Subjects
The opposite applies when you have a complex subject beginning with “one”. Let me tell you something about myself. One of my pet peeves are children addressing adults by their first names. Re-read that sentence and see if you can detect the error. The sentence should read like this:
One of my pet peeves is children addressing adults by their first names.
You might object: but “peeves” is plural! “Children” is also plural! Surely we can use “are” here? It’s easy to make this mistake, so let’s look at exactly why it’s wrong. As before, let’s start by identifying the subject of the sentence. It’s clear that I have many pet peeves (as most of us do), but the very first word of the sentence is “one”. This shows that in this sentence, I’m not talking about all of the things that annoy me, or even a selection of the most egregious ones, but one in particular. So the subject is “one of my pet peeves”, and not “my pet peeves”. This is important because the singular subject controls the verb, which means that is must be “is”. What comes after the verb (“is”), is not actually very relevant.
The fact that the predicate of the verb (the bit that comes after the verb) contains a plural noun does not change anything about the subject. Now, this is a minor error. On its own, it would have no effect on your IELTS score. However, if you do this repetitively, it will begin to draw attention.
IELTS for Afrikaans Speakers: Aspect
Another area that tends to create errors is aspect. Unlike its simple verb paradigm, which we discussed above, English uses aspect in ways that are almost prohibitively complex. To help you understand what I mean, consider the following pair of sentences:
i) Louise wears blue.
ii) Louise is wearing blue.
In both sentences, we have the same subject, Louise. Both sentences are in the present tense, meaning that they involve a reference to something that is neither in the past nor in the future. So what’s the difference? Well, sentence (i) is in the present simple, while sentence (ii) is in the present continuous, also known as present progressive. It’s important we recognize that the difference here is not about tense (they’re both present). Sentence (i) sounds like it’s telling us about a habit that Louise has. She wears blue, habitually, for some reason. She may or may not be wearing blue right now. In sentence (ii), however, she is wearing blue right now.
In English, you use the verb on its own (“wears”) to refer to a general reality or habit. You use the copula (see above) with the verb ending in “ing” to describe something happening right now. This causes some difficulty for speakers of other languages (like Afrikaans) that don’t make a clear structural distinction between habits/ongoing states and present realities. This can result in errors like this:
I am lactose intolerant, so I am not consuming dairy products.
This sentence could be correct, but only in a very specific context. If someone is offering the speaker milk, he might say the above sentence to decline the offer. However, if the speaker is simply describing something about his life, the use of the continuous “I am not consuming” might sound unnatural. It would be better, in this case, to simply say:
I am lactose intolerant, so I don’t consume dairy products.
Where Aspect Comes Up
In English, there are two main means of indicating aspect. The one is with the copula, which marks the distinction between simple and continuous. We discussed that in the preceding paragraphs.
The other way is with forms of the word “have”. This word can be used to mark perfect meanings. The word “perfect” in grammar has nothing to do with beauty or excellence. It simply means “complete”. So, a sentence in the present perfect aspect is one that refers to an event brought to completion in the past. It’s usually an event that has some relevance to the present. Consider this example: if you call customer service to complain that an incorrect amount has been debited from your account. The conversation might go like this:
Customer: I’m calling to query an amount that‘s gone off my account. What have you taken twice the usual amount?
Operator: Thank you for your call. I see the mistake and I‘ve just reversed the payment. My apologies for the inconvenience.
Suspend your disbelief for a moment (good customer service in South Africa?) and take a look at the words in bold. “That’s gone” is short for “that has gone” and “I’ve just reversed” is short for “I have just reversed”. Notice that these are both forms of the verb “have”. “Have” will cover everything except the third person singular (he/she/it), which requires “has”. This brings us back to concord, which we discussed above, because the singular or plural number of the subject becomes important:
The number of people convicted for murder have been declining for some years now.
The problem in this sentence is that “the number” is a singular subject, so it requires “has”. If you write something like this in your IELTS exam, you will be rewarded for the complexity of the structure (present perfect continuous). However, if you make consistent errors like this, you will reduce the communicative effect of your writing.
IELTS for Afrikaans Speakers: Summary
To summarize, we’ve discussed some significant sub-systems of English grammar. We have looked at how these cause difficulty for Afrikaans speakers who speak English as an additional language:
- Singular/plural subjects
- Verb paradigms
- Subject-verb agreement
- Simple and continuous aspect
- Perfect aspect
If you are an Afrikaans speaker and you are taking IELTS, you might need to get some practice in before you attempt the test. As South Africa’s leading IELTS preparation agency, Highway IELTS is your best bet. Get in touch today to start working with us: