Language Testing for Immigration

In order to become a U.S. citizen, applicants must pass a two-part naturalization test. Part one is an English test aimed at assessing immigrants’ language skills, including their ability to read, write, listen, and speak in English. Part two is a civics test that evaluates immigrants’ knowledge of the U.S. government and history.

In this article, we will take a deep dive into the language test portion of the naturalization exam and provide a brief outline of the full naturalization process.

This is a topic that I am all too familiar with. Though I was born in the United States, I met my husband in Peru, and together we’ve spent many years navigating the complex immigration systems of the three countries we’ve lived in together: Peru, the United States, and Australia. Understanding what’s required through each step of the immigration process can be confusing and overwhelming, but we’re here to help make it a little bit easier.

Before Applying for Citizenship

A few steps need to be completed before thinking about and preparing for the naturalization language assessment. Let’s start at the beginning.

Before taking the plunge and applying for citizenship, the first step is to check your eligibility. In most cases, you must have been a U.S. Permanent Resident for at least five years and have not left the United States for a continuous period of more than six months to apply for citizenship.

A few exceptions include the following:

-Permanent residents of at least three years who have been married to and living with a U.S. citizen throughout those three years are eligible to apply.

-Members of the U.S. Armed Forces that served for at least one year and were discharged in the previous six months. These applicants must be Permanent Residents on the day of their citizenship interview but do not need to have lived in the U.S. for any period to apply for citizenship.

-People who performed active military service during major U.S. conflicts, such as World War I or II, the Vietnam or Korean Wars, etc. These applicants do not have to be Permanent Residents or reside in the U.S. for any period to apply for citizenship.

To ensure your eligibility, it’s always a good idea to check the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website.

Starting Your Citizenship Application

So you’ve met the eligibility requirements and are ready to start your citizenship application. Before you get to the interview stage, where you’ll undergo your English language testing, you must file a Naturalization Application (form N-400) with USCIS and pay any applicable fees.

You’ll likely also need to attend a biometrics appointment, where USCIS will obtain your photograph, fingerprints, and signature. This is done so that USCIS can run applicable criminal background checks and confirm the applicant’s identity to ensure the benefits of citizenship are conferred on the correct person.

Determining Whether You Need to Take the English Language Assessment

Most naturalization applicants must take the civics and English language tests during interviews. However, there are a few exceptions.

-The 50/20 rule: Applicants 50 or older and have been Lawful Permanent Residents for at least 20 years do not have to take the language test.

-The 55/15 rule: Applicants who are 55 or older and have been Lawful Permanent Residents for at least 15 years do not have to take the language test.

These applicants still need to complete the civics test, but they may do so in the language of their choice using an interpreter.

Additionally, applicants with a disability that has lasted, or is expected to last, for at least twelve months, can apply for accommodations (e.g., extra time, large print on the reading test, providing answers verbally) or for an exemption to the English test, the civics test, or both.

Interview Time!

Now it’s time for the interview during which the civics and English language tests will be administered. This can certainly be nerve-wracking, but it’s also a moment to celebrate. The interview marks the end of a process that has taken years or even decades to complete. It takes a lot of time, money, and emotional energy to navigate the immigration system and jump through all the required hoops, so if you’ve made it to the interview, give yourself a pat on the back. You’re almost there. If you take the time to ensure you’re prepared, you’ll be in good shape.

A Step-by-step Guide to the Language Test

While many other countries allow applicants to submit third-party language tests to demonstrate language proficiency, the U.S. requires all applicants to undergo its locally developed immigration tests as part of the naturalization interview.

The English language test consists of three parts: a speaking/listening test, a reading test, and a writing test. It’s very different from academic language tests, such as the TOEFL or IELTS test. While these language tests run for approximately three hours, the naturalization language test generally lasts only about ten minutes. Whew!

Additionally, while large-scale proficiency tests tend to evaluate academic language abilities, the naturalization language assessment looks at general English using basic vocabulary and grammar, as well as government and civics-related English knowledge.

While it’s helpful to have flawless pronunciation and spelling, it’s okay if your language skills aren’t perfect. Test administrators expect most people to make common mistakes and will not fail test takers for doing so. Additionally, don’t be afraid to ask questions or request repetition. Test administrators are authorized to repeat certain words or rephrase questions upon request.

Step 1: The Speaking and Listening Test

Now let’s get into the nitty-gritty. The speaking and listening exam begins as soon as you greet the immigration officer. For this portion of the assessment, you will be asked questions about your Naturalization Application (Form N-400) and your eligibility to become a citizen. Your answers to these questions will be used to evaluate your ability to speak and understand English.

Before the interview, it’s a good idea to review the answers you put down on your application, familiarize yourself with the type of language used on the N-400, and look back over any supporting documents you’ve submitted to USCIS throughout the immigration process as they may ask you questions about these documents as well.

The following is a list of the types of questions you may be asked. Note that this is not an exhaustive list: you will not be asked every question here, and you may be asked questions that have not been listed.

Greetings

  • How are you doing?
  • How are you feeling?

Remember that the interview starts as soon as you greet the immigration officer, so the way you answer these questions may be taken into account.

Being Placed Under Oath

  • Do you promise to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, so help you, God?
  • Do you understand what an “oath” is?

Biographic Information/Physical Attributes

  • Where were you born?
  • Have you ever used any other names?
  • What color are your eyes?

Family/Relationship History

  • Where was your mother/father born?
  • Is your child your biological child, stepchild, or adopted child?
  • Are either of your parents U.S. citizens?
  • When is your child’s birthday?
  • Are you currently single, married, divorced, or widowed?
  • How many times has your spouse been married?
  • What is your spouse’s job?

Military Service

  • Have you ever served in the U.S. military?
  • Have you ever deserted from the military?
  • (If you received a green card between ages 18 and 26): Did you register with Selective Service? Why or why not?

Employment and Education History?

  • What is your job?
  • Where else have you worked during the past five years?
  • What is the name of your last school, and when were you a student there?

Residential History/Trips Abroad

  • What is your address?
  • Where else have you lived during the past five years?
  • Have you taken any trips outside of the U.S. for six months or longer?
  • Which countries have you visited, and what were the reasons for your trips?

Immigration Status

  • How long have you been a Permanent Resident of the U.S.?
  • Are you a citizen of your home country?

Income Tax Obligations

  • Have you ever not filed income taxes since becoming a green card holder?
  • Have you ever claimed to be a ‘non-resident’ on a tax return since becoming a green card holder?

Personal Ethics/Affiliations

  • Have you ever claimed to be a U.S. citizen?
  • Have you ever voted in a U.S. election?
  • Do you understand, and are you willing to take the Oath of Allegiance to the United States?
  • Have you ever been associated with any organization, fund foundation, party, club, or similar group anywhere in the world? If so, please explain.

Legal Issues

  • Have you ever been convicted of a crime?
  • Have you ever overstayed a visa to any country or unlawfully entered any country?
  • Do you have any previous arrests, citations, or charges?

Note: if you have had any legal issues you anticipate being asked about during your interview, it’s highly recommended that you seek legal assistance before applying for naturalization.

Other

  • Why do you want to become a U.S. citizen?
  • Do you understand why you are being interviewed?

Step 2: The Reading Test

The reading test is also quite different from the reading portions of most academic language assessments. Rather than being asked to read a short text and answer related questions, which is often done to evaluate reading comprehension, this test only looks at your ability to read fluently and with minimal pronunciation errors.

Here’s how it works: the test is administered on a digital tablet. You’ll be shown a sentence and asked to read it aloud. If you read with minimal errors on the first try, that’s it. You move right on to the writing test. If not, you’ll be shown a different sentence and asked to try again, with a maximum of three possible trials.

Most sentences use United States history and civics-related vocabulary you may have encountered when studying for the civics portion of the interview. They often include names like “Abraham Lincoln” and “George Washington,” or longer terms such as “Bill of Rights.” Grammar structures are generally kept simple (e.g., words in the present simple or past tense, such as “can,” “want,” or “lives/lived”).

As the test looks at reading fluency, it’s important not to take extensive pauses while reading. It’s okay to mispronounce some words or use non-standard intonation (i.e., the natural rising and falling of your voice when speaking) but be careful not to change any unfamiliar words. The most important thing is to convey that you understand the meaning of the sentence by the way you read it.

USCIS offers a number of helpful resources to prepare for the reading test, including a comprehensive list of vocabulary that may appear on this portion of the test and a set of flashcards that can be downloaded and printed to practice reading and writing relevant vocabulary.

Step 3: The Writing Test

The writing portion of the language assessment is similar to the reading portion. You’ll be given a digital tablet and a writing stylus, and the immigration officer will read a sentence aloud for you to write.

Like the reading test, you’ll be given three trials total. If you get it right on the first try, you’re all finished and ready to take the civics test. If not, you’ll get to try again on up to two more sentences. To see a demonstration of the reading and writing tests, check out this link.

Again, minor spelling, punctuation, and grammar errors aren’t counted against test takers. Numbers can be spelled out (e.g., “twenty”) or written numerically (e.g., “20”), but you cannot use abbreviations (e.g., “NYC” cannot be used in place of “New York City”). You’ll also want to ensure you write neatly so the immigration officer can read (and pass!) you.

Much of the vocabulary from the writing test overlaps with that of the reading test. There may be names of historical figures like “Adams” or “Washington,” places such as “Delaware” or “Washington, D.C.” and holidays such as “Labor Day” or “Thanksgiving.” Again, study resources can be found on the USCIS website, including a complete list of vocabulary words and flashcards to study with.

What Comes Next

You’ve made it through the English test – woohoo! Now all that’s left is the civics test, and your immigration interview will be concluded. We won’t dive deep into the civics test here. Still, we will link you to some great study resources on the USCIS website, including this set of flashcards offered in over a dozen languages that cover each of the 100 possible questions you may be asked.

What Happens if I Fail?

If you fail either the language assessment or the civics test, you will be given one opportunity to retest between 60 and 90 days after your initial interview. You will only be required to redo the portion of the test you failed (e.g., if you only failed the civics test, you won’t need to redo the language assessment).

After the Interview

Generally, if you pass the interview, the immigration officer will let you know right away.

Now there’s just one final step to becoming a U.S. citizen: attend the Oath of Allegiance ceremony. USCIS will send you a notice with the time and location of the ceremony you will attend. There, you will turn in your green card, recite the Oath of Allegiance to the United States, and receive your Certificate of Naturalization at long last!

This is an incredible moment for most immigrants. After many years of descending the long and complex road toward naturalization, when you walk out of the Oath of Allegiance ceremony, you’ll officially begin life as a U.S. citizen!

 

Janet Barrow holds a B.A. in Written Arts from Bard College and a Master of Speech-Language Pathology from the University of Sydney. She works as a pediatric speech pathologist and freelance writer and is currently finishing her first novel.

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