Season 2, Episode 8 - TOEFL vs The Duolingo English Test with Josh

Jul 25 / Charlie Baxter

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By Charlie Baxter

Season 2

What's this episode about?

In this episode Charlie invites Josh from TST Prep on the show to talk about the duolingo English test that is becoming more popular than ever before and is starting to compete with the more traditional tests such as IELTS or TOEFL. So Josh is here to tell you all about it. We also get to know Josh a bit better as he grew up in America but now resides in Japan with his Japanese wife.
This conversation will help any English learner better understand the fundamental differences between TOEFL, IELTS and The Duolingo English Test.
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Transcript of Pt. 1 Transcript

Charlie:
Hello and welcome to The British English podcast! The show that helps you better understand British culture and British English. British English, or the English in general is the reason that we're doing today's episode. A lot of my students have to go through a grueling experience. Sometimes grueling; like quite bad, quite hard, quite difficult; with the idea of doing test preparation and getting the mark that they want for a test of the English language, that they are able to speak for various reasons.

Charlie:
And we have a guest on the show to help us overcome these fears or or better understand the preparation behind some of these exams. So we have Josh McPherson, an American English teacher who focuses predominantly on the TOEFL test preparation. So TOEFL is the Test Of English as a Foreign Language, and it's a standardised test to measure the English language ability of non-native speakers wishing to enroll in English speaking universities and also probably with visas and job applications. So the test is accepted worldwide. It's a massive one. If you've heard of the IELTS exam, it's similar to that. Yeah.

Charlie:
Josh has an online-based language test solution platform to help English language learners achieve the results that they're wanting to get. So that's- that's what we're going to be talking about, the TOEFL exam and comparing it also to this new kid on the block, the Duolingo test. Because people are getting interested in whether this is a competitor, what the pros and cons of it. We'll be talking about the differences between those two.

Charlie:
Josh was the academic coordinator for an ELT programme in Manhattan for student visa holders. So we got a lot to get through. And it's a culture-based podcast, isn't it? As Josh, I believe, is a human. He probably has some cultural experiences to share with us, and I think he does, because he's also married a Japanese woman and they live in Kyoto, Japan, right now with three kids. And they've been there for about four years. So we've got lots to get through. And welcome, Josh, to the show. How are you doing today?

Josh:
I'm good. Thank you for having me, Charlie. I appreciate it. And thank you for clarifying that I'm a human. I had to- I had to make that clear to people. Yeah, but yeah, your introduction was perfect. Thank you. And you explained TOEFL better than I can, actually. So thank you for that. I appreciate it.

Charlie:
Ok, well it was a Google translation, or just Google. Yeah. So I'm the robot-.

Josh:
You nailed it.

Charlie:
Really. But yeah. So Josh, you're from America. Whereabouts in America?

Josh:
I'm from New York. From Long Island, more particularly, and which is kind of close to Queens. So I grew up in a town called Valley Stream. I grew up there, didn't know a lot about the world, really, just kind of my own little world of New York and have my own culture. Got into English language teaching after college, went to Korea, got my degree in TESOL. And then I was, as you mentioned, I was co-ordinator of a programme in New York. That's where I started teaching TOEFL and then just bouncing around teaching English. And now I'm in Japan, like you said. Your introduction was perfect, man. I couldn't have done it better.

Charlie:
Fantastic. Yeah. Interesting, though, so yeah, I have a lot of questions, but I need to be quite specific because we don't have three hour, unfortunately. I'd like to get to the point where, you know, they're going as long as Joe Rogan's podcast - three hours long.

Josh:
He- I don't know how he talks for that long.

Charlie:
I know.

Josh:
Yeah, it's- it's pretty crazy. You know, I'm- I'm up for it. Maybe we'll see- we'll see how far this goes today. Yeah, we'll see about my- stamina is up for it.

Charlie:
So let's get into the test stuff and then maybe talk about culture in your life a little bit later. The TOEFL exam is what you focussed on predominantly recently. And there's a new one, the Duolingo test. Can you explain a little bit about the differences between those two?

Josh:
Sure. Yes. So, you know, we've been focussed on TOEFL. TST prep is the business I run and we've been focussed on TOEFL Prep and our YouTube channel is mostly TOEFL Prep, but we're going to get into Duolingo. And basically what happened is in the last year, you know, there's a lockdown because of Covid, as everybody knows and a lot of students needed to take English tests like IELTS or TOEFL, but they couldn't because there wasn't- at first, there weren't a lot of online solutions. Later, TOEFL and IELTS were- you were able to take them online. I think IELTS, too. But TOEFL, you can take online now. But at first you couldn't. And so a lot of schools and universities turn to the Duolingo English test. Then in the last year, this test has exploded in popularity.

Josh:
I think it's gone from less than a thousand schools that accept it to over sixteen thousand in the last year. The test itself accounts for 20 percent of Duolingo's revenue as of last year, so it's- it's become a massive phenomenon. You know, it has its pros and cons. It has some critiques as well. But in my ex- in my opinion, it's a lot easier for the students, a lot friendlier for the students. But some people feel that it's not great for preparing somebody for university so that- there's- there's some debate-.

Charlie:
Yeah, right.

Josh:
About how- how good it is. Just to give you an example, you don't have to write an essay for Duolingo English test. The- the- the most you have to write-

Charlie:
So, Duolingo, from what I understand, is the basic app of learning, the beginnings of a language. Have they- have they gone beyond that now?

Josh:
So, yeah. So Duolingo, I mean, you could go from beginning to advanced, but yeah, their specialty is kind of like- and their- their philosophy is that, you know, language education for everybody pretty much that it's it's a free app. You can pay for it, but it's mostly free to learn languages. About five years ago they made this Duolingo English test, but it never really picked up much steam. It never became very popular, and mostly because TOEFL and IELTS were so, well, established, some people didn't think that Duolingo English test really fit the requirements needed for an English test to check if you're ready for university.

Josh:
It wasn't used. I mean, so it's been sitting there on the shelf, so to speak, but it wasn't so popular. Traditionally, that's what they do. They do language learning, a bunch of languages. You can even learn fake languages like Klingon or, you know, made up languages, or Valerian, like a Game of Thrones. So they have a lot of things on Duolingo. But yeah, now they have an English test that's become very, very popular.

Charlie:
They've been testing a variety of things that would work out for them. And they found that this is a pretty good one. So you don't have an essay. I assume you have audio recordings that they then analyse. Do they analyse it automatically or are there people behind it?

Josh:
Yeah. So that's the other thing that's a little- that people are critiquing that- there's- there are human reviewers, but they don't. Main grading is based on AI. So like a- so a grader will just kind of glance over it to make sure, from my understanding. A grader will kind of glance over the speaking and writing to make sure that the A.I. gave an appropriate score. But for the most part, it's almost all automatic and that's why it's so cheap. Maybe you could tell me how much IELTS is, but TOEFL's two hundred dollars, something like that.

Charlie:
I think it's about the same. IELTS I think is about two hundred pounds maybe in the UK. So what's Duolingo?

Charlie:
I'm just going to interrupt this episode briefly to tell you about the free e-book and audio book that was written and narrated by Harry and myself, giving you everything you need to know about using idiomatic expressions in the IELTS speaking exam. This audio book runs for 45 minutes, and we've had an overwhelming amount of emails thanking us for this amazing free gift, which you can find in the show notes of this episode. Or head over to www.thebritishenglishpodcast.com And then you can scroll down the home page until you see the free resources.

Charlie:
And that is where you will be able to get your hands on 45 minutes of incredibly valuable teaching resources. And we made this as we've created an online IELTS speaking course that has actually been on the back burner for a while now, meaning not the main focus for us, or, lower on the list of priorities. But I've decided to take it in a new direction with fortnightly IELTS workshops. And I will also be updating the content in the course in the coming weeks. So if you wanted to get yourself an affordable IELTS preparation course, then do it now before the price increase along with the update. Again, you can find this in the show notes or over at www.thebritishenglishpodcast.com

Josh:
So Duolingo's forty nine dollars. You can also take the test multiple times in a month. There's a lot of free vouchers. So, you know, Duolingo philosophy is, you know, education for all. So, if you are from impoverished country or you know, your income is a little low, then you can apply for a voucher and you can actually take the test for free.

Charlie:
Oh my god, that's amazing!

Josh:
So- so- it's a- it's a very flexible and really student-centred test compared to TOEFL and IELTS, which is more based on linguistics and what people with- educators like you and I might think is appropriate kind of measurements for- for- if somebody is ready to go to university or take a job or whatever. Duolingo does do that as well. But they have a different philosophy of how to do that.

Charlie:
That's- I think that's- immediately, I think that's quite attractive, because when I'm test-preparing my students for the IELTS exam, very often they get to a point where I would score them quite high. But test nerves get in the way so much that the nerves behind performing in the moment with a stranger and that stranger is an author- authoritarian-kind of figure for them. It stresses people out and you've only got a number of shots at it. Yeah, I just looked it's about 190 pounds. 195 pounds. And I think you can only do it ever so often. How- how often can you do the TOEFL exam, like when's the next time?

Josh:
TOEFL, ah, that's a good question. I think you could do it more than once in a month. But I think if that's the limit, I'd have to double check. I think it's two weeks.

Charlie:
So really, the Duolingo way of doing it is eradicating all the nerves because it's it's just your phone, right?

Josh:
Well, you can't take it on the phone. You have to use a laptop or desktop and there are quite a few. So one big thing about these tests is, are they secure or not? Can the school rely on the test score that they're getting? And so, is it easy to cheat? So that's another thing that people criticise Duolingo for in the way that they-

Charlie:
Oh gosh! You could cheat, couldn't you?

Josh:
Yes, so. So there are a bunch of security measures for Duolingo. Like you can't look down for too long. If somebody walks in the room, your test is immediately cancelled. The camera's- is using technology to track your eye movement. You can't take notes during Duolingo, so you can't look down at all. So there's things that are different. And but the way that they stay cheap is because it's almost all AI - even the question.

Charlie:
This episode comes with a free worksheet over on the website, www.thebritishenglishpodcast.com So grab that and you can listen along whilst using it.

Josh:
And they're all taking-

Charlie:
I'm looking at my notes,

Josh:
My Research, most of the questions are taken from Creative Commons. They're not created by the content creators. The- all the passages, the reading passages are taken from Creative Commons. And so it's- it's all generated from open, sourced materials. Probably the only thing that they would actually write themselves might be a couple of the independent speaking-writing questions where it's like, you know, do you agree or disagree? All high school students should wear school uniforms. Probably somebody writes those. But besides that, as of right now, it's mostly all Creative Commons. Open source.

Charlie:
Right. Yeah, that's- that's a really unique approach to it all. It's the future, I suppose. But I guess immediately my thought is if you've got a- an identical twin, you could cheat.

Josh:
Yeah, probably. Yeah. I imagine, so, I'm su- you know, people cheat on TOEFL and IELTS, too. I mean, people, you know, give ID cards to people. And gee, I mean, there was a big massive cheating scandal in China for TOEFL a couple of years ago. I remember. So, yeah. I mean people-.

-I'm so innocent. I don't even think about that.

Josh:
Yeah, it's a big thing. It's a big thing that- if you have a problem, in an English test, and you're trying to solve it and it's a very hard problem to solve, but you really want to achieve it, you'll find any way to do it. These- this- these tests act as a barrier for people who want to study in America or Canada or need a job in Europe or whatever. It is a big deal for people. And sometimes if you get desperate, you know, you'll try it. Just try other things.

Charlie:
Yeah, right. What's your personal opinion of the Duolingo test? Do you think it's the future? Do you think it's just a momentary phase or a fad? Do you think it will stick around?

Josh:
I think, I mean, so we're going to start teaching it in the next couple of months and be making more videos about it and that kind of thing. There's not a lot of material. There's a little bit, but not a lot. In my opinion, it's going to stay around forever. You know, not forever, but for- for a very long time, especially for universities and colleges in the States. And the reason is, is because they want students to come. You know, they want international students to come and study. The TOEFL acts as a barrier for that. IELTS acts as the barrier for that.

Josh:
And lowering the barrier, some people might argue that, well, you're getting less quality English speakers, let's say, for example, or something like that. But a lot of schools have programmes for English language. I worked at an ESL programme at a college. And so some people think that it's- it's a- it's a good enough diagnostic. It's a good enough test to see if the ready to come. It hasn't picked up as much steam in Europe, the UK and in other places. I think because the people are a bit more- I mean, I don't really know why exactly.

Charlie:
Is it- are you meaning picking up steam, as in schools, accrediting people through the Duolingo test that not as many universities are respecting it?

Josh:
Yeah, that's right. Yeah, not as many universities in Europe, in the UK. It's definitely- I mean, in America, it's almost everybody now. In Europe, not as much so people have used IELTS forever. And, you know, like the tests rely on it. You know, there's a debate. With anything new, like a new technology or new- be like, let's say Airbnb or Uber. It's the kind of similar complaints. Security's not as not as good. It's- you can't rely on it. There's privacy issues, you know, things like that. It's similar complaints as you would have to any new technology or something like that.

Josh:
So this is education. So it's slightly different. Perhaps there will be backlash in the future. And people feel that this 'quality' of this language that people can speak when they take the Duolingo is not as high and then it does cause a backlash. But I think for the most part it won't. This test is very student centred and also very, almost culturalist, without much culture, if I can say it that way. And what I mean is that, like, so a TOEFL passage or a TOEFL lecture. It's like a university academic pass, university academic lecture. And sometimes they're structured. So like, let's say, for example, camouflage is a big one, you know.

Josh:
So like, yeah, if- I've heard- I've heard of camouflage passages on multiple TOEFL tests for some reason. It's an academic talk and then they'll introduce the idea, and then give two kind of examples of it to help illustrate it, you know, it'll maybe give an animal that uses camouflage. Then they talk about chameleon and then another animal that uses camouflage, you know, let's say tigers or whatever it is.

Josh:
You have to understand the structure of a- of a university lecture. You know, you have to understand how it's structured and that kind of thing. I guess to give a better example would be for the speaking section. You have a- you have an independent question, like, 'Do you agree or disagree: all high school students should wear school uniforms.'.

Charlie:
Yeah.

Josh:
And you have to provide your opinion about that. Some people feel that's a very strange thing to ask. You know, like, my opinion on a topic that I'm not an expert in. You know, I don't know if students should wear school uniforms. That's up to the school director or up to the parents. It's not really my place to have an opinion about that kind of thing.

Charlie:
Lots of- lots of preparation that I have with my students is- is giving them ideas for their own opinions, because at the beginning, they don't really have an opinion. I've never thought of that. I don't- I don't have an opinion. So we have to go through the pros and cons and then decide on what- what she or he believes in. Yeah, ok.

Josh:
Right.

Charlie:
Whereas the Duolingo?

Josh:
Whereas the Duolingo, they do have that. So that they do have like a speaking, you know, where you do have to give your opinion in that kind of thing. But it seems a little less- has a less- less weight, so to speak. A lot of- so there's some speaking in writing where you have to describe a photo. You know, they give you a photo and you have to speak about it and you have to write about it. So they- they give you something to describe instead of giving your opinion, which is a little bit different. It's like, it's a really hard test to prepare for because you kind of like either know it or you don't.

Josh:
You know, like, you know, how IELTS, you kind of teach a lot of strategy.

Charlie:
Yeah.

Josh:
You know, like there's a certain question type for the reading. When you listen, you should read the questions first and then try to answer them while you're listening. To Duolingo, questions are like: Do you know it? Or you don't? And that's about the extent of it. You can learn some strategy for speaking and writing to improve your score. But especially for reading and listening questions, they're kind of like, you kind of know them, or you don't.

Charlie:
That is really interesting. A new world of test preparation. I hadn't really thought about it too- too much, that Duolingo is doing a new one. But yeah, if it's anything like Uber or Airbnb. Yeah, maybe, maybe TOFEL and IELTS see dust.

Josh:
I don't know, you know, like, like, I think that they're not definitely not dust, I would say. But you know, they have a reputation and a good reputation, you know TOELF and IELTS. They're just not student centred-.

Charlie:
They're like taxi drivers. We respect the taxi drivers before, and we still do. But, you know, the knowledge that they go through is questionable now whether you need it.

Josh:
So that's the thing, you know, is this- does a IELTS test really mean that you're ready for school? You know, does a TOEFL test really mean that you're ready for school.

Charlie:
Yeah.

Josh:
Does the Duolingo test really mean that? So, you know, it opens up a lot of interesting questions that are kind of hard to answer. There's plenty of people who are good at taking tests, that do tests well, but then they go to the school and they have to take an English class before they can go to university class. So, you know, the IELTS and TOEFL have a have a good reputation, like taxi drivers and, you know, people rely on them and know about them. I think that anything new is- is harder to catch on. Definitely think at least for North American universities, they want to lower the barriers for people. And so Duolingo English tests, in my opinion, does a pretty good job of lowering the barriers. It's a- it's an easier test.

Charlie:
Ok. Ok, well, it sounds like that's good news for the learners.

Josh:
I think so.

Josh:
It might mean- might mean some things in the future. But for now, yeah, it makes sense to prepare people for either one and give them the choice, which is exactly what you're doing. It's fantastic. So should we give them an example of one or two of them and try to answer them?

Josh:
Sure. Here we go. Describe a city you know about. What is it called? Where is it located? And what makes this city special?

Charlie:
And I've got to start speaking straight away.

Josh:
So- so you'll have about- for Duolingo, I think it's 30 seconds, but let's do 15 seconds.

Charlie:
What? I have 15 seconds to prepare in this fictitious situation. Can you say it one more time?

Josh:
Ah, no. Ok, so begin speaking.

Josh:
Ok, so, I'll do it one more time and then give you 15 seconds to prepare. So here we go.

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Meet today's guest

Josh MacPherson

Josh is the head instructor, presenter, and curriculum developer at TST Prep. As of February 2021, his TST Prep Youtube Channel has amassed over 160,000 subscribers. His Emergency Course for the TOEFL® on Udemy has enrolled thousands of students from over 100 countries and, at the time of writing, has earned a 4.6/5 star rating.

After earning a Bachelor’s degree in secondary education and a Master’s in ESL Curriculum and Instruction, he served as academic coordinator of the Intensive English Program at ASA College in midtown Manhattan and as the coordinator of the Corporate Sales Division for Shane Schools in Kansai, Japan. He now devotes much of his time to creating content, studying Japanese, and spending time with his wife and their three children
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But the aim is to give you a variety of dialects in one conversation and some dialogue to give you native expressions in context. So enter, if you will, to Charlie's pub and his imaginary world.

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