New changes to US citizenship test spark concerns for non-native English speakers
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Updates to the US citizenship test are raising concerns for immigrants who do not speak English well. 

According to The Associated Press, US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) plans to add a speaking section to assess English skills. There are some who argue that the changes will make the test harder and more stressful for immigrants, while others believe it is essential to ensure language proficiency before applying for citizenship.

In order to become a US citizen, you must have lived in the country for several years prior to applying for citizenship. Applicants answer personal questions in their paperwork as part of the current test to evaluate their speaking ability. The new test, however, asks applicants to describe everyday scenarios with photos.

Critics argue that this new speaking section, which focuses on visual prompts rather than personal questions, may disproportionately affect adults who struggle with pronunciation. Heaven Mehreta, an Ethiopian immigrant who recently passed the test, expressed her concerns, saying, “I think it’s harder for me to explain pictures.” Avny, an Israeli immigrant, noted that the new speaking section may increase the stress level of applicants, particularly those whose first language is not English.

Moreover, the civics section will be changed from an oral short-answer format to a multiple-choice format, making the test more challenging in terms of language proficiency and test-taking skills. A bank of 100 civics questions must be answered correctly by applicants on the current test. To choose the correct answer from the options provided, applicants would have to know all five wars fought by the US in the 1900s.

People with limited English literacy, such as refugees, elderly immigrants, and those with disabilities, may find it more difficult to pass the test with these changes. It is particularly challenging for those who did not have the opportunity to complete formal education to learn to read and write in English.

As part of its justification for the proposed changes, the USCIS claims the changes reflect best practices in test design and standardize the citizenship test. Before implementing the changes, they plan to conduct a nationwide trial in 2023 to gather public feedback. External experts will review the results before implementing the changes.

The ongoing debate highlights the importance of balancing language proficiency with inclusivity in the citizenship process. Some people argue that new citizens should be required to pass a stricter test in order to promote integration and civic engagement, whereas others question the necessity of extensive historical and government knowledge and suggest that even natural-born citizens may not have it.

By changing the US citizenship test, the country can reflect on its values and expectations from new citizens, balancing language skills, historical knowledge, and inclusiveness.