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GMAT™ Verbal: Tips for Non-Native English Speakers

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The Verbal Reasoning section of the GMAT™ exam is often a source of trepidation for non-native speakers of English. Understandably so. The GMAT exam tests students’ knowledge of precise, and sometimes complex, grammar rules. Reading texts deploy a dizzying array of linguistic constructions, exploring obscure topics in great detail. This flood of information can be difficult to navigate, even for native English speakers. And all the while, the clock is ticking.

How should you set your expectations as a non-native anglophone? Is a good score even possible, or should you adopt a policy of damage limitation, relying on a strong Quant performance to compensate a mediocre score on the "English" side of things?

The upside about the GMAT Verbal Reasoning Section

First and foremost, the fact that your first language is not English is no barrier to getting a top score on the verbal section of the test. For the vast majority of students, dramatic improvements in performance are achievable with the right kind of practice that you can find attain from either a good book and/or GMAT course.

Another piece of good news is that due to the nature of the business school application process—specifically, the unofficial quota system governing the attribution of places—you are not competing with native English speakers for a place on your chosen course. Instead, your performance is generally measured against others from the same geographic region as you. This means that even small improvements in your verbal abilities could help distinguish you from your competitors and improving your chances of acceptance significantly.

Sadly, all too often, these potential gains remain unrealized. The reason for this has to do with a key misconception on the part of test takers, native and non-native alike.

The Verbal Section game

The Verbal Section is designed to test not your English, but rather your mastery of a pre-set list of functions.

As an examinee, you are presented with 36 challenges of three different types (the questions). Due to the fact that these questions and their possible answers come packaged in English, some of these functions are easier for native speakers and more difficult for non-natives, but that is not always true.

If you want to win a game, study the rules. Success on the GMAT is no different, and by familiarizing ourselves with the internal logic of the questions—understanding exactly why one is considered “right” and other “wrong,” and by training ourselves to quickly identify the markers that communicate this to us, we can all improve our scores.

Sentence Correction

Take the example of Sentence Correction. This tests your knowledge of a very specific list of grammar rules. Some of these you may already identify more quickly and easily than native speakers; others, you may not. Have a look at these problems of pronoun agreement:

  • The new Accounts Manager is arriving this morning from Boston: they will need to be collected at the airport.
  • A personal assistant is responsible for general admin: they reply to emails, schedule meetings and make travel plans.
  • Everybody argues with their parents.

Reading these sentences, many native speakers will not see any error, since conversationally “they” is often used as a shorter, more convenient alternative to the official, grammatically (and politically) correct "he or she." Eventually, they should see in the answer choices that “he or she” is proposed as an alternative, and perhaps reconsider. However, they have lost valuable time. A non-native speaker, not sharing the same blind spot created by informal native usage, is likely to identify the lack of pronoun agreement more readily and see that the answers should read as:

  • The new Accounts Manager is arriving this morning from Boston: he or she will need to be collected at the airport.
  • A personal assistant is responsible for general admin: he or she replies to emails, schedules meetings and makes travel plans.

Automatically checking which noun the pronoun should be replacing, and whether the two agree in terms of number or gender, is a habit that you should build into your own Sentence Correction method through repetition.

In the third sentence, the error is very well disguised (lack of agreement between singular subject "everyone" and plural possessive pronoun "their"). The correct answer would be:

Everybody argues with his or her parents.

Native speakers almost never see the problem, again due to the informal usage habit described above. In sentences like this, the mistake is made so universally that native and non-native anglophones alike are unlikely to have ever heard the grammatically correct “everybody argues with his or her parents” said aloud!

Rules concerning agreement in other languages may further muddy the waters for non-natives: for example, French speakers may naturally think that the plural pronoun is correct, as in French it would agree with the plural object "parents." Here, the only solution is study and practice. Native speakers may be reluctant to admit to themselves that they have been making grammar mistakes on a daily basis without ever suspecting it. Non-native English speakers are well placed to avoid this costly complacency.

Reading

One area that requires specific and sustained training for non-native speakers is reading. The ability to read rapidly and precisely in English is the key skill for success in both the Critical Reasoning and Reading Comprehension question types.

Not counting Sentence Correction, there are approximately four texts of significant length and twelve three-to-four-line arguments to read over the course of the test, and 120 answer choices to consider and choose between. This is a complex, detail-driven process; the slower and less accurately you read, the less time you have to think about which answer to choose and the less chance you stand of getting the answer correct.

There is no quick fix for this problem. Raise your level by reading, watching and listening to as much English-language content as possible, on a wide range of subjects and from a variety of different sources and authors, as often as possible, over a long period. Choose articles on scientific subjects, social issues and Economics/Business. Often, reading passages tackle the themes that are regularly discussed in the media; prior familiarity with a reading topic will boost your speed and accuracy. Be sure to keep track of new vocabulary and unfamiliar linguistic constructions, and regularly review your progress and recent work.

This will require a serious time investment, but it will pay off: on test day, at business school and in your future career. It is also a fun way to explore what’s happening in the world through print media, or take your existing interests further by discovering new content and creators online. Be careful to exercise a minimum of quality control on the English you consume in the digital sphere, however: subtitles on Netflix are much more likely to be correct than those on YouTube videos, for instance. You don’t want to pick up bad habits at this crucial time!

How to see and handle the Verbal Section

In short, there is every reason for non-native speakers to view the Verbal Section not as a problem, but as an potentially overlooked source of points.

Start treating grammar questions as problems to be solved methodically, with a disciplined and structured approach; switch your leisure activities and media consumption to English; and begin preparations far ahead of time, if possible. It will not only improve your score, but better prepare you for your MBA.

 

Sam Ghinai is an mba.com Featured Contributor and English and Verbal Reasoning Tutor at Vincia Prep.

After graduating from Sheffield University in 2011 with a dual honours degree in English and French, Samuel spent several years travelling and teaching before returning to England to completed his MA in English and Comparative Literature at Warwick University, where his dissertation focussed on narratives of travel and exile. Samuel placed in the 99th percentile for the Verbal section of the GMAT, with a score of 48 out of 51. He now helps Vincia students increase their scores, and enjoys showing them how to recognise and avoid the many traps the GMAT sets.


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