Some years ago I lived in Indonesia. While I was there it was necessary to learn the language – firstly for living and then later for my job. I was an English teacher at the university so at first my work was all conducted in English. Learning Bahasa Indonesia was not an easy thing as it is not at all related to English and had very different features. It had no tenses – hurray!!

I had already learned French, German and Latin at school and university so this news was wonderful. However, there were tricky things like the sentence structure, lots and lots of prefixes and suffixes which were sometimes required and sometimes not and the whole cultural side of being a more honorific language (this means being very careful how you address people). These things were quite alien to English and posed a challenge for me.

Living in the country meant that I was easily able to practise in shops, markets, banks and with local people and this helped enormously. I also had a housekeeper who lived in my house and looked after the cleaning and cooking and was a really wonderful teacher!! Whenever I couldn’t understand something she would bring my dictionary and tell me to look up the word (and tell her the word in English) and so we learned together. After a couple of years I was fairly fluent and could shop, travel, have quite good conversations with people and generally function well in the language. I wasn’t able to write very well but I could read (even novels), speak and understand almost everything.

I expect that if you are looking to get band 7 or 8 in IELTS, this scenario is beginning to sound familiar to you. I suppose I was now around band 7 but would probably struggle with writing. I am sure that if I had taken an IELTS-type test in Indonesian I would have got around band 7 for listening and speaking perhaps band 6.5 for reading and a lower band for writing.

Something happened during my third year in Indonesia that changed this completely. I was in the local market when I bumped into a former university colleague (I was expecting a baby so not working at the time). She ran over to me, grabbed me and begged me to go back to the university. This time to teach music! I wasn’t sure I could do this but having done my degree in Music and English I finally agreed (she told me that even if I could interpret the course books for the students it would be a help)and she brought me the curriculum, course books etc. to study (these were in English). After my daughter was born I went to the university all prepared with my lecture and began to address the students. After a few minutes the door flew open and in came my colleague shouting; “No, no, no they can’t understand English! You’ll need to teach in Indonesian”.

This was my Band 8 moment! Suddenly I had to improve my skills. I had to make sure that everything was really well-prepared each week as I did not want to look a fool in front of that class of 200 students. This was a big and scary time for me. I remember that although I prepared my lectures really well, checking the grammar etc. the most difficult part was when students asked questions afterwards and at first I often found that I really couldn’t understand the questions themselves!! Yes, I knew the words they were saying but couldn’t always get the sense of what they wanted to know – the language was now at a much more sophisticated level.

In the end, after about 6 months I had cracked it – now I didn’t need to prepare my lectures in so much detail, I was able to understand and reply to all the questions, correct all the written work and make comments in Indonesian and write an exam paper all by myself. I felt very proud and on two occasions when I had to speak to someone on the telephone before meeting them they were very surprised to see me as they had thought I was a native Indonesian J

So, I am guessing that you want to be in this situation and I can tell you from personal experience that it is a really great place to be. To really know that your band 7 or 8 is ‘in the bag’ as you go through the parts of the test because you actually know that you are achieving the score you want.

I want to share 7 steps with you that will get you to this place too:

  1. Don’t give up – you can get there
  2. Don’t be in a hurry – learning a language does take time and you cannot fast-track things like writing
  3. Practise smartly – go over everything you get wrong and understand why, do things again if necessary, repetition in language is the only way to learn (think about how babies learn)
  4. Don’t struggle alone, find friends to learn with – language is about communication, you have to communicate to improve your skills
  5. Pay attention to details – especially in writing and reading – grammar mistakes, spelling mistakes and punctuation mistakes will always be wrong – no examiner will excuse these ever, no matter how wonderful your ideas are
  6. Understand that mistakes are a part of learning (especially in language)without them you won’t move forwards so see them as steps to improvement not as negative things
  7. Practise regularly – a little every day – English is a skill and the more you practise the better it will become. You cannot ‘revise’ English like you can chemical formulae or historical dates, you MUST practise to improve. It is impossible to prepare for IELTS a few days or even weeks before the exam unless you are a native speaker

I truly understand where you are and what this process is. I’ve done it myself. OK I didn’t take an exam in Indonesian (I did in French, German and Latin)but in many respects my situation was even more scary as I had 200 students who were judging me and my language ability!!

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