Only three per cent of those workers required to take the Cayman Islands Immigration Department’s English test failed that test in 2007.
Chief Immigration Officer Franz Manderson said Monday that of the 2,717 people who took the exam last year, just 90 did not pass and were sent back to their home countries.
The English language test is required by the Immigration Department and the Work Permit Board for permit holders who come to the islands from countries where English is not the primary language.
Generally, foreign workers are tested upon their arrival at Owen Roberts Airport, but Mr. Manderson said there have been cases where workers who’ve travelled long distances are admitted into Cayman first and take the test after they’ve had a chance to rest.
‘We’re not requiring them to speak perfectly, but they must be able to communicate effectively in the English language,’ he said. ‘Regretfully, we’re still having persons come into the country who speak very little English.’
The language test is only required for the work permit holders, not their spouses or other non-working dependants.
The test is administered in four parts: an oral exam, which includes listening and comprehension; a reading test in which the person must read a sentence and then answer questions about it; another reading test where the person must read something such as a newspaper ad or dates on a calendar; and finally a written exam where the person must write down their name, address and other personal details.
Mr. Manderson has previously described the test as ‘not difficult.’
The issue of whether those work permit holders can speak English properly was debated publicly last year when the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service announced it would start giving officers rudimentary Spanish lessons. It was revived last week when the Cayman Islands court system announced it was looking for interpreters who spoke the Filipino dialects of Bisaya and Tagalog.
In both cases, Caymanian Compass readers have questioned why such steps were needed when foreign workers are required to have substantial proficiency in English before entering the islands.
However, Mr. Manderson said in the case of law enforcement or dealing with the courts, it makes sense that someone who is not a native English speaker would request an interpreter.
‘When we go and arrest people on immigration offences we always bring interpreters because (those being arrested) will often say they didn’t understand the officers,’ he said.
In court, the language issue becomes even more critical.
‘Obviously, this person’s freedom may be at stake and they want every protection possible under the law,’ Mr. Manderson said. ‘That does not mean the person does not speak English. They just want to be sure they understand everything that’s happening in court.’
He said the main purpose of the Immigration Department’s English language test is to make certain those coming here can interact in Caymanian society.
In the past, Mr. Manderson said there have often been complaints about restaurant servers, for example, not understanding their patron’s orders or coming back with the wrong drink from the bar. He said since the implementation of the revised English test for work permit holders in November 2006, those complaints have dropped off considerably.
He also noted cases where work permit holders who have wives or children that don’t speak English can occur, but that those instances are few and far between.
‘If someone comes in and they’re a spouse (of a work permit holder), we don’t test them,’ Mr. Manderson said. ‘Is that something we should revise? I don’t know.’