President Trump’s speech to mark Black History Month on 1 February was, as with most things he does, quite a spectacle. Historical, institutional, racial…but let’s focus on the linguistic show on offer.
Learners of English are taught to focus their arguments to the task and master coherence and cohesion, and these two criteria feature in marking criteria for most reputable exam bodies, like IELTS, Trinity and Cambridge. So I sent a transcript of Trump’s speech to my advanced 17/18 yr olds and had them edit it on a Google doc, then give a mark for Task Response and Coherence/Coherence using public IELTS writing criteria.
Here is what a few of my students had to say…
IELTS Task Response Average Score: 4
IELTS Coherence and Cohesion Average Score: 4
Some have been a little harsh, but I’m sure he wouldn’t get over 5 on the 9-band scale (a high B1 according to CEFR). Trump caused quite a storm in 2011 by being a loud voice in the birther controversy, claiming President Obama was ineligible for office because he was born in Kenya (actually a lie/alternative fact). Being born abroad can disqualify a presidential candidate. But why not English level? Could we measure suitability on an IELTS test? Fordham University, which Trump himself attended for two years, does so for the much less important role of undergraduate, and requires candidates to get an IELTS score of at least 7. This isn’t a blog about politics, but linguistically, perhaps Trump isn’t setting the best example to the world of English learners.
I started to correct the text on google docs myself to model it for my students, and this is what it looked like:
It would only be fair to note that they were marking based on written language standards and not spoken, but if you take a look at the IELTS speaking criteria, his mark for ‘fluency and coherence’ would also be relatively low.
Here are a few more screenshots of a student’s insightful comments on different parts of the speech:
Analysis of his speech in a transcript draws attention to the level of inconsistency and incoherence that seems to fly under the radar. This is easily explained: a research study in nonverbal communication suggests that “55% of communication is body language, 38% is the tone of voice, and 7% is the actual words spoken“, so the gesturing and tone easily drown out the actual words.
While it depends on the unique circumstances of each interaction, it could explain why Trump has gained such a strong following who feel like they can really relate to him – some even specifically referencing the way he speaks.
So to answer the question in the title (I aim for coherence), based on this single sample, President Trump would not meet the English language requirements of an international student. We can only hope his presidency is much more focused and coherent than his speech on Black History Month.