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Chula’s Thai Test for Foreigners: CU-TFL

Chula’s Thai Test for Foreigners: CU-TFL

Chula’s Thai Test for Foreigners…

I’m here to tell you, right now in no uncertain terms, IF you wanna know where your Thai chops are at, go to the Sirindhorn Thai Language Institute at Chulalongkorn University and take their CU-TFL. That’s the Chulalongkorn University Proficiency Test of Thai as a Foreign Language. They offer Thai testing in 4 areas; Reading, Listening, Writing & Speaking.

I hear so many terms bandied about by foreigners learning Thai. I hear people say they’re low-intermediate, hi-intermediate, low-advanced, hi–advanced, fluent all the way up to near native. Even worse they throw out the CEFL ratings like they have ANY meaning in relationship to Thai. Seeing as no one in Thai officialdom thought it necessary to test a foreigner’s Thai ability and rate it the same way as they test English, using those ratings rarely yields good results. I’ve heard someone rate their own Thai at B1, B2 or C1 etc. Those self-ratings are subjective at best and at worst you’re grading yourself on a curve. I’ve said before, it is my personal experience that foreigners overestimate their actual ability in Thai by a large margin.

Now be prepared; the CU-TFL ain’t no MOE low-level ‘hold-ur-hand’, ‘walk-u-thru-it’ test of Thai for foreigners looking to get an extension to their ED visa. The test does bear striking similarities to the Thai test of proficiency for foreigners given by the MOE at the end of every year which replaced the old ป.๖ test. In talking to the Chula people about it they said they didn’t work with the MOE and weren’t aware the tests were similar. What you really need to know is the CU-TFL is a full-blown hard core proficiency test. They offer Thai testing in Reading, Listening, Writing and Speaking. Unlike the MOE test where you must take all 4 modules, this one you can pick which parts you want to test in. I opted not to do the writing because while I can write Thai, I mostly only type and my handwritten Thai looks a lot like ไก่เขีย (chicken scratching).

On October 9th I sat three of the four; Reading, Listening & Speaking. I’ve NEVER seen anything as well thought out, as well put together or as incrementally harder as the testing progresses than these tests. Even though the reading/listening tests are multiple choice (giving you a 25% chance to blind guess correctly) you won’t get more than a question or three past your actual ability in Thai. You’ll wash out right at your level.

The upside is you can take the CU-TFL pretty much anytime you want to take them versus waiting until the end of the year for the MOE test. Plus unlike the MOE ‘year-end cattle-call’ where you’re taking the test with a couple hundred people, with the CU-TFL you’re taking it by yourself. The way it works is you apply online, select which of the four areas you wanna test in, print your receipt, transfer the money, email your confirmation of transfer and they email you with available slots to schedule the test(s). I paid on Tuesday and they immediately emailed back saying they had openings for testing on Thurs/Fri.

On the Thai version of their website the grading system for these tests is compared to several language proficiency rating systems, like; ACTFL, IFR, FSI & CEFR. The CU-TFL has Novice (ฝึกพูด), Intermediate (กลาง), Advanced (ดี), Superior (ดีมาก) and Distinguished (ดีเด่น) as the ‘score’ you get in each area. While I am loathe to compare those results to the CEFR language proficiency, on the website it has it rated like this: Novice=A1-A2, Intermediate=B1, Advanced=B2, Superior=C1 and Distinguished=C2.

It easily was the most stressful three hours I’ve spent during my entire learning Thai journey, which at last count has spanned close to 9 years! I walked into this test cold, not knowing what to expect other than having read what’s written on their website where it says each test is an hour long. The information of exactly how the tests work and are given is spotty at best. If I’d have had an idea of what they were gonna be like I would have gone in better prepared. That doesn’t mean my Thai would have been any better, just that I would have had an idea of how they were going about testing my Thai ability.

Here’s an overview of how the CU-TFL testing works:

You show up at the appointed time, check in. FWIW: everyone in that office speaks and understands English just fine. When I showed up I walked in, said in English, “Hi, I’m Tod and am here to take the Thai tests.” It didn’t particularly seem to throw anyone off I was speaking English showing up for a Thai test either. Unlike the MOE test, there is also no apparent ‘dress code’ as I showed up in Levi’s and a black KISS band t-shirt and baseball cap. They take you to a locker to secure your cell phone, lap top, books etc. and then you and the person watching you test go into a small classroom. In the classroom is a table & chair, a loudly clicking wall clock (which makes you oh-so conscious of the precious seconds ticking away!) and a small video camera in the top corner of the room. (When you sign up, you agree that they can record you and use it for training purposes). If you want to you can bring bottled water into the room too.

Reading: You are given an answer sheet with 50 questions written on them. They are broken into “topics” (1 thru 6, if I remember correctly). You are also given the reading material sheets. The teacher outlines that you have an hour, and that you’re to make an X on the appropriate box with ก ข ค ง in it for each question. Then you start. At first the reading is simple, small adverts, a flight schedule of new airline destinations, etc. The first couple of reading exercises had only 3 or 4 questions. Then it gets harder! The reading gets longer, it’s a half-page article, then it’s a page, then a page and a half and by the end I think I was reading something like 2 ¼ pages of pretty in depth stuff! From what I remember (because it’s a little fuzzy) I think the last topic I read was by a psychiatrist writing about the stress in Thai people with underlying causes. I mean WTF?

Remember you only have one hour to get thru all 50 questions, so you either better be able to read pretty fast, or be able to look at the questions and refer back to the article looking for keywords in the text to find the answers. I managed (just) to get thru all 50 questions on the reading. Now without tooting my drum or beating my horn, I’m able to read pretty darned fast with fairly high comprehension. Even so, I still had to take a stab at some of the answers. Also they try to trip you up by asking questions like which one of these things is NOT related to the topic. When they write not in those ‘trip you up questions’ they underline it so watch for it!

You get a short break, or maybe not. I just told ‘em I needed to go to the restroom, smoke a cigarette, got up and went and did it. Perhaps because I was the only one testing that day, or the fact that I’m pretty hard core, they didn’t say word one to me. I don’t know if you take it with a group that they do that.

Listening: You go into the same classroom with the teacher and she explains how to do the multiple choice again, and then she starts a tape playing. It also explains the directions for marking correct answers again and how to invalidate an answer too. Then it starts in with about 15 seconds of a Thai speaking. You listen (obviously) and then it reads the questions to you along with the choices. Next is about 30 seconds of speaking and they get progressively longer as you continue the testing. Now you’re given a piece of paper where you can take notes, but this isn’t spoon fed retard speed Thai. It’s spoken at regular speed and I just couldn’t write notes AND listen to what was being said too. They topics range from opinions, statements, information, advertisement about stuff, and I think at the end you’re listening to almost 90 seconds to 2 minutes of spoken Thai. What I finally resorted to was looking at the questions as the tape was playing, listening for key-words or phrases which were in the answers to the questions and making a small mark next to it on my sheet. When it got to where they read the question I’d see how the phrase I’d marked applied. Again, I just managed to get thru all 50 questions, but it was a struggle.

After another bathroom/smoke break and I went in for the last test for me.

Speaking: You’re given a sheet which outlines how the test will proceed. It’s give in sections which are pass/fail. You need to pass one to get to take the next part. You go into an interview room. There are two Thai teachers in there; mine were either uni-kids or just outta uni young adults. They outline how the test will be given and it’s like this. The first two parts are basically a 10 minute interview and 5 minutes of free speaking. If you fail those you’re done I think. If you pass them to the satisfaction of the teachers you get to do the next section. This is where they give you a sheet with 5 topics on it in both English and Thai. You select one, they give you 5 minutes to make some notes about it and then you talk for about 10 minutes on the topic. Now some of those topics I couldn’t talk about in frickin’ English, I mean they were obscure! Funny enough one of the topics was “Non-Formal Education” or การศึกษานอกระบบ. I mean how lucky was that? It’s what every private Thai language school that teaches foreigners is! It was just blind luck that topic was on there and right up my alley! I had 5 minutes to make some bullet point notes (which I did in English), then they turn on a timer and I gave them my presentation. I went over how the Thai language is taught to foreigners versus to Thai nationals, the pros and cons of the systems, the prevalence of “Union Clone” methodology and the trials and tribulations with foreigners getting ED visa extensions at Immigration for studying Thai. Actually, the timer went off while I was talking, but both teachers seemed genuinely interested in what I was saying and said, “Keep going, finish your presentation!” I thought that was great and very accommodating of them. After that they said I qualified for the last module of the speaking test.

The final part was where I was to interview one of the teachers giving the test, take 5 minutes write a crib notes and then give a 10 minute presentation about her/him. I decided to pass on it, much to the chagrin of the two teachers. They both urged me to do it, saying I wouldn’t have a problem. I declined saying my แรง was หมด’d. They tried once more to get me to do it, even saying if I needed a break to smoke beforehand that was fine. Unfortunately by that time, I was totally spent, my legs felt like Jell-O, and my shirt was soaked completely thru with sweat. There was no way, after the three hours I’d just went thru where I could find the energy to do that last part. In hindsight, I should have taken a smoke bathroom break, collected myself, manned up and done it. Now I really regret not doing it. I’m sure I could have got their name, age, members of the family, where they were from, if they were still studying in uni, what they did for work, what they would like to do for work, etc. and be able to make a fairly coherent presentation out it.

As I said earlier I didn’t take the writing portion of the exam, so guys I can’t help you with that. Maybe someone who also took this exam and tested on the written part could weigh in with some pointers on how it’s conducted.

Oh I should add, because my spoken Thai is quite coarse and umm ‘colorful’, when I went into the speaking portion of the test, I apologized to the teachers beforehand. I told them I พูดตรงไปตรงมา, พูดแรง, sometimes พูดหยาบคาย, ประชด, ทะลึ่ง and because I am 100% American, I didn’t เลียนแบบ Thai speech mannerisms like Thais do because of their culture. I told them it was a สันดาน (a negative inborn trait) and we’d both have to make the best of it. They seemed okay with it and in my interview with them, I believe I managed to ‘tick all the boxes’ of the previous caveats I’d given them!

Okay, that’s all I got! You guys got a way better idea of what’s what than I did when I showed up there. I can’t recommend highly enough that ANYONE who really wants to know their actual level in Thai go sit these tests. It might be stressful (or it certainly was for me), but you’ll come out the other side with a much better idea of where you really are in regards to the language.

Good Luck, do good. . .

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Tod’s specialty is reviewing Thai language schools in Bangkok. And in his years studying Thai he’s also collected a few language learning tips to share with you.

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  1. Interesting. Thanks. I wonder what the test validity is like. I suspect not very strong. You’re wrong, though, about this:

    “they throw out the CEFL ratings like they have ANY meaning in relationship to Thai”

    The CEFR language specifications say which communication tasks you can achieve in particular domains so they are as applicable to Klingon or Lobjan as they are to French. Or English. Or Thai. Where there may well be a problem is in mapping the test results to the standards. This is not straightforward and much bigger and more established exams, like the HSK, have come unstuck here.

  2. Great review Tod! I’ll give it a while before I go get put through the crucible though I think. I’m surprised the serious language schools don’t utilise this test as a goal to aim for and to really check students levels.

  3. Great article. Very informative and insightful. Just curious to know why Mr. Daniels feels one cannot use the CEFR as an indication of Thai language skills and is therefore ‘loathe’ to make any between the CEFR and the CU-TFL.

  4. Great writeup, thanks for sharing. What were the results of your test?

  5. Thanx for reading my stuff you guys;
    My scores were
    Reading – Advanced
    Listening – Intermediate
    Speaking – Advanced

    FWIW; I possess intermittent, err I mean intermediate listening skills even in English.

  6. Really appreciate this as I’m thinking of taking the Speaking test only. It seems every man and his dog has an IELTS prep course but I’ve never heard of one for the Chula test. Do you know if there is one? I suffer from brain freeze in unfamiliar situations but if I’m in a more familiar situation I can speak much more fluently. Can you remember any of the other topics apart from non-formal education?

  7. Pat, whatever Tod thinks (I can พูดตรงไปตรงมา too ;)) there’s clearly no reason why the CEFR can’t be applied to people learning Thai. The CEFR levels aren’t specific to English at all and are designed to be applicable to all languages. It isn’t just foreigners learning Thai who overrate their ability – that’s a common mistake that all language learners make.

  8. I knew I’d get grief for my broad brushing that CEFR can’t be applied to Chula’s test ‘o Thai or for that matter anyone’s test of Thai for foreigners here inside the country. What I should have said is, it could certainly be applied IF criteria was established before hand to get their test ‘o Thai in line with other tests ‘o languages which use that rating system.

    Example: even with me speaking what I call “Todz-Thai” (errant tones, mangled pronunciation, sketchy structure and an Ohio accent) I managed to pull an “advanced” in speaking! Now, either I’m way better than I imagine myself to be, they (the test givers ) have a low opinion of most foreigners’ thai ability, they’re grading on one heck of a curve OR a combination of all of the above!

    FWIW: on the thai language version of the certificate I got, it says ดี for speaking & reading, BUT on the english language version they list those skills as advanced.. Anyway you define the thai word ดี there’s NO way it can mean advanced, unless they’re taking some serious creative license with the way they score these tests.

    Matthew, people I’ve spoken to mentioned this Chula test is very similar to the MOE year end test of thai proficiency for foreigners EXCEPT for the speaking part. At Chula the speaking test takes an hour but for the MOE the speaking test takes about 10 minutes.

    Most Union Clone Schools have a ‘cram course’ where they teach how to take the MOE test. Now this year it’s probably too late to enroll because I think those courses are a couple months long (although I’m not sure).

    Again, thanx for reading..

  9. CEFR B1-B2 corresponds with intermediate level (starting with pre-intermediate moving on to intermediate and then upper intermediate). So it sounds like upper intermediate would be a more realistic label for your speaking abilities. That in itself is extremely impressive so I don’t know why they’re throwing around the ‘advanced’ tag. The truth is some people never reach advanced level (even native speakers) and someone is definitely not there just because they’ve read 3 of those little Becker books.

    As the test is only 1500 baht maybe it would be better to just do it and then practice a bit more and do it again if it doesn’t go so well. I would be really annoyed if I paid the money and they didn’t let me do the second part though.

  10. I have gotten a few emails from people asking where to go to class to learn to take the test.. I’m of the mind you should sit it cold, or at the most, go take it after reading this overview. You’ll go into it a LOT better prepared than I did!

    A ton of engrish schools here specialize in teaching Thais how to get a higher TOEIC score. Google ‘กวดวิชา toeic’ or ‘ติว toeic’ (ติว being the thai word for tutor!) and see for yourself! Those classes aren’t designed to make Thais even a little bit better in english! Instead they just teach them how to take the test and get a higher score. Perhaps those cram ป.๖ courses are similar, (I dunno I’ve never took one)

    If you sit it cold, what’s the worse that can happen? After taking the Chulalongkorn University Proficiency Test of Thai as a Foreign Language you’ll know what THEY (the test givers) think your level of Thai is, end of story.. In the grand scheme of things, what does that even mean anyway? Personally, I ain’t studying Thai to impress no one, but that’s just me.

  11. I sat this test (all four skills) today. Some quick thoughts:
    General/logistical notes:
    • The strip map they send you when you register is terrible. The building is on Henri Dunan Rd next to the veterinary hospital, and there is no signage that is visible from the road. It is in a part of campus that is sectioned off so that if you enter via the wrong gate, you can’t walk or drive to the Chulawit building directly; you have to exit campus and come back in through the correct gate. I recommend scouting the location in advance, or budgeting some extra time the morning of the test, and using google maps to pinpoint the location, vice the provided strip map.
    • It’s not convenient for car parking (unless you find a spot on the side of Henri Dunan), though you could probably get away with parking a motorcycle or scooter next to the building. I’d recommend arriving by taxi.
    • The test room is not very quiet. There are ringing telephones and office conversations going on as background noise, and today there were some workers tearing up the sidewalk in front of the building, so there was the added noise of jackhammers and concrete saws. Had I known this, I would have brought noise-cancelling headphones or earplug/earphones for the listening section (for me the played the mp3 through speakers hooked up to a laptop) and earplugs for the reading and writing, to block out the noise.
    • The staff recommended the nearby cafeteria for the lunch break. I opted for Roadhouse BBQ instead, and the ribs and bourbon-barrel stout warmed me up nicely for the after-lunch speaking test.
    • My test was marked version 3, so there are at least two other versions out there, which should be useful if you’re taking the test multiple times to measure progress over time.
    • Not much to add to what Todd wrote on this one, except that on my test, the questions weren’t written down anywhere in the test materials, only the multiple-choice answers. Each question is read only once on the mp3 (which runs continuously throughout the test, moving to the next question if you’re ready or not), and if you miss it, you’re SOL. The format is nearly identical to the DoE Thai test that I sat in November, except that Moe gives you 50 minutes for each section for (if I remember correctly) 35 questions, vice 1 hour for 50 at Chula.
    • The one hour time limit is very tight. I only got a chance to skim the second to last passage (some gender studies topic about gender and power relations), and didn’t have time to read the last one at all. There were 5-6 questions for each of these two passages, so that represents over 20% of the 50 questions. None of the passages I got too were above my comprehension level (although there was a lot of vocab I had to figure out from context), but every time I had to take a second look at a sentence it cost me time. The test definitely puts a premium on reading fast and accurately. Also nearly identical format to the MoE test, though I was less time-crunched on the MoE one.
    • This part had two sections, each with a suggested time commitment (20 and 40 minutes), but you’re on your own to manage the one hour allotted. The first was to write a letter of up to 150 words to a friend, answering some of their questions. The friend was requesting specific information for planning a vacation, and the test booklet listed the friends requirements in one column, with information answering some of the questions in a second column. There wasn’t information to answer all of the friend’s questions, and there was also some spurious information thrown in. The emphasis was clearly on expository/factual writing, and it was pretty straight forward. The second section had a one sentence opinion on a socio-cultural topic, which you were required to agree or disagree with, and support your opinion in at least 250 words. This was the hardest section of the test for me, because I type Thai pretty infrequently, and write by hand even less.
    • Todd describes the first two portions of the speaking test well, and I don’t have anything to add. The final interview is a little complicated. First they give you 5 topics (these are on a laminated card with English on one side and Thai on the other. The speaking is the only section of the test were any instructions are provided in English) for the interview to choose from, with one minute to make the choice. After you choose, you have a few minutes to jot down some notes, and then another few to interview one of the two testers. I forget the exact time limits for these sections, but I went way past the buzzer on the interview, but they were very friendly and encouraged me to keep going. After the end of the interview, you have one minute to review your notes, then must give a two minute presentation on the results of the interview to the second tester. The instructions tell you to speak as though you were giving a class presentation, so it seems they expect relatively formal Thai. I chose an international relations topic (I’m also doing Thai-language MA in IR at Chula, so I was pretty good on background information and vocabulary). I went well over time on the presentation also, but they encouraged me to keep going and seemed genuinely interested. Both testers were super friendly (unlike the very official and rather surly MoE testers), and the whole speaking section was actually kind of fun and felt like a genuine, non-forced, conversation. After the test was over, we continued chatting for another 15-20 minutes. They said they got very few Westerners taking the test, mostly East Asians (mostly academics rather than business people), with a few Europeans. They were curious about how I’d learned Thai, and other Thai tests I’d taken like the MoE. I talked about the difficulty of finding advanced Thai instruction (they plugged Sumaa) and made my pitch for Chula to add the option of an in depth written assessment of a student’s Thai skills along with the CU-TFL score report, for an additional fee. They were receptive to it, but of course “any decision would have to be made by the director.” The tester I interviewed was a 36 y.o. Ajarn of Thai language (for Thai students, not the Intensive Thai for Foreigners program [she did know Ajarn Champagne from Intensive, but then Champagne stands out like a sore, cross-dressing thumb]), with an MA in Thai Language, also from Chula. The second I didn’t get as many details on, but she seemed to be mid-twenties, and maybe a PhD candidate or junior Ajarn. She was pretty cute, and I regret not asking for her number, but I was pretty worn-out by the end of the test.

  12. For the record my scores were:
    Speaking: Advanced/ดี
    Listening: Advanced/ดี
    Reading: Advanced Plus /ดี บวก (wasn’t aware they had the “plus” between levels)
    Writing: Novice Plus/ ฝึกเขียน บวก (ouch)

    Definitely a tough test, and they’re not giving away Superior or Distinguished scores. I think I will try to retake it periodically to measure progress over time.

  13. I sat the test last week and I concur with everything that has been said here. I think that the format of the speaking exam was very good. I would like to know their marking criteria though – and whether or not it’s the people who did the interview that actually mark the exam. I chose the international relations topic too and the questioning got into some sensitive areas where perhaps Thais would not delve into if they were questioning an Ajarn (to do with the Japanese occupation of Thailand during the second world war as well as pros and cons of strategic alliances with either China or the United states).

    As mentioned, the listening section of the exam was merciless. The skill here is note taking, as there are many things presented in some of the latter very long passages. If you don’t sort out what is what, you will have trouble giving the correct response as the multiple choice selections are there to trip you up.

    The reading as mentioned by all above, was intense. There’s a LOT of text to get through during the time allotted – and 50 questions to answer. Some of the questions require you to go back and postulate answers based on the arguments in the articles – and in my opinion some of the answer could have had two or more correct responses. I managed to pull a Superior in both reading and listening which really surprised me. I was preparing myself for the worst.

    I asked the Ajarn after the exam whether native Thai speakers had sat this exam – I was interested in looking at their performance, especially in the listening, reading and writing. They said that there has been extensive testing of Thais during the research stage of preparing this exam and the results are confidential – however she COULD say that there was quite a considerable failure rate for Thais as well.

    I then asked “So does this really test language proficiency? – or proficiency in listening / reading / comprehension skills ( and note taking) in general?” – her response was “It test the proficiency of being able to do the tasks in the test”. A very Thai answer.

    Was it worth it? Yes.
    I would say that the results of this should be combined with other criteria if say, employers were looking for Thai speaking staff. It would be a shame for someone who speaks very good Thai to miss out on a job that they are capable of performing because of a low mark from an exam that doesn’t test the language in real life situations. That said, I did like the format of the speaking section.

  14. Hi Tod :)
    Nice writeup !thanks for sharing!it helps me a lot: )
    I want to know that is there any CUTFL textbooks to buy?
    Like TOEFL Guide books
    Thank you so much!!

    Miss Jade

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