Chula’s Thai Test for Foreigners: CU-TFL

Chula’s Thai Test for Foreigners: CU-TFL

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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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