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Friday 17 January 2020

'I was trying to decide what accent to use for my re-test' - Irish engineer who failed Australian visa English fluency test marked by automatic program

Skilled workers looking to emigrate to Australia have to prove their English proficiency 

Matthew Kelly
Matthew Kelly

Laura Larkin

An Irish engineer who found himself being judged as not able to speak English fluently by an automated computer program has warned people seeking Australian visas to be wary of how their tests are marked.

Matthew Kelly (34) did the Pearson (PTE Academic) English exam as part of his application process for an independent skilled immigrant visa when he was moving to Australia but scored poorly in the oral fluency and pronunciation sections of the exam.

This week a Wicklow vet, Louise Kennedy, also revealed she was forced to opt for a more expensive spousal visa when she scored poorly on the English test. 

The tests were both run by the same company.

Matthew found the company through an Australian Government website.

The Belfast man, who works in IT in the banking sector has a degree in Software Engineering from Edinburgh University, is well spoken.

A portion of the test involves speaking into a microphone when prompted. 

"I got my mark and I thought obviously it was a mistake," he told

"I thought maybe a non-English speaker couldn't quite get my accent. I needed 'superior English' but I thought that's no problem I've been to university and written essays," he said.

But he said what resulted was a "joke".

"I spent two weeks humming and hawing trying to decide which of my accents was better, my British accent or my American, because I thought I was going to have to do an accent so the computer could understand me.

"Google and Apple are still struggling with voice recognition but this company thinks they have cracked and not only that but they could judge your level of English," he said.

Matthew said he was lucky to have time on his side and he was able to re-take the competency test with a company who used human assesors.

"I realised that there were alternative tests I could take that were marked by a human being. In the end I opted for the IELTS test, got the marks I  needed pretty easily, got my visa, and the story of 'the time I failed  an English test' became an amusing anecdote I told at parties," he said.

But Matthew hopes his story will encourage Irish people to use the companies who test without the automated problem in order to avoid the problems he has encountered.

A spokesman for the company said it "stands by" its techonology.

"Pearson stands by the reliability of the technology used in the Pearson Test of English (PTE Academic). It is important to understand that PTE Academic is not a pass or fail test. Instead, test takers are scored on a scale of 10-90, and organisations accepting scores determine appropriate outcomes for their purposes," he said.

"PTE Academic is recognised globally and maintains rigorous standards for ensuring reliability. During its development, it was field tested using 400,000 spoken responses from more than 10,000 test takers speaking 120 different languages including native English speakers. Hundreds of thousands of people take the exam each year for study, work or migration purposes.

"An English language test result is one of the requirements to apply for an Australian skilled migration visa. The Department of Immigration and Border Protection sets the minimum score for those test results.”

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