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GMAT: Why Being A Native English Speaker Could Be A Disadvantage

The verbal section of the GMAT is regarded as a major roadblock for many non-native English speakers. But could native-English-speaking candidates have a disadvantage too?

By  Rich Carriero

Tue Jan 14 2014

In nearly all cases, being a non-native English speaker is a disadvantage on the verbal section of the GMAT. But could native-English-speaking candidates have a disadvantage too? Rich Carriero finds out.

I took Latin when I was a freshman in high school because my mother made me. On the first day of class my teacher gave me a guarantee: “In my class you will learn more about English grammar than anything else”.

Almost 20 years on and my brain is nearly devoid of any Latin vocabulary. However, I still remember nuances of grammatical structure that inform my writing and allow me to correctly parse some of the toughest answer choices on the GMAT sentence correction section.

For three years I taught ESL classes in Istanbul, Turkey in addition to working for a major US test prep company teaching GMAT and GRE classes and private lessons.

We can learn a great deal about the mother tongue from the perspective of non-native speakers. 

The Downside of Leading With Your Ear

Native-English-speaking test-takers begin every sentence correction question by reading the sentence and listening for the error. This is a highly effective method and works most of the time. 

But the problem is that most students fail to have a plan B when they don't hear anything. It's the reason we so often fail to catch mistakes in sentences like There going to call there parents when they get there.

Ironically, these confusions are more obvious to ESL students because they have had to study and memorize the difference between tricky homophones. 

Non-native-English-speaking students are also reading through the sentences more slowly and thus are more likely to catch inaudible errors. As a native speaker, the solution here is that when you fail to detect an error by listening, try slowing down and looking for commonly tested homophones or punctuation errors. 

Also consider the rules that typically govern the underlined parts of speech. If a verb is underlined, for example, check the tense and the agreement with the subject. If that doesn't work, you can then pick choice A in good conscience.

Idiom Study Methods

Idioms and diction are the closest the GMAT gets to testing vocabulary. Idioms are particularly difficult to teach because they have no rhyme or reason to them; some expressions are just said in one way and not another. 

Native speakers are vulnerable to idiom questions on the GMAT because of the informal way we speak. For example, very few people on the street will recognize the error in the sentence: “I will try and convince my anthropology professor to grant me an extension on my term paper”.

The expression “try and convince”  is commonly used, but incorrect .“Try to convince” is the correct version.

Chances are, as a native English speaker you will know most of the idioms and recognize most of the common diction issues that appear on GMAT sentence correction questions, but you probably don't know them all. 

What ESL students do is study lists of these expressions and memorize them like vocabulary words. While there is no definitive list, a simple Google search for "Commonly Tested GMAT Idioms" reveals a wealth of material compiled by various blogs and prep companies. 

If you want to up your verbal score a few points, this is one of the best ways.

Noun Knowledge

Having studied a few foreign languages, I have found one of the trickiest aspects of English is the fact that our nouns simply don't tell you very much. 

Consider a common noun like the word book. In English we can add endings to indicate whether book is singular or plural (book versus books) or to indicate that it's possessive (book's or books'). But that's it. 

At a glance you cannot tell whether the word book is a subject, direct object, indirect object, object of a preposition or object of address. Most other languages (including Turkish and Latin) have endings to indicate the role of a noun in a sentence. In English, all we really have is context, which can be misleading.

Consider this common GMAT trap: Last week a collection of Saxon artifacts, after a painstaking process of discovery, excavation and cataloging, were unveiled during a special exhibition at the British MuseumIt doesn't sound wrong, does it? After all, we can picture the artifacts being unveiled before the eyes of a curious public. 

But what, exactly, is the subject of this sentence? Each noun in a sentence can only have one function. In other words, a noun cannot be both a subject and an object at the same time.

In the above sentence the word artifacts is the object of the preposition of, so it cannot also be the subject of the sentence. That role falls to the word collection, which, as a singular noun, should be followed with the verb was unveiled.

Rich Carriero is the Academic Manager for GRE and GMAT, which provides one-on-one GMAT tutors nationwide. He has 15 years of experience in the test preparation industry.