Aspiring citizens should be aware that there is a new citizenship test coming. The Department of Health and Human Services quietly published an announcement in the Federal Register last December that the government would begin conducting trial testing of a newly redesigned test for naturalization applicants. This redesign initiative is anticipated to take two years with expectations for it to be implemented by late 2024. The revisions specifically target the English speaking and understanding component of the test while apparently leaving the reading and writing parts intact. For most applicants, the English speaking and comprehension is perhaps the most challenging aspect of the test, especially for older applicants who are extremely nervous and who were never formally schooled in English.
Changes to the Speaking Test
Under the current policy and procedures, officers judge an applicant’s ability to speak and understand English by asking them questions from the N-400 application. If an applicant reasonably responds to the questions and appears to comprehend what is being asked, an officer will usually determine that the person speaks English. However, in a very interesting change, an applicant’s ability to speak and understand English will be judged by how well he or she is able to describe pictures. According to the trial test, applicants will be shown three color photographs from a pool of approximately seventy images and asked to describe what they are seeing. The pictures will be from a bank of photos “that directly correspond to an ordinary usage scenario, such as daily activities, the weather, or food.”
The Test Could Be Harder For Some
While this might sound easier, in reality, these changes arguably stand to impose an even harder requirement for those who are not fluent in the English language. Instead of confirming questions from an application which they are already familiar with, applicants will now have the pressure of essentially playing “charade” under stressful conditions. What about applicants who are visually impaired or those who are innocently focusing on one aspect of the picture while the officer is expecting them to describe something else in the image? What daily activities or food that is considered “ordinary usage” is a very nebulous concept, given that permanent residents come from all over the world: what might be ordinary activity for a person here might not necessarily be familiar to someone originally from a different country, or someone who sticks to his or her native cuisine and does not eat “American food.”
Additionally, it is not clear whether officers will still be expected to review the N-400 application with the applicant to confirm information and determine whether anything has changed. If so—which would be expected—then the pictures test only compounds the potential difficulty of the examination because the applicant must not only answer questions from the 20-page application but also undergo this pseudo-Rorschach test.
It should be emphasized that this is only a pilot test that will be conducted with volunteer organizations throughout the US who work with people studying English and those preparing to become citizens. Current N-400 applicants will not be taking the new test yet. So there is no need to panic. However, it is worth considering applying for naturalization before this new speaking test, with all the uncertainty it brings, is implemented.
The above is general information only. It is not specific legal advice nor intended to create an attorney client relationship. If you need advice, please consult with an attorney.