This week I got a surprise while I was answering emails from Magoosh TOEFL students—I got an email from a student who is South African. In some ways, this shouldn’t have surprised me. After all, South Africa is an English-lingua-franca country—a country where English is the common language between different groups of language speakers. This puts SA in the same company as India, a place many of Magoosh’s TOEFL students call home.
And yet, Magoosh has very few South African TOEFL students. This is because South Africans use English even more universally than Indians do. English is so commonly spoken—and taught—in South Africa that South Africans are actually classified as native English speakers by many measures. This is why non-English speaking countries such as South Korea and Japan consider South Africans to be native English speakers and hire South African nationals to teach English in their schools. When I myself taught in South Korea, I had many wonderful South African colleagues who were very effective English teachers.
However, South Africa is not necessarily a native English speaking country in the same way that the US or Canada is. South Africa simply has more diversity than other English-speaking countries, with 11 official languages. English is considered to be the fourth most common native language, but is the most common second, or shared language. Because of its unique diversity and its special place for English, the TOEFL requirements for South African students vary a good deal.
Quite a few universities include South Africa in their list of native English speaking countries, completely waiving the TOEFL requirement for South Africans. One of the biggest, most prestigious universities in the US that does this is the University of Chicago. U Chicago states that students from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, the UK, and South Africa do not need to submit TOEFL scores for admissions. Many other universities— including some Ivy League ones— also waive TOEFL requirements for South Africans: Brown University, the University of Houston, and Central Michigan University, to name just a few.
Other universities allow South African students to skip the TOEFL if they meet certain requirements. Quite a few schools, including the prestigious Cornell University, ask South Africans to show that they have previous schooling in English. And the University of South Florida only waives the TOEFL for South Africans who do not list Afrikaans as their native language.
And there are still other American universities that simply don’t include South Africa on the list of TOEFL exempt countries. Indiana State University asks South Africans to take the TOEFL. So does the University of Pittsburgh, George Washington University, and a number of other notable American institutions.
So if you’re from South Africa, don’t assume you need to take the TOEFL. But don’t assume you can do without it either. Check carefully with every university you plan to apply to.