Non-Native English speakers have every right to find the verbal section of the GMAT daunting. While native English speakers certainly do have a natural edge, it is very possible for GMAT test-takers whose first language isn't English to overcome any disadvantages.
First, some words of consolation: English is a difficult language to learn as an adult. It's a blend of several different older languages that still coexist uneasily in the grammar and vocabulary. The English language's German roots don't intuitively align with its Latin roots. A lot of wrong usage by non-native speakers is more logical than correct, idiomatic usage by native speakers. Perhaps knowing some of the back story will help to alleviate frustration.
A Little History Lesson
English wasn't first spoken in England. The ancient inhabitants of the British Isles spoke indigenous languages that would evolve into modern-day Irish and Welsh. But then Germanic tribes invaded, pushing these aboriginal British tongues to the far reaches of what we now know as England. Old English, the language of the epic poem, Beowulf, is a blend of German and Scandinavian languages, along with a few Latin words from the Roman Empire's long presence in Britain.
Then a new group of invaders - the Norman French - came along in 1066 and swiftly conquered England, bringing along their Latin-based language with them. While common people continued to speak their German-based language, the ruling class used the Latin-based vocabulary and grammar of French. The two languages eventual blended to form the single language known as modern English, but divisions remain. German-based English words have a lower, more casual connotation, while French-based words sound more formal. Compare the Germanic sweat to the Latinate perspiration, or Germanic friendly with the Latinate cordial.
In the age of colonial expansion, English spread around the globe, appropriating foreign vocabulary along the way. America, Australia and other former English-speaking colonies developed the language in new directions, creating a variety of new idioms and slang. Just in case you thought things couldn't get more complicated, these countries' industrialization created the need for a lot of new scientific and technical vocabulary, frequently borrowed from other languages.
English & Bizarre Verbs
As you can see, the English language is a quite a mutt. Because of this, it has an unusually wide variety of irregular and otherwise eccentric verbs from its parent languages. The most bizarre verbs are unfortunately the ones English uses the most. The modern English verb to be seems grammatically insane: I am. You are. He/she/it is. We are. I am not a swimmer now, but I used to be. She is not a good dancer, but she will be. There isn't any identifiable logic tying it all together! To be is an amalgamation of several Proto-Indo-European verbs that all performed the same functions. Be, is and were all came from different verbs that all presumably made sense in their original form. Now, they form a set of arbitrary rules that just need to be memorized. The illogic of to be extends to its use as an auxiliary. Dropping the auxiliary to be is wrong, even though it can make your speech clearer. Vernacular English drops the auxiliary all the time: Where you at? We at the party.
The dummy auxiliary verbs to do and to have are equally quirky. Did you make the cake? Yes, I did. He hasn't made a cake in a while. Will the cake have already been baked by nine o'clock? Do I have to bake the cake today? Yes, you do, the pie is disgusting. It's hard for a Non-Native speaker to keep all the idiomatic distinctions straight. Why do you make an appointment and not do an appointment? Why do you do a dance and not make a dance? It's all arbitrary and historical.
The Sound th
Yet another challenge is the interdental sound th. English is one of the very few languages in the world aside from Icelandic to use this sound, and we use it in some of our most commonly used words: the, this, that, them.
Studying for the GMAT
So what's a Non-Native English speaker to do? Spending time talking to native speakers helps with your overall fluency, but for GMAT sentence correction it can get you into trouble, since native speakers routinely make grammar mistakes. Your best course of action is to read well-written, grammatically correct publications aimed at educated readers: The New Yorker, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic Monthly, Harper's. The Economist has excellently-written articles, but be aware that it uses British idioms rather than American ones. When reading newspapers, keep in mind that opinion pieces by the editors use the most correct, least slang-y writing. Daily news articles are written faster and aren't as rigorously edited. They may also use more slang and informal language.
Some good news for Non-Native English speakers prepping for the GMAT: you won't be misled by a lifetime of non-standard usage. Native speakers can glance at the GMAT sentence correction questions and get an immediate intuition for which one feels right, but sometimes that intuition leads them astray. Non-Native speakers have the advantage of learning rules, and approaching the questions analytically rather than following a gut instinct.
It's also reassuring to know that American business schools are eager to attract international students. Business schools like students to be competitive, driven, goal-oriented, analytical and extroverted-the classic type A personality, regardless of nationality. Shape your application to market several of these qualities. Once you're in business school, no one will care if you have an accent as long as you speak and act confidently.
About the author:
Josh Anish is the Senior Editor at Knewton, where he helps students with the Verbal components of GMAT prep. Knewton provides online test preparation courses to students around the world using revolutionary adaptive learning technology.