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The problem with the English testing system in Korea

Screenshot of Dave's YouTube video.
James Hyams
Written by James Hyams

A video of an American being outdone on an English test by two South Korean TOEIC teachers has gone viral, but not for the reasons most would think.

Native English speaker Dave scored 76 on the English-language section of Korea’s college entrance test called Suneung whereas his Korean counterparts scored 96 and a perfect 100.

However, when Dave spoke to them in native-style conversational English they could not understand or reply.

“A lot of my friends who are studying TOEIC/TOEFL have trouble with basic conversation, which is why I created this video experiment in the first place, to see the contrast between testing ability and speaking ability in English,” he said.

Dave said this video demonstrates that Koreans often learn how to test well but not necessarily develop conversational English skills.

“They have spent years practicing and honing their test taking skills, memorizing hundreds of words at a time, and it’s come to a point where an English question is no different than a simple puzzle to a lot of the students.”

This highlights a problem all too common for Koreans and English teachers – students learning English for the test rather than to converse.

English teacher Manuel Lara said this is a byproduct of Korean companies basing one’s employability on test outcomes.

“Through discussions with various friends and former students working in companies, I’ve learned that even after getting the job at Samsung or LG, workers continue to take tests and accumulate various certifications in order to maintain their employment,” he said.

“Tests which, in my opinion, do not prove their value as an employee, but rather function as evidence of their competency, should something go wrong, or should a manger need to justify hiring a seemingly incompetent employee.”

Many Koreans also put their scores on their resumes.

Manuel said students tend to think that employers focus largely on the test score as an indicator of one’s capacity and consequently certificates are important.

“So are degrees from big name schools,” he said. “So Koreans spend long hours after school studying and attending intensive study academies, in hopes of scoring high enough on the Suneung or one of the other methods for entering university. And once entering a top university, which is key if one wants a good job, they then start the process all over again, trying to raise their TOEIC scores, and graduate with top grades, so that they can have a chance entering a good company. Once again, the process starts as they study and cram in order to pass the company’s entrance exam test.”

Elizabeth Martin works for an American education consultancy firm and said the results of this experiment are not surprising.

“If you are a Korean person, working for a Korean company and not planning on traveling there isn’t a reason to learn practical English. On the other hand, I work with a lot of students who want to attend university in the U.S. and even though most have 80-85 TOEFL, there is no way their speaking skills are enough to communicate with a classmate.”

Alice Kim said students require good scores on tests so they are accepted into decent schools.

“Its just that the Korean education system for English is focusing on the test. Not only English,” she noted.

Despite being a competent English speaker and being in a relationship with a Westerner, Alice said she still has difficulty understanding English sometimes.

“I never talked with native speakers until I went to university,” she said.

Manuel stressed that exposure to native English speakers from a young age assists conversational English skill, but only if done appropriately with a teaching method suitable for the child’s age range, not an academy where children study for many hours.

“Through conversations with many of my university students, I learned that some parents are now enrolling three or four year olds in conversational English classes and math classes at learning institutes where children are made to sit for long hours and study,” he said.

Despite the score based system, many Koreans have exceptional conversational English skills and excel nationally and internationally.

Eugene Hwang, a PR consultant, said that students need to supplement their study for exams to improve English skills.

“The drive and passion of each individual student is what will ultimately determine their level of fluency, not whether there’s too much emphasis on tests,” he said. “In any system, unmotivated students will not be able to converse, nor will students motivated for purposes other than constant interaction with native speakers.”

About the author

James Hyams

James Hyams

James Hyams juggles several careers including being a journalist and a social worker. James has an avid interest in 'telling it as it is', exposing matters of public interest, and reviving investigative journalism in the new digital era. Testimony to this is his thesis titled: “U.S. Government secrecy and the withering watchdog: Is WikiLeaks the answer?”

  • Robert Mc Farlane

    Terrible name for the article. No it’s not too tough for an American, it’s a
    stupid test that fails at what it is supposed to measure. It has no
    bearing at all on the Americans English ability. The name of the article
    is making it sound like Koreans are better at English than Americans.

  • aeonlive

    to be fair, you mumbled. love your vids though…

  • this bear is tops blooby

    Learning the rules (for testing purposes) and executing them are two different things. Kinda like learning martial arts from a manual or book and having to execute the moves in real life. (No Gracie Combatives jokes!)

  • NewKDramaAddict

    This is very true. Practical use versus testing is two different things!!

  • ganadharmabhasa

    Koreans are only “book” smart. They don’t know how to be “street” smart. And this is a very huge problem among Koreans that is likely unsolvable. Oh, Koreans and their unhealthy and unstable English “fetish”. Their over-heated obsession with English is really making native English speakers like myself very nervous. It’s very hard to tell when they love English more than than their native language, A.K.A Korean. Well, at least almost all of them will never master English perfectly despite their love for it. I seriously question their way of learning foreign languages overall.

  • Sarah Coutts

    This ‘article’ doesn’t say anything that almost every native English speaker already says daily. It was a waste of time reading it and sounds like a blog post of a novice teacher.

    It would be great if it were “native English speakers” rather than “Americans”. Congratulations on perpetuating the stereotype and arrogance that American English/Americans represent all native English speakers.

  • michaelu

    Once again, James, your pathetic click-bait headlines misrepresent your article entirely. Why don’t you add snake oil-salesman to that list of alleged careers that you supposedly juggle. Oh, and I still haven’t heard back from you about the land of racial harmony that is your home. Still waiting.

  • Anonymous_Joe

    Does anyone know some sample suneung English questions? Are they mostly context based vocabulary like the “paradigm” example in the video?

  • Michael.M.S

    To me, The name of the article is not making it sound like Koreans are better at English than Americans but making it sound like Korean Sat Sucks at being a test. And It really does.

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