High TOEIC scorers not fluent in English
By Na Jeong-ju
Park Jai-sang, a 27-year-old college graduate in Seoul, is nicknamed a “TOEIC genius” among his peers because every time he takes the English proficiency test, he scores higher than 900.
Considering his score, his level of proficiency should be excellent. When he applied to work at a major trading company, he was even asked by the interviewer about his secrets to achieve such a grade.
But he can’t actually speak English fluently. Whenever he meets native speakers, he gets nervous.
“I’ve never been to a foreign country, but I studied hard at private cram schools with workbooks written by famous English teachers,” Park said. “I’ve just got the knack of getting high scores.”
Like Park, many Koreans study for the TOEIC and TOEFL, administered by the Educational Testing Service of the United States, because major companies and government agencies demand applicants provide scores. It is not the case in South Korea because the exams are accepted by numerous countries worldwide. Then are high scorers good at English? Not really.
After graduation, Park entered a research firm affiliated with LG. He soon realized that high TOEIC scores don’t necessarily mean a good command of English after he was assigned to a department handling overseas clients.
He enrolled at a private language institute near his office to enhance his practical conversation skills. He wakes up at 5:30 a.m. every day to attend the 70-minute class, costing some 150,000 won ($126) monthly, before he goes to work.
“When I was in school, I studied at cram schools to get high TOEIC scores. Now I do it for my job,” Park said.
South Koreans spend tens of millions of dollars every year to take the global proficiency exams. Test fees paid annually for TOEIC alone are estimated at $120 million.
“We should ask this fundamental question: Why should we learn English?” said Yoon Sung-hoon, a teacher at Dr. Yoon Language Institute. “Koreans tend to learn English to get high test scores because that’s necessary to get good jobs or go to good colleges. The tests have become a necessary evil.”
Yoon called for the need to reshape English education here to give more weight on enhancing practical communication skills and understanding the lifestyles and cultures of English-speaking countries.
Then, is there any alternative test that can replace the TOEIC or TOEFL?
There is probably not at the moment, but a project is now under way to change the trend of studying English here. The Korean government is now developing an exam called the National English Ability Test (NEAT) which is focused on evaluating speaking and writing skills.
Some experts cautiously predict that the exam could undercut the presence of such globally-accepted proficiency tests as TOEIC and TOEFL here. It is, however, feared to prompt private cram schools to raise stakes on NEAT, resulting in greater tutoring costs for students. It’s therefore quite ironic that the primary goal of developing NEAT is to address growing household spending on English education.
Another question is whether NEAT can take care of problems that TOEIC and TOEFL can’t resolve.
According to Jin Kyung-ae, a researcher at the Korea Institute for Curriculum and Evaluation, which will administer the state-run exam, the root cause of what she called drifting English education is that there have been no specific guidelines here on how to teach and learn English.
“We are trying to change the way students learn and practice the language. We will ensure that high NEAT scorers will be good speakers as well as good writers. It’s about practical language skills,” Jin said. “I hope NEAT will provide the much-needed guidelines.”