Song Min-ho, a recent English graduate of Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, recalled how he was baffled when he first encountered a native English speaker. Despite his respectable TOEIC score, he was unable to open his mouth.
“My head just went blank like a piece of paper,” the 29-year-old said. Song, who had never studied abroad, said that his top grades in high school hardly helped. If anything, it hindered him.
“Studying English felt like math, with teachers telling us to remember all sorts of formulas,” he said. “I ended up calculating and thinking about the formula whenever I used English, which makes communication unnatural.”
Another English major, a 27-year-old surnamed Yoo, said that he had a similar experience when he went to study in the U.S. He said while he and the other Koreans nailed the grammar tests, they just couldn’t speak.
He blamed the Korean educational system, which he said is only targeted toward getting good test scores.
“At school, there are 30 students but only one teacher. At most, students can only speak once or twice. So there needs to be way to let students to speak English more.”
Like Yoo and Song, many Korean students are expressing their frustrations at how they spent countless hours on their English education that seldom helped them communicate with a native speaker.
A 2012 report by the Educational Testing Service showed that Korea’s IBT TOEFL score was among the lowest among members of the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation.
It showed that Korea’s performance was especially poor in terms of speaking as only Japan and Turkey did worse. While the country did marginally better in writing, it was still near the bottom, tied with four other countries for the third-worst record.
The poor result is not likely to have resulted from lack of effort.
Last year’s OECD report showed that Korea had the third-highest rate of education expenditure per GDP among all OECD countries, behind Denmark and Iceland.
While the report did not specify how much of the spending is on private education, a 2011 report showed that Koreans had topped the list for the 11th straight year as of 2009. Private Education in Korea was a 19.4 trillion won ($17.9 billion) market in 2012, and English accounted for nearly one-third of it.
So the question is: If Koreans spend that much money and effort on studying English, why are they not getting the results?
Choi Seok-moo of Korea University said the problem lies in lopsided education that focuses mostly on some of the English skills such as reading, writing and grammatical structure and disregards speaking and writing.
“It is hard for students to focus on speaking or writing mainly because it is not evaluated for college admission,” said Choi, a professor of English education.
Most of the English education is directed toward reading, grammar and listening, which are key subjects in the country’s College Scholastic Ability Test, known as the Suneung. It is the same for job seekers looking to acquire descent TOEIC scores. TOEIC scores, which are required by many of the companies in Korea, are comprised of two parts: reading comprehension and listening comprehension.
While stressing the need for speaking and writing lessons, Choi also emphasized the importance of debate classes to develop students’ analytical thinking.
“In order to communicate, you need logic and critical thinking. But the middle school and high school curricula do not prepare students for that kind of thing because it is not important for college entrance,” Choi said.
In Korea, middle and high school classes are mostly based on lectures, as debate skills are neither mandated nor tested in the Suneung.
Lee Yae-sheik, a professor of education at Kyungpook University, said this may be because reading or writing skills are not suitable for objective evaluation that can be calibrated into scores.
“In college entrance, a fraction of a point can determine whether you pass or fail. If there is a speaking test, it has to be graded by a human being, who is prone to errors,” Lee said. “Parents will never be convinced with the result.”
The Suneung is held once a year and has great influence over which colleges will accept a student. Because of the high stakes, disputes over accuracy of Suneung questions occur every year.
Lee said the best way to persuade parents that the test is fair is to conduct the multiple-choice test, in which the correct answer is predetermined.
The government, it seems, was not oblivious to students’ lack of communication skills. In 2012, it attempted to implement a new state-run English test called the National English Ability Test to measure speaking and writing skills.
The NEAT project, which cost 42.5 billion won, foundered even before it set off, as the Education Ministry announced last month that it would cancel the NEAT for students. The ministry said the demand for NEAT plunged after the government last year scrapped its plan to substitute the Suneung English exam with the new test.
“Authorities must have thought that if they came up with the new exam testing communicative abilities, parents and students would just follow,” Lee said.
“It does not work that way. Writing ability requires a whole different set of skills for both students and teachers. You can’t just throw in a test and expect everyone else to follow along. You need a long-term plan and investment,” he said.
Despite the obstacles, experts said the government needs to work on revamping the English education system.
“The authorities must research the current curriculum from elementary school to high school and make an evaluation model. It will be based on what each student is expected to achieve at respective grades,” Lee said. He said the model should be categorized in detail, so it will be enough for colleges to judge how good he or she is.
“The current education system lacks specific criteria, so what are teachers supposed to do? They have no choice but to judge students based on their test scores.”
By Yoon Min-sik (firstname.lastname@example.org)