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Why Arabic is so popular among South Korean students

More than seven out of 10 Suneung test-takers chose Arabic as a second foreign language this year, a surprisingly high number given that the language is rarely taught in schools here. 

Students check the results of the Nov. 23 Suneung college entrance exam Tuesday. Yonhap
Students check the results of the Nov. 23 Suneung college entrance exam Tuesday. Yonhap

According to the Korea Institute for Curriculum and Evaluation, 73.5 percent, or 51,882, of students who sat for the second foreign language test in the annual multi-subject college entrance exam, chose Arabic among nine foreign languages available. The eight others are German, French, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Vietnamese and Classical Chinese.

A second foreign language is one of the five subjects of Suneung, which is equivalent to the US’ SAT. Although it is not mandatory, some top tier universities require applicants to submit test scores in the subject. 

The number of students choosing Arabic has been growing sharply since 2005 when the language was first introduced to the Suneung. In 2005, 531 students took the Arabic test, but the number rose sharply to 37,526, over half of the whole second language test-takers, in 2016 and finally over 51,800 this year.

The popularity of Arabic, however, is unlikely a reflection of the young generation’s genuine interest in the language or the region. Rather, it is a strategic decision for students to score high and get an upper hand over other test-takers, experts say.

“Students have found a way of cutting corners in the current assessment system of (relative grading),” Lim Sung-ho, head of Jongro Academy, one of the biggest hagwon chains here, told The Korea Herald.

Since test scores are relatively determined by that of competitors, it incentivizes students to choose a less popular language in which there aren‘t many high performers as is in the case of more commonly taught languages such as Chinese and Japanese. Arabic is taught in just six high schools nationwide.

“In Arabic, even those poorly-prepared students easily get levels 4 or 5 (in a 1-9 scale). If they put in just a little more effort, they are more likely to score well,” Lim said.

Educations authorities are well aware of this. The Education Ministry announced in August a plan to revise the Suneung rules to adopt absolute grading in second foreign language tests.

By Bak Se-hwan (