The Korea Herald


[Robert Fouser] English proficiency of South Koreans

By Korea Herald

Published : Aug. 4, 2023 - 05:31

    • Link copied

How well do South Koreans speak English? The development of translation apps and decreased personal interaction after the pandemic may be making this question less important, but English education still occupies an important place in the South Korean society. English is a required language from elementary school through university. Scores of standardized English tests are usually required for employment and advancement in companies. English kindergartens and other types of private schools remain popular.

English proficiency across nations is difficult to compare because of the many variables involved. In the past, the media used TOEFL scores to gauge English proficiency in different countries, but results are skewed because in many nations TOEFL takers are limited to people hoping to pursue a university degree in English. Like TOEFL, TOEIC is available in many countries but 80 percent of test takers come from South Korea and Japan, making a broad comparison difficult. Nevertheless, scores from the two tests offer insight into where countries stand.

The most ambitious attempt is that of EF Education First, a foreign language teaching company founded in 1965. EF Education developed the EF Standardized English Test (EF SET) and uses the test data to create the EF English Proficiency Index (EF EPI), which allows for international comparison. The most recent edition of the EF EPI from 2022 ranks English proficiency in 111 countries and regions.

So how does South Korea come out? Data from the TOEFL iBT in 2021 show that South Korea ranks below the mean of European countries, but in the middle overall. Among Asian countries, for example, South Korea’s mean total score was 86, whereas as China and Taiwan were 87 and Japan was 73. Among Asian nations, Malaysia, and Pakistan, both of which share a history of British colonial rule, had a score of 92.

TOEIC scores for 2022 show South Korea doing slight better than its neighbors. The country had a mean score of 675, whereas Japan came in at 561 and China at 548. In Asia, the Philippines, which has a history of US colonial rule, scored high at 749. France, Germany, Italy and Spain all had mean scores above 700.

Results from the EF English Proficiency Index (EF EPI) in 2022 offer the most accurate comparison. Data for the report index came from more than 2,100,000 people around the world who took the EF Standard English Test (EF SET) or one of the EF’s placement tests in 2021.

In the 2022 report, South Korea ranked 36 out of 111 countries and regions and was classified as having “moderate proficiency.” The top group, “very high proficiency,” was dominated by European countries, but Singapore ranked 2nd after the Netherlands, and South Africa 12th. The bottom group, “very low proficiency,” centered on countries in Africa and Asia, with Laos ranking last.

Compared to its neighbors, South Korea came out well in the EF EPI. It ranked higher than neighboring China and Japan, both in the “low proficiency” group, and higher than any other Asian nation except for Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia and Hong Kong, all of which experienced colonial rule by an English-speaking power.

The EF EPI also ranked English proficiency in cities around the world. Among major cities, Seoul was in the “high proficiency” group, sitting between Paris and Kuala Lumpur. It was also the highest-ranking Asian city in a survey and ahead of Beijing and Tokyo, which were in the “moderate proficiency group.”

Among South Korean cities, Daegu joined Seoul in the “high proficiency” group. Busan, Incheon, and Daejeon were in the “moderate proficiency” group, and Ulsan near the top of the “low proficiency” group. By province, Gyeonggi, South Chungcheong and North Gyeongsang provinces fell in the “moderate proficiency” group, while the others were in the “low proficiency” group (no data for Gwangju and Jeju Province were given). The concentration of younger people with higher English proficiency in cities and nearby areas influences much of the regional discrepancy. Data from Japan reveal a similar trend where proficiency is highest in the largest urban areas around Tokyo and Osaka.

This quick tour of test data from around the world suggests that South Koreans are fairly proficient in English. The tests do not focus on speaking but that usually correlates with overall proficiency. South Korea’s achievement is even more laudable considering that the linguistic distance between Korean and English. With continued interest and investment in English education, South Korea should join the “high proficiency” group fairly soon.

Robert J. Fouser

Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Providence, Rhode Island. He can be reached at -- Ed.