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[Hello Hangeul] Korean proficiency test measures memory, not skill

TOPIK test should measure foreigners’ real-life language abilities and speaking skills, say test-takers

By Park Jun-hee

Published : June 11, 2023 - 15:11

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In line with the growing fervor for Korean content, the country has also seen a rise in the number of non-native test-takers for the Korean proficiency test.

Launched in 1997, the Test of Proficiency in Korean, or TOPIK, administered by the National Institute for International Education, a government body operating under the Ministry of Education, is a test that measures non-Korean nationals' ability to understand and use the Korean language. The test results are valid for two years, and is offered to those preparing to work or study in Korea, or those wishing to land jobs in South Korean firms’ overseas branches or plants.

The annual number of applicants for the test surpassed the 300,000 mark for the first time in 2018. Last year, a record high of 356,661 people took the test, adding more than 66,000 test-takers since 2017’s 290,638. The increasing number of TOPIK test-takers is partly attributed to non-native speakers’ growing desire to live in Korea or interact with their favorite singers and celebrities, according to an NIIED official.

The six-tier test is comprised of TOPIK I, the basic level containing levels one and two, while the advanced level TOPIK II has levels three to six. Currently, lower-level tests consist of two sections -- reading and listening, while intermediate and advanced levels include reading, listening and writing sections that require a deeper understanding and discussion of topics regarding issues in Korean society. Each section is graded out of 100 points. The organization runs the speaking test as a separate exam.

This year’s TOPIK is being conducted six times in Korea and three times overseas. As of 2022, the tests were taken in 81 countries around the world. A separate six-tier speaking test, which was first piloted in 2021, will also be offered in June and August this year in Korea only. The registration fee for the test is around 55,000 won ($42.50), while the speaking test costs about 80,000 won.

Although the state-run test has been used to certify foreign nationals' Korean proficiency, the test has raised debate about whether it does so comprehensively. Critics and non-native speakers argue that the test measures a candidate’s memorization capacity over accurately assessing their knowledge of the Korean language.

Erika, a 28-year-old graduate student from Singapore and a TOPIK level five holder, said memorizing past official tests plays a key role in passing the exam, questioning whether passing a test through rote memorization accurately assesses a non-native speaker’s language ability.

Although getting a high score is not a cakewalk, it’s also not rocket science, she said, since the test score mainly depends on one’s memorization capacity rather than one's understanding of Korean.

“Korean language schools teach how to answer questions quickly (rather than understanding them), and all the exams require (practicing and studying) past tests and getting used to them. There’s a difference between being proficient in Korean and (passing) tests,” Erika told The Korea Herald.

TOPIK takers often end up memorizing Korean terms for the test and later forget them, according to Erika. She added that high scores don’t necessarily translate into having an excellent command of Korean.

She also pointed out that honorifics should be part of the test -- a skill that’s especially important in working environments -- and since most foreign nationals face difficulties grasping and applying the nuances of using and dropping them.

In addition, Erika said that a speaking test should be mandatory, as it can assess how one verbally communicates with a Korean speaker -- a crucial skill for working at a Korean company or living in Korea.

Janet, a 27-year-old university student in Korea and also a level five holder, echoed that the test should encourage non-native speakers to learn the language, not learn to score well on it.

She said the test deserves a conditional nod in helping her communicate in Korean and better grasp Korean culture, explaining that several Korean terms and grammar she had memorized applied to her life in Korea.

However, she said she’d forgotten many of the techniques, terms and sentence structures she had memorized for the test.

“I rarely apply the knowledge I obtained from the TOPIK II writing section, especially long answer questions that required advanced-level sentences, so there’s a limitation in the correlation between the test and actual proficiency.”

More diverse writing tests are needed, according to Clara, a 29-year-old interpreter from Hong Kong and a level five holder. More diverse writing tests can evaluate the test-taker based on language use and content quality rather than one that requires replicating a particular written test format and pre-memorized Korean vocabulary.

“The test assesses levels two to six with one exam, which might be inaccurate in classifying a non-native speaker’s proficiency level. In my opinion, the test should provide writing tests based on each level, since the main purpose of the test is to measure one’s aptitude,” she told The Korea Herald.

Linguists in Korea, however, said revising or enhancing the format for the TOPIK seems impossible for now.

“There were several changes to the test, such as making an oral test, but making more changes to the test or upgrading the current TOPIK exam is not an easy task (for the NIIED), though the NIIED is also aware of the concerns raised about the test,” Yun Suk-jin, a Korean language professor at Chungnam National University, told The Herald.

Instead of making changes to the exam, the institute should specify the guidelines about the grading scale to universities and companies to help them get a sense of non-native speakers' Korean abilities, according to Yun.