I think that I’d better get on with studying Korean, since I’m now expected to teach a book that is untranslated. Yep, the teacher can read neither the questions nor the answers. This is a book for a new college entrance exam in Korea called the National English Ability Test (NEAT), which is meant to show the English abilities of Korean students without the use of a more globally-recognized test such as the TOEFL or Cambridge exams.
The reasons for which Korea is adding a new test to the litany of tests that children must prepare for escape me. It’s hard enough to explain to an eleven year old why they should be taking a TOEFL speaking class seriously already! At least in this case, it appears that the idea is to test students’ basic communication skills in English. Or is it?
The NEAT is not a test that is exclusively in English. In fact, the test is set up in much the same way as my untranslated textbook. The listening sections apparently use native English speakers and Korean English speakers in their conversations, which is fine except that it tests only for ability to understand basic (mostly North American) English and English spoken by someone with a Korean background. In doing so it takes away the importance of basic communication between anyone who is not a native speaker and/or Korean, and it creates conditions under with the pronunciation and construction of English coming from a Korean is favored.
This is clearly problematic. English is, for better or for worse, the lingua franca of the 21st century. Korea owns a piece of that linguistic pie, but testing their students solely on their understanding of Korean English and North American English curtails their communication skills. Since that’s exactly what I’m living in Korea to provide (supposedly), I’m more than a bit skeptical of the test delivering the results that most people studying and.or forcing their kids to study English are after: communicative competence.
To be totally honest, it seems as if Korea is prioritizing a test that will be easier for Korean students than the TOEFL or Cambridge tests (on which historically Korean students do poorly). It feels like an attempt to redefine English competency in a way that only measures ones ability based on English within Korea, which isn’t even an Anglophone country. If non-native speakers are judging other non-native speakers in a country that does not speak English widely, the result can only be a misrepresentation of the abilities of those tested.
Maybe I’m just frustrated at the book. The other English competency tests aren’t perfect, either. TOEFL is stiflingly boring (believe me, I teach a lot of it) and the international insistence on English for business, academia, and diplomacy does great damage to the richness of human language. But compartmentalizing it into enclaves of specific Englishes is really no better. What if every country had its own NEAT in place of standardized global tests like the TOEFL? I venture that we’d end up with a lot of pidgin English claiming to be fluency.
It’s possible that this is just the way of the future. English will go in the direction of Latin and end up in words and phrases that are totally different in use from their original meaning. People around the world will end up speaking English that isn’t, and its title as lingua franca assures that it will be misused. One need only glance around at the t-shirts for sale in Seoul to see that the prestige of appearing to speak English circumvents actually being able to read it (“HIROSHIMA Tombstone, Arizona Fighting established 1997” was emblazoned on one of my students’ shirts the other day, and in the subway I caught a glimpse of “FUCKING SUMMER” displayed across the chest of a woman in her fifties).
Regardless, the NEAT is a bad idea at best. It gives the hagwons something new to teach, and dumbs down college-level English to the abilities of most Korean high schoolers. Don’t be surprised when you see a sudden “surge” in South Korean English ability in the news. It’s likely just the implementation of NEAT.
In the meantime, enjoy some of the wittier responses to the start-of-semester quiz I gave my students!