NEAT Writing: Teaching Sans Translation


Welcome to teaching NEAT, in Korean.

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!

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  1. Hi Coleen. I don’t know a lot about NEAT. It’s something that I’m going to focus on this year. I’m interested in the test itself and the materials used to teach it.

    I know that the aim for NEAT is admirable. One aim was to create a testing environment that encouraged a greater focus on communication and less on memorization (though that will never disappear nor, arguably, should it). We’ll have to see how that translated to classroom implementation. The idea was that the tail would wag the dog (positive washback), but the reality is yet to be seen.

    Another aim was to create a test that is catered more towards Korean speakers of English. This was done, in part, to de-emphasize the hegemony of inner circle Englishes and focus more on outer and expanding circle groups, not only from a political standpoint, but from a practical one as well (they are more likely to deal with near neighbors). From the sounds of it, you’d probably say they probably went too far with it and I’d agree if they are only relying on Korean language speakers in the testing materials.

    I hope that feedback like yours from classrooms will help to shape future materials and, if the test is representative of the materials that you’re using, to shape the test itself.

    • Another aim is to make it so that those without access to private English academies have a better chance at passing the test, thereby attempting to close the gap between high and low income students. That unfortunately is still problematic, because all the hagwons (including the one at which I work) have begun NEAT preparation courses and those students will still have an advantage. It will have the same gap as the TOEFL or other internationally-recognized tests.

      It is my understanding that some are pushing for the NEAT to replace TOEFL in Korea. If that is true, then it truly seems like shooting oneself in the foot. Instead of an internationally-recognized (albeit flawed in some ways and boring as crap to teach) test, Korea is trying to create their own standard that institutions outside this country are not likely to recognize. Is it possible that they are trying to prevent “brain drain” and encourage students to stay within Korean borders? Given the attitudes of some Koreans toward anything foreign, it’s possible. The focus of many students and parents seems to have shifted during the economic crisis and schools abroad are less popular now than the SKY Universities.

      Like any test, or any educational endeavor, NEAT has issues and good points. My biggest beef is that the test does not foster an immersion environment. As someone who has learned three languages as an adult, I can say that immersion is the only way to truly learn a language. This NEAT book and the test itself defeat the purpose of an English-Only classroom and immersion learning. Immersion is harder, but it’s better. That’s why (at least I thought that’s why) Korea hires more native English speakers to teach English than any other country.

      Maybe this is a transition point away from having as many foreign teachers in country, and focusing more on teaching Korean English. I suppose that’s fine, but students might be shocked when they equate a good NEAT score with English fluency and find themselves lost if someone speaks anything but Korean-style English.

  2. I like this post, and agree with most of it, except this:

    “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.”

    See… I don’t think that communicative competence is actually the goal a lot of Koreans have for studying English. A lot of them actually have, as their goal, a high score on some test, which makes a pretty bauble on a resume, for the sole purpose of getting the promotion/admittance they’ve been gunning for. They could almost add another acronym: EFC (“English For Credential”) or — this being Korea EFS (“English For Specs”), to the list of reasons people study. For those who don’t plan to deal with non-Koreans at work ( and a lot of the jobs with English requirements don’t actually need it, and simply use the English score as another arbitrary way to eliminate some of the resumes on their desks), that number is more important than communicative competence, and a lot of Korean students are realistic enough to realize this… even if they still say all that stuff they’re supposed to say about “english speaking skill.”

    • I mentioned that the NEAT is just one more way to cause Korean students pain with resume management. It’s true that most students are not there for communicative competence and they are conscious of that fact. However, the whole selling point of my particular hagwon is BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills), which we explicitly push on parents.

      I suppose it’s really a question of what Korea truly wants out of English education, and what the point is. If the point is simply to churn out as many decent test scores as possible, then NEAT may be perfect for their goals. If the point is to produce English speakers who can compete on a global level, it may be more of a hindrance than a help.

  3. As I mentioned on Twitter, I really enjoyed this post!
    I think your post might have gotten the ball rolling for the #KELTchat on this topic:

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