Friday, June 26, 2015

who gets the last laugh?

On Twitter, I followed a link to this Korea Observer article with the somewhat misleading title, "Is the Korean college entrance English test too tough for Americans?" (The phrase "college entrance" really ought to be hyphenated because it's a phrasal adjective preceding the noun it modifies.) The article includes an embedded video that I encourage you to watch. The video shows two capable Korean test-takers and one American (ostensibly an English teacher) who take a 50-minute section of a TOEIC test. Results: the two Koreans score 100% and 96%, respectively, while the American scores a dismal 76%. However, the video also shows that when Dave, the American, tries to ask basic questions of his two co-examinees, they (1) can't understand what he's saying and (2) can't make fluent replies.

The point being driven home by the video is one that's familiar to expat English teachers in Korea: Koreans are great when it comes to test taking, and since Korean business culture also seems to prioritize exam results over actual linguistic competence, this is what Korean students emphasize in their studies. In a course that stresses "teaching toward the test," Korean students will flourish. More abstractly, the video is a warning that tests do not measure actual competence, but merely test-taking ability. There's truth to this, but it's also true that test design can be good or shoddy.

Witness the TOEFL, which underwent a revolutionary redesign when too many Koreans were scoring in the high 90s. TOEFL had originally been a test of the passive/receptive macroskills, i.e., reading and listening. After the redesign, TOEFL also included the elements that Korean students dread: the active/productive macroskills of speaking and writing. I worked with ETS as a TOEFL essay rater, and I can personally attest to how easy it is to guess what part of the world a tester comes from based on that tester's writing. I now live in Korea, but because I also lived in Europe, I'm familiar with both Korean and European ways of thinking through English. If 5 is the maximum score on a TOEFL essay, Europeans, especially western Europeans, all tend to score 4 or 5 while Koreans are generally stuck in the doldrums of the 3 zone. This isn't just because English is a European language: it's also because of the differing approaches to language teaching adopted by Europeans and Asians. The European/US approach puts far more stress on communicative competence than does the Korean approach, which is more about rules, structures, rote memorization, and rote repetition—a scheme that completely ignores the fluidity and unpredictability of actual conversation.

Another, less comfortable, point of the video—one that might be visible only to the linguistically and pedagogically aware—is that many English teachers in Korea aren't worthy of the name: they have little to no real understanding of grammar, mechanics, and the finer points of rhetoric. (The Korea Observer article itself is an unholy jumble of egregious errors: it's not just English teachers who lack competence.) Watch Dave in the video: near the end, he reads aloud one of the sentences from the test, a sentence written in somewhat complex prose.* Frustrated, he asks rhetorically, "What does this mean?" Well, sir: I understood the sentence's meaning even if you didn't, and that's because I'm actually competent in my native tongue. Too many foreign English teachers in Korea would do just as poorly as Dave on a standardized test targeting their knowledge of and skill in the technical aspects of English.

At the end of the video, poor Dave hangs his head in shame while one of the two Koreans pats him reassuringly on the back. I found that interesting, because you'd think the Koreans would be equally ashamed of their garbage-quality English. But that's not how the makers of the video chose to spin the situation. Who, then, gets the last laugh?

*The sentence refers to philosopher Thomas Kuhn, author of the now-classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, who gave the world the phrase "paradigm shift" to describe a radical change in modes of thinking. Dave really should educate himself.


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