English Fever: Problematising Language Proficiency Testing in South Korea

Lorna Carson*

Trinity College Dublin, Dublin, Ireland


Educational testing is par for the course in almost every cycle of schooling in contemporary society, but particularly in the ‘testocracy’ of South Korea1 (Song 2013). Here, test results - and especially English language proficiency scores - play a very important role in determining students’ future outcomes. These scores assume a gatekeeping function for educational progress, employment and even social success. The influence of English language testing permeates all aspects of English language education in South Korea. This chapter seeks to explore English language testing in Korea from an applied linguistic perspective. The discipline of applied linguistics draws on the epistemology and methods of linguistic theories and applies these to understanding real-life situations. It is a ‘problem-driven’ discipline: Chapelle [1] [2]

(2013, p. 1) describes applied linguistic research as that which focuses on ‘language-related problems that arise in the real-world contexts where languages are learned and used.’ An applied linguistic approach entails the theoretical and empirical investigation of issues such as learning languages, teaching and testing languages, creating and implementing language policies, and maintaining and revitalising languages. In the following discussion I argue that the conventional role of ‘English as a Foreign Language’ (EFL, learned for communicative interactions in the workplace or abroad) has been outstripped in Korea, and replaced by the local dispensations of English as a social signifier, an educational asset and a global commodity (Park, J.S.-Y. 2009). These roles mean that English achievement and proficiency tests have weak validity, and that the world of English language testing continues, in many ways, a long tradition of differentiation couched in meritocracy. This chapter will refer to the three principal international English language proficiency tests that have the largest market share of test-takers in Korea: the IELTS test (International English Language Testing System), the TOEIC test (Test of English for International Communication) and the TOEFL test (Test of English as a Foreign Language). I firstly discuss the importance of testing and the development of so-called ‘English fever’ (Park, J.-K. 2009; Kim 2002; Seth 2002) in Korea, followed by a review of the concerns expressed nationally regarding perceived lack of success in international English proficiency examinations. The second half of this chapter explores the influence of testing on the language classroom (‘washback’) and considers the wider impact of testing on South Korean society.

  • [1] *Email: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it
  • [2] A note on terminology: this chapter uses the terms South Korea and Korea interchangeably torefer to the Republic of Korea.
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