New English tests frustrate employees

Employers want staff with fluent English skills, not just high Toefl scores.

Nov 28,2007
Illustration by Kang Young-jee
English speaking skills, or a lack thereof, might be the one thing that will keep Hong Hee-wook from finding his place in the corporate world.
Ever since Hong, 27, finished his military service two years ago, he has been preparing to take his first step into the job market. One of the biggest parts of his daily routine during this period has been studying for the Toeic ― Test of English for International Communication ― at a language institute. The majority of companies in Korea use Toeic scores as part of the first on-paper screening of applicants.
“English skills are such a crucial part of the employment process and I have been pushing myself hard to get a high score,” Hong said.
But his efforts might have been in vain, no thanks to a simple twist of fate. Korea’s leading conglomerates, including the Samsung Group, LG Electronics, CJ Group, Daewoo Electronics, and Ottogi, among others, have initiated plans to adopt new English proficiency tests for applicants as well as for current employees who are in line for promotion. These new tests, mainly the OPIc ― Oral Proficiency Interview Computer system ― will focus on speaking and listening in English. Toeic, and another popular test, Toefl ― Test of English as a Foreign Language ― focus more on grammar and writing skills.
For Hong, this poses quite a dilemma. “If I don’t get in [get hired by a company] this year, my strategies for the English exam will have to take a whole new direction. I can’t imagine starting all over again, preparing for a completely different kind of test at this stage,” he said.
CJ was the first major company to act when it adopted the OPIc last year for new applicants. Beginning as early as this year, the company said that the test will be a requirement for senior managers as well. The Samsung Group also announced that they are looking at using the OPIc for their screening process beginning next year.
This new test, developed jointly by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages and a local company, Credu, is a computer-based version of the OPI test in which the test-taker speaks the answers into a computer. The answers are taped and mailed to the United States where an ACTFL certified rater provides a score.
“The OPIc differs from the existing English proficiency tests like Toeic and Toefl, which have been predominant in Korea,” said Lee Nam-yeon, public relations manager at Credu. “It’s much more comprehensive because one’s grammar, vocabulary, fluency and pronunciation are all tested.”
Lee added that tests like the OPIc that examine the test-taker’s ability to communicate in English are a more appropriate method of testing, especially in the corporate world where fluent verbal skills are thought to be needed.
Verbal skills are crucial for maintaining one’s position in a company once hired.
“In my day, getting a high Toeic or Toefl score was enough, but now, with the OPIc, we need to be fluent in speaking English as well,” said one mid-level manager at LG who only gave her surname, Choi.
Choi said that she is anticipating a promotion within a few years and that her English-speaking skills will determine the outcome.
“It’s not easy for me because I am so used to written tests in English. Even with lessons in language institutes, it’s hard because in my everyday life, I almost never use English.”
She added that many of her peers are attending study groups or language institutes after work, focusing on speaking and listening in English.
This month a survey of 1,075 office workers conducted by leading local job listing Web site JobKorea claimed that 64.1 percent of respondents were stressed out at work because of the English skills requirement. Around half of the respondents said they were worried that they would lose out to coworkers if they couldn’t improve their spoken English.
Subsequently, there are hundreds of thousands of Koreans fighting to stay competitive in the workplace.
This was evident at an Ielts ― International English Language Testing Service ― class last week at the British Council in Seoul.
The students introduced themselves in English and repeated sentence structures which their teacher, Andrew Bourner, called a “confident, professional academic style of spoken English that will result in better Ielts scores.”
The Ielts is a one-on-one verbal English examination managed by the British Council and IDP Education.
Students in Bourner’s class explained their reasons for taking Ielts. Jeong Hwa-gyeong, 27, a sports manger, said, “I’ve studied for the Toeic test but it hasn’t helped me all that much in my profession.” Jeong said that she needed to work on her verbal English. “I need to be able to communicate with players and managers who are not Korean,” Jeong said.
Choi Yun-sun, 33, an employee at a trading firm, said that she thinks the current trend for spoken English is the way forward, and noted the leveling off of Toeic and Toefl scores in recent years.
“Since Toeic and Toefl have been such an integral part of the employment process for so long, many Koreans take the exam over and over again and get eventually high scores, regardless of their actual skills,” Choi said.
Park Sung-sin, the Ielts Examinations Services Manager at the British Council, said Ielts helps with spoken English. Regardless of getting good scores in the Ielts exam, taking the initiative to practice speaking English in preparation for Ielts is more beneficial than studying for Toeic or Toefl, she said.
“Students learn how to communicate their thoughts verbally in English, which is something that they haven’t normally done before,” she said.
These relatively new proficiency tests have their critics, too. Since the fall of this year, employment portals have been filled with postings arguing that if the OPIc monopolizes language institutes and text-books, scores will become meaningless since students will simply repeat the same courses and eventually learn how to get a high score.
On one portal, an observation by a jobseeker using the I.D. “Hoonie” is typical of many people’s feelings.
“I attended an OPIc study group and it seemed like people were only interested in learning the OPIc-friendly adverbs and adjectives to get higher scores. The classroom looked like any other Toeic cram school I have been to,” Hoonie wrote.
Competition among companies managing English tests is also unfolding slowly. Edubox and ESPT Testing Academy are pushing their in-house test, ESPT ― the English Speaking Proficiency Test ― and announced that it had a record-breaking number of applicants: over 5,000 people for the November test.
ESPT Testing Academy has also been vocal in criticizing OPIc and Credu’s Samsung affiliation. Along with the popularity of OPIc, Credu has been under scrutiny for being just another vehicle to support the Samsung Group. It seems likely that Samsung-affiliated companies will take up the OPIc.
ESPT Testing Academy said it is looking into a possible legal challenge concerning the patent rights of the OPIc.
Other tests, including SETP, which is managed by YBM Sisa Academy, is also gaining ground, and with the growing popularity of these tests, experts forecast more competition to come.
As for Hong, he said he is just looking to get hired by any company in the next month or so.
And Choi is planning to attend a language institute near her home after work to try to advance her language skills, and her career.
“My work schedule is tight but it seems like coworkers who are younger than me are working hard on their English in their free time and I feel threatened,” she said.

By Cho Jae-eun Staff Reporter [jainnie@joongang.co.kr]

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