[Outlook]A test of our ownThe Ministry of Education and Human Resources Development recently released a plan to develop an English proficiency test to replace foreign English tests, such as the Test of English as a Foreign Language, or Toefl, and the Test of English for International Communication, or Toeic.
The education ministry plans to make an English test that will be commonly used inside Korea within a couple of years and will be recognized overseas as well. But the goal is unrealistic. Most of all, there is not enough time to prepare.
Among English tests developed by Koreans, the Test of English Proficiency, originating at Seoul National University, is doing well. It took seven years to develop the test and eight more years for it to earn a good reputation.
Even if the government pours skillful professionals and a generous budget into the project, it is very doubtful that it can develop a test that will be acknowledged internationally within two or three years.
We must remember that the English proficiency test market is dominated by the United States and England. They will not give up their status as leaders easily.
Japan introduced a homemade English test in 1963 and designated it as an official test to prove English proficiency inside the country.
But it took more than 30 years of the test to earn some international recognition. To this day, however, few universities accept the test results as official evaluation of English proficiency.
This shows us that the Korean education ministry’s expectations are naive.
The ministry’s English test will very likely be used only inside Korea.
The problem is that the Korean market for English tests became international a long time ago, so Koreans are already familiar with the Toefl and Toeic.
It will be hard for a homemade English test to compete against foreign tests. Talk about patriotism and national pride as Koreans won’t do the job either.
We found a similar example in competition between the Mac and the IBM personal computer in the 1980s.
In terms of technology and product quality, MacIntosh produced better computers, but IBM personal computer won the battle in the end.
That was because a majority of people used the IBM personal computer, which made it more compatible with widely used software.
As a result, the Mac was forced to kneel even though it made better-quality products.
Likewise, in the market for English proficiency tests, whether a test is accepted by many universities and international society is far more important than the quality of the test itself.
This suggests that the government must nurture an environment in which a homemade English test will grow and be widely accepted. This must be done even before it develops an English test, no matter how good its quality may be.
Last year, 2.7 million Koreans took English tests of all kinds. Seventy-five percent of them took the Toefl or Toeic.
Koreans prefer or depend on foreign tests of English proficiency much more than people in neighboring countries.
In Japan, 40 percent took foreign English tests, in Taiwan 30 percent and in China 3 percent.
The Korean Education Ministry seems to think that many Koreans take foreign English tests because there is no official English test developed by the government.
However, many English proficiency tests have been developed and improved in Korea, such as TEPS, PELT, MATE and TESL. But most Koreans ignore these tests and prefer tests developed in foreign countries.
This trend has been enhanced because government-led exams, such as entrance exams to hire civil workers, choose Toeic for its English tests until recently.
The government must now set an example by choosing an English test developed in Korea for its national examinations. It must encourage other sectors to take domestic English tests as well.
English proficiency tests developed in Korea will then compete against one another and thus will become more competitive and widely acknowledged.
A couple of English tests will emerge and the most competitive test will prevail.
The government can help the test grow and advance. Then it will be very competitive inside the country and be acknowledged in international society.
*The writer is a professor at the department of English language and culture at the Catholic University of Korea. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lee Chang-bong