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Stunned like kimchi by South Korea's English exams

Students preparing for their final exam at Bucheon University in Bucheon, South Korea, on Nov 10, 2015.
Students preparing for their final exam at Bucheon University in Bucheon, South Korea, on Nov 10, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

My fingers freeze and my heart begins to race, as I start to read the English exam paper.

It's like sitting my A-levels all over again, except that this eight-page paper is part of last year's college entrance exam for 18-year-old high-school students in South Korea.

Then my head starts throbbing as well... why is it that I can read very quickly but cannot really understand the English passages inside?

I am stunned... like kimchi! - to borrow a term from Singapore actor Chen Tianwen's viral music video Unbelievable. 

When I complain the paper is difficult, my Korean husband pops his head over to read and says: "No, it's very easy! Why you don't understand?"

I give him a "don't get me started on your lousy spoken English, ok?" glare.

South Koreans start learning English as early as when they are in kindergarten. Parents spend trillions of won - 6 trillion won (S$7.3 billion) last year - on private English education for their children.

And many high-school students are able to memorise thousands of difficult words and phrases in preparation for their college entrance exam, known as Suneung.

But when it comes to conversing in English, their tongues get tangled after "hello".

The main criticism of South Korea's English education system is its impractical and rigid emphasis on grammar and vocabulary, which produces students who may be able to read and write but not speak the language.

There have been countless calls for the system to be overhauled with a stronger focus on speaking skills, but despite numerous reforms, nothing much seems to have changed.

As I scroll through the English paper - the annual Suneung was held on Thursday, with more than 630,000 students sitting the crucial exam that will determine which university they can enter - I begin to understand why.

All the questions are multiple choice; there is no composition or essay-writing segment that allows test takers to express their own thoughts in their own words.

Out of 45 questions, the first 17 are for listening comprehension. A 25-minute audio file with American-accented voices describing various scenarios will be played and students have to pick the right answer according to instructions written in Korean.

That's the reason, I guess, car drivers are advised by the authorities not to honk during this segment of the exam.

The rest of the 70-minute paper - the brainchild of hundreds of teachers and professors who are holed up in an undisclosed location for a month to carefully craft the questions - is heavily weighted on reading and comprehending passages written in a style that I feel is too academic.

A Google search reveals that nine of these passages are extracted from books, including three written by philosophers, two by lecturers and one by a biologist.

Take this passage for example, from the 1977 book Experimental Phenomenology by American philosopher Don Ihde: "Many disciplines are better learned by entering into the doing than by mere abstract study. This is often the case with the most abstract as well as the seemingly more practical disciplines. For example, within the philosophical disciplines, logic must be learned through the use of examples and actual problem solving. Only after some time and struggle does the student begin to develop the insights and intuitions that enable him to see the centrality and relevance of this mode of thinking. This learning by doing is essential in many of the sciences. For instance, only after a good deal of observation do the sparks in the bubble chamber become recognisable as the specific movements of identifiable particles."

Now, choose a subject title for this passage from the following options:

1) history of science education

2) limitations of learning strategies

3) importance of learning by doing

4) effects of intuition on scientific discoveries

5) difference between philosophy and science

Get it? If you don't, you're not alone.

Several foreigners living in South Korea have produced YouTube videos giving their take on the country's English exams, and the conclusion is the same - that the format and writing style are alien to them even though they are native English speakers.

To the Koreans, however, they have been trained since middle school to prepare for English exams in this format, and have probably learnt several tricks on how to pick the right answer.

For comparison's sake, I forward the paper to two friends back in Singapore - A, who teaches General Paper in a junior college, and S, who teaches English at a secondary school.

A feels the paper is tough and the amount of reading could be tedious, especially for people who do not speak the language. But she feels that a Secondary 4 student in Singapore should be able to handle it.

S, however, finds the paper easy, as there is no writing component and the instructions - as well as 11 multiple choice options - are all written in Korean to "ease the anxiety of test takers". But it could be a double-edged sword, she added, pointing out that the paper "may not be able to test the full language potential of the test takers".

R, a friend who teaches English at a hagwon (Korean for cram school) for middle school pupils here, said the learning focus is on comprehension, grammar and vocabulary.

He added that his students have good reading ability and could memorise many grammar formats, but still find it hard to speak English.

It should come as no surprise that 3.37 per cent of students who took this English paper last year, or some 20,000 of them, got perfect scores.

But whether their English conversation skills are equally perfect is anyone's guess.

changmc@sph.com.sg