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The 18th TOPIK Exam

This past Sunday marked the 18th Test of Proficiency in Korean (TOPIK) exam held all across the world. I was one of the few hundred or so students taking the test held at the prestigious Busan National University, actually next to it as I later found out. As I talked about this topik… er topic in my last article, I will now elaborate on the event.

For those who didn’t read my last article, TOPIK is the standardized test for Korean, recognized by the government here and needed for certain forms of residency and to be able to study at a Korean university. It is also a great way to brush up on your Korean grammar and listening skills.

However greatly needed the government makes this test out to be, there are HUGE problems with the idea and its implication. The test was tooted about in the Korean Time which stated:

Korean Language Test Spreads Overseas

KICE is also administering the Test of Proficiency in Korean (TOPIK) to non-native speakers of Korean, overseas Koreans and overseas residential Koreans. Two different types of the TOPIK test have been published; the Standard Test of Proficiency in Korean (S-TOPIK) intended for Korean language learners and international students and the Test of Proficiency for Business in Korea (B-TOPIK) aimed towards jobseekers hoping to work in domestic and overseas-based Korean companies and public institutions.

The number of applicants for the test has continued to increase up to 159,745 last year from 82,881 in 2007, 34,028 in 2006, 26,611 in 2005 and 17,545 in 2004. Kim said the test saw more applicants, especially in China and South America. “I think the growing number of test takers means more and more foreigners are interested in Korea,” he said. Lastly, Kim pledged that he will continue to contribute to improving the quality of education through a well-designed evaluation system.

Well designed evaluation system? Why don’t they invest some time in their website to make it more useful?

If you are taking the beginner level of this test and are a true beginner, then you’d better have a Korean friend to help you through every step of this exam. Not surprisingly, none of the steps involved, exam booklets or proctors, were foreigner-friendly. So they won’t be getting a cool Ulsan-online bumper sticker.

The website has a multi-lingual menu and guide but it seems to switch back to Korean whenever you choose something other than the exam outline. So yes, you will have the organization of government agencies and who is eligible for the test but that is it, the rest of the site is completely in Korean. The materials section is random and completely useless. Somewhere on there is a place to download old tests but so far all that I have found were random announcements and press releases.

Once you get registered and are well on your way to studying for this exam, you run into the next problem… what topics to study. All the tests cover a broad range of topics and grammar structures. I studied from two books plus a book of old exams and still felt that I wasn’t sure about a number of questions.

The definition of the lowest level of beginner and what they should study is this (taken from the site):

– Perform fundamental language functions necessary for survival, such as Self-introduction, Purchasing goods, and Ordering food
– Understand and produce individual and everyday topics related to Self-story, Family, Hobby, and Weather
– Produce simple sentences through basic 800 words and sentence patterns
– Understand and express simple daily conversation and useful expressions.

This is a wide swath of the language actually used, and keep in mind that this is only half of the test because the 2nd level is taken together with the 1st. Also keep in mind that the test is divided into 4 parts(grammar/vocabulary, reading, writing, and listening. If you fail any one of these parts, you will fail the whole test regardless of how well you did in the other 3 parts.

With that in mind, let me explain how the test works. The first 90 minute time slot is for vocabulary/grammar and writing. The vocabulary and grammar is hard and will hit you with any question on any topic that has something to do with vocabulary and grammar. The writing starts off easy with a few “fill in the blank” type questions but ends with an essay. What they don’t tell you is that they are looking for quantity as well as quality. So you could simply answer the question, mine was “what do you do on the weekend?” but bomb it because you didn’t fill the entire page. You get 2 points per line.

After a short break, you are then drilled with an excruciating 45 minutes of mind-numbing listening questions. The only thing that kept me awake was the sudden THUD of the Chinese kid’s head hitting the desk next to mine. The listening test goes slowly and is pretty easy. The reading follows and you will have to read quick in order to finish. Then you are done. There are some more instructions in Korean, but nothing more is said.

The shocking part about this test was the fact that there were so few Westerners taking the test. Even for the beginner level, there were maybe 2 including myself that I know were from the west. The other students (which amounted to a few hundred) were mostly Chinese and Southeast Asian. All of which could speak Korean extremely well. I am not sure why this shocked me so much as I know that once people master the art of ordering pizza and getting home via taxi, they don’t give a rats ass about learning the language.

The other part is the fact that on a day to day basis, this test isn’t really that useful because at no point during this test are you in anyway tested on your speaking ability. The closest thing that I came to a speaking test during this whole phase was when a Korean language instructor started speaking to me in Korean about the test. This has been a complaint by even some of the girls from the “talking to the beauties” show (not that I really care what they have to say because according to them I am a loser…)

The main problem I had during this test was that the entire instructions for the exams are given in Korean by a surly ajumma with a foul temper. Make sure you turn your cell phone off and have a black marker with you. It is also wise to pick up the old exam books (if you can find them) from the Hyundai Department store (5th floor of the bookstore hidden under the English novels). Also get your Korean friend to translate what the questions and instructions mean because again, everything is in Korean.

All in all, if you want a piece of paper that states that you can speak the language and perhaps some bragging rights go for TOPIK. If you are simply looking to improve your language skills then pick up a book, make a Korean friend and talk to them. Otherwise good luck with your Korean studies.
Here are some more thoughts on the test from Brian formerly of Jeollanamdo