Sunday, December 03, 2006

Language Proficiency Tests and Why They Suck

UPDATE: It came to my attention here that my comment regarding test expiration dates may be incorrect. If anything, it would probably be more accurate to say a FEW of these tests have expiration dates. However, when applying these tests to some end such as a university, the school or institution may require that the test be taken within a certain period from the time of application.

The whole idea of the language proficiency test is completely beyond me. Honestly, what are the benefits? Most will tell you that it is necessary for getting a job. Not true. Whether or not you put your score on your resume, the true test of your language abilities takes place during the interview when they can see for themselves whether or not you really speak the language. Besides, in more cases than not, if you are not a native speaker, no one really expects you to speak their language. If you write down that you are fluent in something, they'll probably roll their eyes and give you a condescending smile until you whiplash them with your linguistic snake-style kung-fu. Just write down you speak whatever language at whatever level and let the interviewer judge for himself your abilities.

The second excuse: I just want to know how good I am. This is the dumbest thing I've ever heard. The language that is taught, the language that is tested on, and the language as it really is are all completely different. In your day to day life, you can easily measure how good you are just by walking outside your door. If you can grab a cab, order food, and tell your buddy you wanna meet that night, you're probably doing ok. If you have trouble finding toothpaste at a convenience store, well, you are probably not doing ok. Also, most of these tests are divided up in levels. In the case of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, there are four levels with four being the lowest and one being the highest level. If you take test three and get a great score, what does that say? I'm great at speaking Japanese at a mediocre level? How can that possibly be useful to anybody with an IQ higher than one? Besides, I've seen plenty of ESL students with fantastic toefl or toeic scores that can't speak for the life of them and fantastic English speakers with poor toefl or toeic scores. Just goes to show, these tests are a poor litmus test for ability.

For me, the only real reason to take any proficiency test is if it is required to get into a school or class that is taught in the local language. And even then, only if they put a gun to your head and make you. Outside of that one reason, these tests really have no value. In fact, in my humble (yet probably correct) opinion, these tests are just another way to squeeze some money out of the populace. Think about it, multiple level tests to test proficiency?? Shouldn't it be one test that starts from the dummy questions and goes up to Einstein questions? Yet, some people insist on taking each level test and dishing out the cash. This can get expensive, especially if that person sucks and has to redo these tests. Wouldn't it be cheaper and smarter to study until you feel you can take the highest level test? Another thing, most of these test scores have an expiration date. This means you would have to retake it after a couple of years. Kinda useless for a guy that is fluent, I would think. The JLPT, the HKS, the KLPT, the TOPIK, the JETRO are all a waste of money and time. The thing is, if you are fluent in the language, there is absolutely no reason to take these tests. From what I can see, most people take these tests so they can brag about how much better they are to other students. In any case, the only thing that can truly measure your ability in a foreign language is yourself. As for me, I don't need to take a test to know how much I suck. I already know.

note: HOWEVER, books and study materials made for people who plan on taking these proficiency tests are, for the most part, pretty fantastic.


Claudia said...

Learning to use my RSS reader and Reading EFL Geek, I suddenly landed on your post. I have enjoyed reading it so much!

I am teaching an FCE exam class in Buenos Aires. Unfortunately the 2006 course is over, otherwise, I would have recommended reading this to debate in class. I'll have to wait till the 2007 group starts.

Yes, the materials for exams are sometimes very good stuff. But you know what? Student's just look for sample past papers all the time! Not to mention "the list" of phrasals. Oh my!

In my efforts to remind them of the (at least) 700 other reasons to study a foreign language -other than passing a test- I started to blog about this course and point to other great materials teachers post online.

The FCE Blog

You might find some awesome link in there to learn a bit of English. Who knows?



PS/I think I'll add you to my RSS.

Anonymous said...

In my previous life I did some Japanese teaching, and the biggest pleasure of it was that most of the kids we're taking the (extra-curricular) Japanese classes only with the objective to learn Japanese. There was no need for any exams or tests, because the poorly motivated ones who didn't do their homework or actively participate simply didn't show up. I did encourage them to take the JLPT though, because for most of the kids having some concrete goal does give extra motivation to study harder...

GooMiHo said...

hi claudia,

thank you for the link. to be honest, i also looked at past papers for exams all the time. i think the problem is that most students WANT to know the material, but with so much time and money invested into sth as well as the lost opportunities a failed exam or certification could mean, no one wants to take the chance. so probably most students don't perceive an exam as a measure of one's abilitiy, but simply an obstacle that needs to be overcome by any means necessary.

hi anonymous,

learning for the sake of learning is always the best bet, i think. the people who usually do good are the ones who truly have an interest and are motivated by their own enthusiasm. but do you think there is a strong possibility that a poor jlpt score would deter and discourage a student enough to give up? especially children whose confidence is much more fragile?

Mark said...

I think the tests still mean something. The better the test is, the more it means. Anybody who passes the JLPT 1-kyu obviously has Japanese skills far superior to a typical Japanese major in a western college who hasn't studied abroad. Similarly, someone with an HSK score of 8 can definitely understand, read and write a lot more Chinese than someone with a score of 5. The test doesn't do much for testing accent or spoken fluency, but it's not a completely wasted metric.

The other thing that's nice about tests is that since they're quantifiable, it makes it easier for students to set goals. While you may feel that a student with a TOEFL of 700 has terrible English, that student almost certainly has more English skills (and especially vocabulary) than back when he or she could only score 400.

For me at least, seeing a test score go up is kind of like seeing the amount of weight I can lift at the gym go up- insanely motivating!

GooMiHo said...

hi mark,

all reasonable points, but if someone is obviously good at the language, what would be the point of taking the test? i also agree that anyone who spends time in the country is more likely to be far superior to anyone who just studied in a class environment, but i don't think a test would be necessary to reach that conclusion. also, i think it is very easy to determine whether or not you are fluent just by taking a hard look at yourself. there are so many aspects and areas of study in any language that can't possibly be covered by any test. even if i scored the highest at whatever test, i wouldn't be comfortable saying that i'm fluent would i be better than other students? probably. but i like to set my standards against native speakers, not other students.

regarding the test being a quantifiable measure of someone's abilities, i think that is debatable. in terms of the jlpt, who is better? the one who scores high on level 3 or the one who scores low on level one? my guess is that they would be somewhere in a two level; maybe the level 3 guy had no confidence and the level 1 taker was too cocky. but there is no way to tell, therefore rendering this test unquantifiable. i still have issues with the 4 levels. it should be one test for all to take. and even then, if the upper level of the test is not representative of a literate and educated adult native speaker, you really have nothing worth quantifying yourself against.

regarding the toeic/toefl example, in general, a higher score does mean better ability, but i've seen enough exceptions to cast doubts on the whole process. they probably do have a higher vocab, but i'm sure you've met plenty of people with high scores who are using that vocab/grammar in unnatural ways. or using an overly complicated word because they don't know the common word or phrase. don't get me wrong, i think a strong vocabulary is great, but the ability to communicate, especially in terms of speaking and listening is far more important. everything i said about the toeic/toefl, i think can be applicable to any proficiency test.

regarding motivation, i can't see it, but i shouldn't say anything. we all have our own unique things that drive us to do better.

btw, you got some great blogs!

Anonymous said...


In defence of the JLPT, it can be very handy to see how good you are when you are NOT in Japan or surrounded by Japanese. I can get a taxi around town and find toothpaste very easily, but as where I live neither of these tasks involve Japanese (and if they did, I would probably be the only one here who could get by. LOL)another gauge must be found.