Test English and fluency are not the same. Preparing for a test _ whether it is a Suneung, a TOEFL, SAT, or an exam in biology _ most students cram in the weeks leading up to test day, not because they have any interest in the subject or want to learn something, but to goose up their test scores. A couple of weeks after the test, they will have forgotten most of what they had furiously crammed into their heads, and by that time couldn’t answer half the questions on the test.
It’s impossible to gain fluency in a foreign language or learn anything worth doing through the frenzy of trying to memorize a couple of hundred questions, mostly multiple choice, purported to measure one’s knowledge about the subject. The only thing a student might learn from sitting at a desk for a few hours filling out an answer sheet is how to become a test-taker. But as long as most governments, corporations, and universities put a premium on test scores, parents will gladly spend their money and commit their children’s precious time chasing after test scores.
Fluency _ unlike a test score _ is a never-ending pursuit of study and practice with the aim of understanding, listening, speaking, thinking, and writing in English, striving to be as good as the most eloquent speakers of the language are. As with everything, to be good with a foreign language you have to love it so much that you want to get close to it, spend time with it, even revel in its difficulties.
Those who aspire to fluency in English or in any language know they would lose all they have gained if they ever stop working with it. The smart ones keep studying relentlessly, for they realize there is always more for them to learn. Indeed, many Koreans have an obsession with English as if they are its scholars, which in fact they must be if they are to continue honing their talent with the language.
Most Koreans who are fluent with English have never lived outside of Korea, they practice their English here where they never need to use it in their daily lives. If they become as literate with English as well-educated speakers _ and there are many Koreans who are that good _ it’s not because they’ve crammed for high test scores.
In their pursuit of fluency, they make time each day doing things like watching CNN, the BBC and Hollywood movies. They get DVDs of the movies they like and watch them again and again, shadowing the dialogue of the actors until they can enunciate the words and phrases as good as, say, George Clooney and Gwyneth Paltrow.
They read articles and books in English not just for the practice, but to learn about the world through the language. Many Koreans devote time every day to read the daily English language newspapers such as the one you are reading now. These newspapers have the latest information about the most pressing issues of the day in the nation and the world. They meet in small groups a couple of times a week on their own to talk about what they are reading. Of course, for their discussions they speak with each other only using English.
“When I became determined that I was going to be functional with English,” a student I know said, “my test scores dropped but not by much. Though they were still respectable, they weren’t the top scores that I used to make. But at that point I no longer cared about test scores. It became more important for me to be fluent with English than to get a high test score. For me, the real test was when I could talk with an educated and informed speaker of English about subjects and ideas at length.
“My biggest thrill, however, is reading a book like Ruchir Sharma’s ‘Breakout Nations’ (2012) in English and being able to understand the ideas Sharma writes about and brings to light. When I could do that _ when I began to understand the world through what I was reading in English _ I knew I was starting to gain depth with the language, and that beats a test score hands down.”