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Korean numbers

North Koreans beat their South Korean peers at TOEFL IBT in 2020, averaging 87 points the US-owned English language test, which is the international average and four points higher than their 2019 score. The average score in South Korea was just one point behind at 86, three points up on 2019, according to figures released by the test’s owners, Educational Testing Service (ETS), which does not release the number of candidates from each country.

While South Korea is one of the top five markets for the exam, North Korea does not even have an in-country official test centre, meaning all the candidates must have sat the exam overseas. TOEFL is used primarily for entry into English medium higher education, yet only a very small number of North Koreans, mostly emigres or the children of the elite, can hope to study abroad. Such a small sample size makes it very difficult to extrapolate the average level of English in the country.

 By contrast, 60,000 South Koreans were studying in the US in 2019, with a further 21,000 in Australia. The larger sample size means the TOEFL score gives a better indication of the national level of English in South Korea, at least among the middle classes.

There is no doubt, though, that the North is putting a great deal of effort into improving its English levels, especially in primary schools, where large study halls filled with books and materials are being set up so children can practise outside the classroom. The government is also promoting pre-school English, which is currently banned in the South.

Image courtesy of Pexels
Melanie Butler
Melanie Butler
Melanie started teaching EFL in Iran in 1975. She worked for the BBC World Service, Pearson/Longman and MET magazine before taking over at the Gazette in 1987 and also launching Study Travel magazine. Educated in ten schools in seven countries, she speaks fluent French and Spanish and rather rusty Italian.
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