English is fast becoming the world’s common language but as the 21st century marches on its growth comes not from population growth but from cultural expansion. In fact, worldwide more people speak English as second language than there are people in the seven core countries who recognize English as an official language.*
This fact is made abundantly clear in South Korea, where English does not perform any official function as a language but does hold a special cultural and social importance greater than any of foreign language in the country. Although closer culturally and geographically to both China and Japan (who themselves possess the second and third largest economies in the world), English is the only one of the three that is part of compulsory curriculum used nationwide.
Because of this special connection, English proficiency is almost directly associated with academic, professional, and even social success. The role of the TOEIC in South Korea can therefore not be understated. Because of the paramount importance South Koreans place of English, a high TOEIC score has long been a major factor both in the in hiring process for professional jobs and also for college admissions. In 2007, more than half of people who took the TOEIC were from South Korea. The spillover effects are immense. Because of the competitive nature of the labor market and college admissions, many students see the importance placed on English proficiency as an opportunity to distinguish themselves and a sprawling industry of there are many private institutions that teach TOEIC preparatory classes have sprung up throughout the nation.
Although the TOEIC is primarily targeted at working professionals, other, similar programs also dot the landscape. In fact, while public school education begins to offer English classes in the third grade, private English-only prekindergarten classes are widely seen as an important stepping stone to success – much like English itself is seen as stepping stone to South Korea’s economic success.
* Those countries are the United Kingdom, Ireland, The United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.