Proficiency Tests

Today I took a break from moving preparations and goodbye meals to take the TOPIK exam.

The Test of Proficiency in Korean, Intermediate Level.  Three hours of vocab, writing, listening and reading.  Fun stuff, right?  A great way to spend an Easter Sunday…

To be perfectly honest though, I love tests.  That’s probably because I am a pretty good tester.  You name it I’ve taken it… or not really, but I’ve definitely done my fair share of language tests.

It all started in my year abroad when I first learned there were such things as language proficiency exams.  Take a test and get a pretty certificate if you pass?  Where do I sign up?  So as soon as I got home I signed up for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), level 2 (which at the time was the second highest of four tests).  And passed.

Then, when I arrived in Japan two years later, I signed up for level 1, and passed that too.  Then heard about the Business Japanese Proficiency Test (BJT), which at the time was run by JETRO, but is now run by the same people as the “Kanken” (Kanji Aptitude Test), and so I took that too.  And passed (but skipped the optional interview because while I thrive in written tests, interviews make me really nervous).

Then I got into Korean, and found that they have tests too (!!), so I took the TOPIK beginner level two years ago, and the intermediate test last year.

Then I decided I might want to go to Korea and that would mean looking for new jobs.  And when looking for new jobs what better thing to have on your resume than multilingualism (with more proficiency tests for proof)?  So, since it had been ten years since I first passed JLPT level one, and the test had since undergone a major overhaul, I decided to take N1 (now the highest level of five), and throw in the Nihongo Kentei (日本語検定) for good measure.  The Nihongo Kentei is actually a test theoretically designed for Japanese people, and tests knowledge of things like keigo, vocab, proper usage, etc.  In some ways it is similar to the English part of the SATs.

Almost took the BJT again, but I accidentally slept through it… or rather completely forgot I was signed up until the day after…

And of course one more intermediate TOPIK test (because the first time around I only passed level three and I want four).

There are a lot of people out there who like to devalue proficiency tests.  More so for JLPT than TOPIK (probably because JLPT has been around longer).

I personally think that you just have to understand the tests, and what they are and are not.

I cannot guarantee that having a level one JLPT has ever gotten me a job, but I can say that when we were looking for my replacement at work, we definitely filtered candidates based partially on language proficiency (as that is essential for my old job), and JLPT scores were one of the scales we used. (Of course we interviewed everyone who passed that first filter, and did language checks of our own as well.) If you don’t like proficiency tests, you are going to have to find some other way to demonstrate your proficiency in an easily understandable way.

I can also say that a JLPT score exempts one from the language test required by one of the master’s programs I have applied to, so being able to demonstrate that proficiency in the application stage has got to be some advantage (as it is a requirement of the program.)

If used correctly, proficiency tests are great for your resume.

Of course they have to be used correctly.

For example, in looking for my replacement we fairly quickly discounted anyone who wrote level 3 or below. For some it was an old result, so it is theoretically possible that they are much better now, but without any more recent indication of higher proficiency it wasn’t really worth our time. For some positions it is possible that even level 2 (N2), might have been cut, so you have to really understand the demands of the job. If it’s an old result that doesn’t really reflect your current level it might be better to leave it off.

On the other hand, proficiency tests are not necessarily great indications of your actual proficiency.

As the people evaluating the candidates, it was necessary for us to do checks of our own.

As someone taking the tests, you have to be realistic about your strengths and weaknesses.

For instance, in my case…

I studied Japanese for seven years before I’d even heard of language proficiency exams. I took formal classes, I studied abroad, and I did a lot of conversation practice. By the time I took my first test, I was functionally quite proficient (the only reason I didn’t go straight for the highest level was some insecurity about kanji and reading). As a result, the exam result was just confirmation of what I already new myself, and was a fairly accurate representation of what I actually knew and could control. I never really studied FOR the exam (other than familiarizing myself with the format.)

With Korean it was (and is) a whole different story. I knew about the existence of the tests almost from the very beginning, and took my first test after only six months of study. I was taking formal classes, but conversation practice was limited. I very much studied FOR that first test, and every test thereafter.

As a result, the scores may open some doors, but conversationally speaking I am still an infant. My comprehension is not terrible, so that’s something, but the test results are a very poor representation of my language production skills.

Anti-testing people largely cite cases like mine as reasons the tests are “worthless,” but I think you just need to be realistic about how much value to place on them.

As a learner, I am very happy with my pretty little certificates, and grateful for every door they have opened, but I also am aware of my own limitations, and that passing the highest level does not necessarily eliminate the need to progress.

And as someone looking at the tests to evaluate others, I realize that they do have limitations, and that it is fine to use them just as one clue to the bigger picture, but dangerous to assume they tell the whole truth.


Last Monday, the day after arriving back home from New Zealand, I went off to the Korean Consulate in Yokohama to get my spousal visa for Korea (the F-6-1).

It probably would have been a lot easier to get to the Embassy in Tokyo, but fortunately I called ahead of time, and they told me that because I live in Yokohama I have to go to the consulate.  Who knew… that they would even have a consulate in Yokohama with Tokyo right next door?  But I suppose there are enough Koreans living in Japan and the greater Kanto region to warrant more than one facility.

The consulate is in the middle of nowhere in terms of public transport, but right in the Yamate area, which is a beautiful (if uphill) walk, especially in the middle of cherry blossom season.

I brought my husband and mother-in-law (who was visiting) along for moral support.  I was also armed with the following:

1. Passport and copy
2. Japanese Alien Registration Card (外国人登録証… I renewed my Japanese visa right before the switch to the 在留カード) and copy
3. Invitation form (downloaded from the embassy website)
4. Reference letter (downloaded from the embassy website)
5. Marriage certificate and family register from Korea (where we got married)
6. Marriage certificate from America (or just the signed letter fom the US Embassy in Seoul)
7. Bank statement for my husband’s account
8. Contract for our apartment in Seoul
9. Picture
10. Fee
11. Application form (which we got and filled out there)

Things I did not have… proof of employment/salary for my husband (it’s complicated), any kind of health check or criminal record, any kind of credit record for either of us.

I was also really surprised because the application form I was asked to fill out was exactly the same as the one for every other visa type.  Having read up on the process rather extensively, I was expecting marriage specific questions, like when did you meet, what’s his favorite food… or something…

I brought along my Level 3 TOPIK results and my college transcript (to show employability? I happened to have it on hand because of the grad school apps, so why not?), but they didn’t ask for anything else.

The lady said to come back on Wednesday and sent us on our way.

We were too busy touring with the mother-in-law, so we waited till the following Monday and went all the way back up to Yamate to pick up my passport with its nice new visa.  Being a worrier, and feeling like we turned in way less than everyone else said they did, I was a little scared that the visa wouldn’t actually be given to me, but I just gave her the receipt for picking it up, and she gave me my passport and sent me on my way again.

Piece of cake!

BUT, I later realized I had turned in my application the day before the law supposedly changes, and requirements get stricter.  Phew!

The new law states that the Korean spouse (or the couple or someone) needs to be able to prove a yearly income of about 15 million won or more, and that the foreign spouse should be able to prove basic Korean skills (or they should prove that they can communicate in a language other than Korean).

On the one hand, this makes a lot of sense, but on the other hand it seems like a really hard thing to regulate.

It seems to make sense that you would want to be able to communicate with your spouse, and a little sad to think that there are people entering into something like marriage without being able to do that (prompting people to make such a law).  BUT, how do you quantify such communicative ability on a visa application?  It seems that level one of a test like TOPIK is the generally accepted level of Korean proficiency, but that seems like pretty basic communication.  And what if you want to prove that you communicate in a language other than Korean?  Do both have to give TOEFL scores if neither’s native language is English?  What if the couple speaks in French? or German? or Chinese?  Who is going to make standards for each, and then test them?

For the financial test, that’s a little easier, and it does seem to take into account that it may not be the Korean spouse who is the main provider in every household.  No problem there for now…  we’ll see.

Still, I’m glad I got in just under the wire….

Just a note, I am in Japan on a working visa, so this is not an account of the typical “visa run” to Japan.  The Yokohama Consulate did ask me on the phone if I was living here, and the impression I got is that they would not have processed my application if I did not.  Contact any Korean embassy/consulate ahead of time if it is not your home country or you are not living there currently before doing a visa run.