If you’ve been in Japan for any length of time, and, as many foreigners who being their lives here, are working in the business of teaching English, you’ve likely heard of TOEIC, or the Test of English for International Communication. TOEIC is, along with other standardized tests like TOEFL and IELTS, not limited to Japan, but utilized worldwide as a method of measuring English proficiency. That being said, Japan is one of TOEIC’s largest markets with annual test takers now at a staggering 2.3 million every year.
What is TOEIC?
TOEIC was created in the 1970’s as a branch off of TOEFEL. Critics felt that the latter’s language and focus was too academic, and wanted a way to more accurately test the English proficiency of their employees as it pertains to a business environment. The number of companies who require TOEIC has continued to increase annually; over 2500 major companies now require test results from their employees. This even includes domestically based companies, where a knowledge of English would not be necessary in most situations.
Advantages of high scores
The test results play an important part in entering large companies, and high scores can help secure new promotions and business opportunities. Companies often connect high scores to high performance levels and aptitude, making graduates who scored well on TOEIC more likely to succeed in starting their careers.
Learning a language vs. learning to test
Much like the criticism held against all forms of standardized testing, it has been argued that by having mandatory institutions like TOEIC in place, universities are inadvertently setting their students up for failure in regards to their ability to use English effectively in a real-world environment. This is because, as more and more companies and universities require high TOEIC score for admittance into their various programs, English classes themselves readjust in order to provide students with the skills to be effective test-takers, not communicators.
High scores do not equal actual language proficiency
It has been oft-cited that even someone who scored 900 on the TOEIC would have to resort to gesturing when traveling abroad. This is because TOEIC, much like the English taught in Japanese middle schools, puts an immense amount of focus on grammatical structure and the analysis of written English, rather than the ability to generate original thought and communicate it through speech.
As anyone who has learned, or attempted to learn a second language can attest to, the time it takes to close the gap between what you can comprehend and what you can actually produce in that language is substantial.
In my own teaching experience, I have been surprised numerous times by my middle school student’s discrepancy in this department; they can grasp the meaning of complex grammatical structures and identify the correct answer amid a selection of choices, but when asked to express themselves verbally, they struggle to put simple concepts like favorite foods or daily activities into simple sentences.
Lack of experience in self-expression
Unlike schools in the West, Japanese students do very little in the form of written reports and verbal presentations until they enter university, and even then opportunities for expressing opinions directly are limited. Thus, while some students can easily answer multiple choice questions, unstructured writing assignments and spontaneous responses are often quite difficult for people who grew up in Japan’s very group-oriented society.
Why do people take TOEIC together?
CRT vs NRT testing
In standardized testing, there are two primary structures in place for determining a student’s results, CRT(Criterion-referenced testing) and NRT(norm-referenced testing). Their structures are fundamentally different at their core, and have different requirements in order to be carried out effectively.
Criterion-based testing measures the capabilities of the test-taker individually, providing much more specific, accurate information regarding the test-takers abilities. It does not, however, take into account the abilities of other test-takers, as is the case with norm-referenced testing.
Why does the TOEIC utilize NRT strategies?
By utilizing a method that directly compares test-takers results with one another, potential employers can boast that they have taken only the “best” on as employees. However, even if someone scores in the top 10%, it has no relevance on their actual English ability, as that percentage is not based on how many questions they answered correctly on the test.
Why do people in Japan take TOEIC?
Unlike many other countries, where people often take a gap year to “find themselves” or try out several different jobs before they find their career path, graduates in Japan often are under a ticking time bomb to enter their place of long-term employment as soon as possible after leaving university.
Where Westerners bemoan the amount of experience requested by companies for all but the most low-salaried positions, Japanese companies, in particular large corporations, prefer fresh-faced inexperienced young people who they can easily mould into the companies accepted ways of thinking, doing and being.
(This is why login your job, especially later in life, is such a tremendous set-back in Japan. Many people laid off in middle age can find it close to impossible to be re-hired, especially at their previously held pay-rate.)
How, then, do companies select the most ideal candidate from a sea of very intentionally identical candidates?
That’s where things like TOEIC come into play. You may be all but equal to the competition in every way, but if you’ve scored an 850 to his 700 on the TOEIC, it’s almost a given who will be chosen for the job. This is why there is such a tremendous amount of stress put on preforming well on the test, and why universities have largely shifted their English programs to fit in with the content that students will come into contact with during testing.
Many graduate schools in Japan now require the TOEIC in their entrance examinations for post-graduate students, meaning that even those planning to continue their studies instead of immediately entering the workforce are required to take TOEIC.
TOEIC compared to TOEFL and IELTS
TOEFL, or Test of English as a Foreign Language, is the original standardized method for gauging English language proficiency among learners.
First created in the 1960s by a team at Stanford University, TOEFL was intended to be a way of ensuring that foreign students would have adequate English skills before entering US universities.
In the present day, TOEFL is taken by over 2 million people in 165 countries annually.
TOEFL focuses on all four components of language learning: reading, listening, speaking, and writing.
Compared to TOEIC
The type of language used in TOEFL is also different. While TOEIC focuses heavily on business related vocabulary and conversational structure, TOEFL places more emphasis on the kind of language likely to be used in an academic environment. This means that more literary language, like usage of idioms and other more complex conversational nuances, are incorporated into the test. Although more universities are now accepting both TOEFL and TOEIC for their entrance exams, there is still a bit of a preference for TOEFL among academic circles.
However, like the TOEIC, it is also follows NRT principles, meaning that does not individually analyze a student’s capabilities.
Founded in 1980 and formally launched in 1989, IELTS, or International English Language Testing System, is the newest of the 3 major tests. Created by the British Council and the Cambridge Assessment English association, it is the primary test utilized for measuring English proficiency in the UK and Commonwealth countries.
While is is the most popular of the 3 examinations globally, with over 3 million test takers every year, it falls behind TOEIC in Japan.
The IELTS is split into two primary types, academic and general training.
The academic IELTS is used by those from non-English speaking countries who wish to enroll in English speaking universities, or those who wish to practice medicine or other specialized fields in an English speaking country
This version of the IELTS focuses on more standard language, and is often taken by those wishing to immigrate or acquire work experience in an English-speaking country.
There is one smaller, additional branch of the IELTS, called the Life Skills test. Life Skills places strong emphasis on listening and speaking, and is often taken by foreign nationals wishing to live with their spouse in an English-speaking environment.
Compared to TOEFL:
In the speaking portion of IELTS, test takers interact with a real person, where TOEFL test takers speak to a computer. Which one is better or worse is largely up to the preference of the individual, as some people find talking to a computer very unnatural, while more shy students may actually prefer it, as they aren’t required to communicate with a stranger.
Listening: As it is a UK based examination, the IELTS uses accents from around the UK and Commonwealth nations, whereas the TOEIC is always presented in Standard American English. However, even students who find listening to American English easier may prefer the IELTS, as the listening portion is significantly shorter.
Why does Japan choose TOEIC?
With so many options, why is TOEIC the test of choice among examinees in Japan? There are many possible reasons, but one of the most likely is that, compared to TOEFL and IELTS, whose primary focus is on academic and real-life English, the TOEIC markets itself as a test geared for more business environments.
Thus, Japanese companies equate high TOEIC scores with their employees having an ability to navigate an increasingly global business environment. Unfortunately, as previously stated, the very nature of TOEIC can restrict a test-taker’s ability to communicate effectively when put face-to-face with a native speaker.
However, as TOEIC’s popularity continues to grow every year, we are unlikely to see any changes within the near future, meaning that English classes in universities and English conversational schools will likely continue to evolve into institutions designed to create professional test takers.