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Foreign Ministry reviews scrapping own English test grades

The Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Trade, which came under fire in September for its officials’ suspected lack of ability to communicate in English, is considering scrapping its in-house English test grades, the ministry said Tuesday.

“Foreign Ministry’s assessment on diplomats’ English proficiency has had a stricter standard. For example, a person who gets 800 in the (Test of English Proficiency) is rated TEPS 2 in general, but rated at the lowest fifth level at the ministry,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Cho Byung-jae said.

“We’re reviewing whether to continue applying this rule or shifting to the TEPS scores as alternatives,” he said.

The Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, which is in charge of administering English tests for diplomats, is also reviewing change of the English ability grading rule, an official at the institute’s foreign language training division said.

The ministry has five grades in assessing English ability, which can be confused with the grades in TEPS, or the Test of English Proficiency developed by Seoul National University, he said, although diplomats take the same TEPS tests.

First to third level in the foreign ministry’s grading system is equivalent to TEPS 1+ level, which is the top level. The fourth grade is equivalent to TEPS 1, which is near-the-top level. The fifth grade is TEPS 2+.

In September, Rep. Gu Sang-chan said more than 600 out of 1,500 diplomats were rated level four or below in an annual English examination conducted by the ministry, which meant they “make frequent grammatical and vocabulary mistakes” that “block a person from properly understanding” their document or dialogue.

However, the ministry’s plan does not directly help improve diplomats’ English communication skills.

“We don’t have any language programs to improve diplomats’ English skills. But for a second foreign language, we have many lectures offered in the early morning or lunch time,” Cho said.

By Kim Yoon-mi (