I still remember the last time I had to take a foreign language speaking test – my GCSE German exam about 9 years ago. I’d been given 5 minutes to sit in the waiting area with a blank sheet of paper where I could prepare bullet point notes to help with my presentation that I was about to give before moving onto the conversation.

I jotted down the three main points that I’d practised, and then faced with a further 4 minutes of sat nervously looking at a wall, I decided to write every phrase in German that I could remember, just in case.

The test was being taken by our teacher that we’d had all year, with just a recording sent off to maybe be randomly moderated. I’d guess that our teacher was probably my age now, maybe even younger – and she had somehow managed to get our class of unenthused, forced language students to the stage where we had the potential to get through the exams with passable grades. This could be due to it being a heavily male class and her being the most attractive teacher in the school. Impressing the young teacher and finding her on MySpace was certainly more important than grasping the language. Yet I also remember the lessons we had as not overly monotonous compared to a lot of language teaching in England.

She came out and looked pityingly at my mess of words all over the sheet.

“You can only bring in a few key bullet points Toby,” she said as she tore off my lifeline of German and gave me back the top of the paper with the points I’d written at the start; and in we went.

One small desk with a chair either side and a recorder in the middle.

“Are you ready?” She said kindly. I managed a nod. “Let’s go then” and she pushed the button.

I don’t remember the actual test from when the recording started. I probably bumbled my way through the presentation robotically and then fell back on my standard key phrases to respond to the questions with the bare minimum. It’s like a mental block has been placed over those few minutes as the tape rolled.

I must have looked an absolute mess though, because as soon as the recording was stopped my teacher asked if I was okay and told me I could breath again.

“Do you need some sugar? You’re looking very pale. I was worried for a while that you were going to be sick.”

“Nope, I just really dis-like these”, I exclaimed, elated that I would never again have to sit in a foreign language speaking test.

And yet I will have to sit through another one. Another 1200 actually. Just this time I will be on the other side of the table.

Next week is the start of a fortnight of English speaking exams, of which I am the sole person qualified enough, (as in I was born in England), to take them. So every single student will be coming to see me for their few minutes of talk time.

My desk with two chairs is set up, just as it was for me. The test format is the same for each grade. There are a total of 9 questions that I’ve written covering the topics we have done this term, each question based on a key phrase or language structure. The students choose three lolly sticks that will have numbers on and I’ll ask them those three questions. In essence they are choosing their own fate.

Each question is worth a total of nine marks: three for pronunciation, three for accuracy and three for fluency. In the two sentences most will answer for each question, I have to judge them out of nine. The grade criteria is harsh. To receive an A grade students must score 26 or 27, that’s either 96% or 100%. To put this into perspective, in England anything above 70% is considered an A. They also can’t have any notes.

I’ve been asked to mark generously. I’ll certainly try.

I write this to help me remember how I felt when I was in their position and had to go into that room. Those few fleeting minutes, that for me will drag by as I repeat and repeat, are, for most students, a few awful minutes where their language skills are being scrutinized.

I think speaking exams like this are silly, yet especially in a country where grades are king, mandated. The purpose of my English classes are to make attempting to speak the language fun. To try and communicate with a real foreign person, where there is no way to quickly switch back to Korean to check what you’re saying, and where you have to struggle through with what you’ve got. The best English I get from my students is before or after classes start. When it is riddled with mistakes, but they are genuinely trying to tell me something about their day, weekend or life. That is when they start asking students around them to help figure out words and sentences and when they really start to push what they know. If from that a few of them push harder to learn more so they can tell me more, I consider my work successful; much more so than by how many A grades I can give out in the next fortnight.

Parents however, will probably strongly disagree. So for now, it’s time to try and bring my warmest face and get as much English out of them in the three minutes they’re in the room as I can.

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