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TOEFL and Me

8.19.09

From student to teacher during a summer in Seoul

Monday through Friday, my students begin their day with an 8 a.m. practice TOEFL exam.  The Test of English as a Foreign Language is one of the many exams administered by Educational Testing Service, the standardized-test firm best known for stunting the social lives of college-bound teenagers with its SATs and AP exams. 

TOEFL is written to gauge a foreign student’s ability to understand and use English in a university setting. Presumably, college admissions officers require foreign students to have a TOEFL score of a certain level to ensure that they will be able to participate in undergraduate life.  The test’s aims are clear—does a student have the English skills to know how to take notes during a lecture, register for class, or understand idioms like “hit the jackpot”?  (A definition of the phrase is not, unfortunately, “The man and she used to gamble together on slot machines,” “She wants to hit the man but she is so happy about what he has said,” or “She has a pot in her office with all the necessary instructions.”)

The tests my students take each morning are modeled after official TOEFL exams, so they mimic the themes and sections of the actual test: lectures on academic subjects, visits to professors’ offices to discuss grading errors, conversations with classmates, and visits to the library to get help with assignments.  The thing is, some of my students start studying for the TOEFL as preteens preparing to enter high school, not college, as many of the premier high schools in Seoul require a near-perfect TOEFL score for admission. 

But because TOEFL tests college-related English, the topics and situations my students are examined on day in and day out, year after year, make me wonder just how, exactly, these Korean teenagers come to imagine American university life.  In these tests, students interrupt professors during lectures with the kind of inane comment that would turn any flesh-and-blood student into “that kid” in class, they complain over and over about changes to the university that will result in tuition hikes, and one student talks to another about a class or test they’ve recently failed.

The best conversations, though, are those I can hardly imagine taking place at Harvard.  In one dialogue, John has a big bump on his head that he refuses to see a doctor about (in these tests, the student health clinic is never to be trusted and a private doctor too expensive).  His friend Jennifer is concerned, and the opportunity to share their exchange with 15-year-old Koreans fully compensates for all the heartache caused me by the absence of Baked! Lays potato chips in this country: 

Jennifer: Why don’t we just go to the drugstore and buy some over-the-counter stuff?  I can at least doctor it up for you, you know, clean the wound so that hopefully no infection develops. 

John: I don’t know, Jennifer.  It seems like you’re just overreacting to this whole thing.  I mean, it’s just a bump, after all.  Why don’t we just leave it be?

Jennifer: I suppose you could do that.  But…I just think…you don’t really know what happened after the party that night, do you?  You were drunk, right?  So, I mean, what if, in addition to cutting your head, you got a concussion?  Do you know that people can get brain damage from concussions?  And that usually happens when they don’t realize it and don’t treat them.  Hey, I care about you, John.  I don’t want to see you…getting hurt in any way.

A giant bump?  Getting drunk at a party?  “I don’t want to see you…getting hurt in any way”?!  With conversations like these, the practice tests my students take seem to suggest that college is indeed like Animal House, complete with the frat parties, but overlaid with Lifetime-esque movie dialogue.

Given these misrepresentations, I feel it is my duty as a teacher to pass on as much of my newly minted, postcollegiate wisdom as I can in the 80 minutes I have with each of my classes every day.  In the case of those lectures in which two students continually interrupt the professor with comments meant only to show that they understand the material, I warn my group: “Don’t be those students.  Nobody likes them.”  After weeks of conversations between students looking for books on the Civil War and librarians directing them to the rare-books section, I tell my students that, TOEFL tests to the contrary, they will indeed talk to more people at college than middle-aged men and women sitting behind a reference desk.

The best nugget of wisdom I got to share with my students came from a dialogue between Mitch and Jenna.  When Mitch meets Jenna on the subway, he asks if her car is out of the repair shop yet.  No, it turns out that the car—a 1965 Dodge Dart—is shot, and Jenna’s father is not happy that she ruined his classic car.  It takes Jenna two hours to commute to school using public transportation, and Mitch seems eager to help her.  A new car is beyond her budget, so Mitch offers to take her to an old high-school friend of his who works in a used-car lot.  “Maybe we could go there together and check out what they have, if you’re interested,” he says. 

Jenna’s interested, but she’s not sure if she can scrape up even a thousand dollars.  Then Mitch comes to the rescue with an unusual offer: “Honestly,” he tells her, “if you need to borrow some money, I can lend you some cash.  I’ve actually saved several thousand dollars from my table-waiting job in the city.  As you know, my tuition is being paid by a scholarship so…I’m in a little better position financially than are you.”

Mitch has “saved several thousand dollars” waiting tables in the city?!  Many females would swoon for a young man so diligent and frugal, but Jenna seems oblivious to—or perhaps uninterested in—Mitch’s intentions.  “Oh, gosh, Mitch,” she coos, “I don’t know if I could do that, borrow money from you.  But I sure appreciate the offer.  You’ve always been a good friend.”  Despite the blow of being called “a good friend,” Mitch keeps telegraphing interest.  “No problem, Jenna.  I’m always there for you,” he says.

Clearly, if my students are ever really going to understand college life, whether they eventually attend university in America or Korea, they need to understand what is happening between Mitch and Jenna.  “Guys, you get what’s going on here, right?” I ask the handful of teenage faces seated in front of me.  “Mitch TOTALLY has a thing for Jenna!”

And that, I like to think, is why I’m being paid millions…of won.

 

Brittney Moraski ’09, who completed her tenure as one of this magazine’s Berta Greenwald Ledecky Undergraduate Fellows with her column “Ghosts,” in the July-August issue, has spent the summer teaching English as a second language in Bundang, South Korea, not far from Seoul. She discussed a week of teaching in Shanghai in 2008 in another column, “Youthful Dreams.”