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Since 2001, students can sit for a foreign language exam, one of five subjects of Suneung, Korea’s annual college entrance examination. Other subjects include Language Arts (Korean), Mathematics, English and Inquiry (social studies and science).
Although not compulsory, many Suneung takers, especially applicants for humanities majors, choose to take it, because some universities require a foreign language test score. The nine categories are Japanese, German, French, Spanish, Chinese, Classical Chinese, Russian, Vietnamese and Arabic.
Among them, the top choice among 2023 Suneung takers was Japanese, with 26 percent, or 10,358, of 40,141 students who sat the section of the written exam, according to data from the Ministry of Education.
The second most popular was Classical Chinese with 9,871 test takers, followed by Chinese (7,132), Arabic (5,424), Spanish (2,791), French (2,170), German (1,496), Russian (479), and Vietnamese (420).
Linguistic similarities between Korean and Japanese as well as cultural ties are cited as key reasons why many high school seniors, graduates, and others choose Japanese for the college entrance exam. Korean grammar is said to be similar to Japanese in terms of sentence structure and both languages borrow much of their vocabulary from the Chinese language.
However, when it comes to the cumulative tally over the past five years, Arabic, the language of Islam, is the most preferred foreign tongue, despite the language being rarely taught in schools here.
A total of 145,015 Suneung test takers chose the Arabic language between 2019-2023, far outstripping the figure for Japanese at 36,134. Chinese ranked third with 24,731, followed by Classical Chinese at 24,011, and Spanish with 10,036, data showed.
In 2005 when it was first introduced to Suneung, a mere 531 candidates chose the Arabic exam. But it sharply increased to 37,526 in 2016 and surpassed 50,000 a year later.
Their choice was largely strategic given the relative grading system that was in place until 2021.
Since Arabic is a less popular language, there weren’t as many high performers as in more commonly taught languages like Chinese and Japanese, making it relatively easy to get good scores.