The Ministry of Education has officially launched a "Nine-Year Educational Program" in an effort to integrate elementary and junior high school programs. However, the English language education section in the program is a cause for worry because of the shortage of qualified teachers and of teaching resources.
The ministry even recommended, in its sample lesson plans, that local teachers teach English pronunciation with the help of the Mandarin phonetic symbols (
According to the ministry, teachers can eliminate the students' fear of English by using "bopomofo," since learning the phonetic system is a requirement for all schoolchildren. The ministry has, however, ignored the possible impact of such an approach.
English and Mandarin Chinese belong to different linguistic families with distinctive phonetic notations. The use of "bopomofo" may facilitate the learning of other Chinese languages, such as Taiwanese and Hakka, which share the same roots as Mandarin. But it will not be of any use in learning English.
What is particularly worrying is that young students might be misled when learning English pronunciation with the "bopomofo" system. In Japan, for instance, some English teachers use the Japanese phonetic alphabet, which consists of the basic "50 sounds." As a result, many students either mispronounce certain English sounds or simply cannot enunciate them at all. Their ability to acquire a second language has been seriously hampered.
Plus, according to the "critical period" hypothesis of language acquisition, most children stand a much better chance of becoming "accent free" if they learn a language before they hit puberty. If the teacher fails to demonstrate accurate pronunciation from the very beginning, most learners may never achieve clear pronunciation later.
If we are truly to improve the English-language education of our youngsters, we need to strive for the following goals.
First, more effective teaching methods are needed. For example, instead of the mastery of a list of phonetic sounds, a top-down approach should be adopted, as the most relevant features of pronunciation, including stress, rhythm and intonation, need to be emphasized in the classroom.
Second, many public schools only provide one or two classes per week of English education, which is much less than those in Singapore or Hong Kong.
Third, local teachers must strive to improve themselves at all times. As an English teacher trainer, I have found that many of our English teachers actually have a great fear of the language. Sometimes they even ask me to speak only Chinese during work-shops.
If teachers can improve their own language ability, especially their pronunciation, they will be much more confident and will never have to use "bopomofo" to teach the ABC's.
The ministry should also recruit more native speakers of English, so that both local students and teachers can frequently interact with native English speakers.
The ministry's effort to include more creative teaching methods in English language education is praiseworthy. But using the "bopomofo" system is not only not a good idea, it should never be adopted.
According to leading TESOL professor, Douglas Brown, "Our goals as teachers of English pronunciation should be focused on clear, comprehensible pronunciation." It is to be hoped that the ministry will be more careful when promoting English language education.
Chang Sheng-en is an English teacher trainer at the English Advanced Association in Taipei.
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