Sat, Mar 30, 2002 - Page 8 News List

Choosing English over Hokkein

By Wang Wei-ming 王維明

TSU legislators have proposed making Hokkien the second official language of Taiwan. However, 60 percent of respondents to a TVBS opinion poll were in favor of making English the second official language, alongside Mandarin.

In response to the poll result, the TSU legislative caucus immediately declared that a nation's official languages and national identity are closely interwoven, and the two can never be sepa-rated. This is clearly the party's strategy to gain power.

Since the issue of language can influence the growth and decline of ethnic groups -- not to mention that speaking English has usually been taken as a symbol of elitism in southern Taiwan -- the issue may easily become a fight over ideologies that divides our ethnic groups. The more populist the issue, the more blurred the focus on the issue becomes. An all-round perspective of global arrangements is absent in this controversy.

Not only has the issue not been thoroughly discussed, but concerns about the issue are slowly drowning in the gossip that permeates the news.

To be direct, the public does not have a clear understanding of globalization -- not to mention the crucial role English plays in globalization. Although I often criticize globalization, I believe that Taiwan is incapable of resisting the globalization trend because the nation has been severely damaged by the economic downturn over the past two years. Its future role on the world stage will depend on its degree of globalization. Mean-while, under the framework of globalization, a shared language for exchanging information is necessary for us to break national boundaries, both cultural and economic. This language is not

Mandarin and certainly not Hokkien, but English. Is Taiwan ready for this?

In recent years, the average TOEFL scores in Taiwan have failed to get on the top 10 list in Asia. The proportion of college and university students passing the intermediate level General English Proficiency Test (GEPT, 全民英檢) is even lower than that of high-school students.

There are a lot of colleges and universities in Taiwan and the total number of graduate schools has sharply increased. Since the threshold for admission to the schools is low, the quality of students has rapidly declined. More-over, the US education sector has long been flooded with brilliant students from China. For students in Taiwan, it has become harder and harder to get into leading US schools. The proportion of students staying in the US to continue their research is also low. As a result, our academic competitiveness in the international community has gone from bad to worse.

To graduate, many college and university students whose English skills are weak have turned other languages, such as Japanese. The Ministry of Education actually reduced the number of required credits for language courses in our higher education system a few years ago. Most of the graduates of some 150 colleges and universities in Taiwan are incapable of using English or other foreign languages fluently. As a result of this vicious cycle, students can't expect to be granted scholarships from overseas schools. Also, their English proficiency has further declined, since the factor luring them to study abroad has gone.

Fortunately, a few schools, such as National Taiwan University, have realized that English serves as an index of competitiveness and have planned to launch proficiency tests similar to the higher-intermediate level GEPT, requiring their students to pass the tests before graduation.

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