Thu, Oct 19, 2017 - Page 8 News List

English skills go beyond textbooks

By Chang Ruay-shiung 張瑞雄

The Educational Testing Service recently issued the TOEIC 2016 Report on Test Takers Worldwide. Taiwan ranked No. 40 out of 49 countries, with an average Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) score of 543 out of 990, beating Japan and Hong Kong, but trailing South Korea and China, whose average scores were 679 and 586 respectively.

Taiwan’s low ranking highlights its failure in English education. As a legislator said during a question-and-answer session at the Legislative Yuan in Taipei, while it is understandable for the nation to be lagging Singapore, Malaysia and other nations that have made English their second official language, it is surprising that South Korea and China outscored Taiwan.

ASEAN has had English as its official language since 2015, and although the government has been promoting the New Southbound Policy, little has been done to improve English standards across the nation. The English skills of Taiwanese has sunk to the point of becoming a national security issue.

In response to a legislator’s suggestion to make English the nation’s second official language, Premier William Lai (賴清德) instructed the Ministry of Education to research and evaluate possible plans.

However, making English a second official language is easier said than done. Translating the nation’s major laws alone would take considerable time and effort, not to mention other important government documents. In other words, the process would take more than a few days.

While waiting for a more accurate artificial-intelligence translator to be invented, Taiwan should probably focus on enhancing the nation’s English proficiency by improving English education.

Many Taiwanese who have been learning English since they were children are incapable or afraid of communicating in English — even after entering university or having completed their doctorates.

The reason is not a lack of language skills, but rather a lack of basic knowledge fundamental to having an English conversation. As long as that remains unaddressed, no amount of English conversation classes will improve their language skills.

What is the basic knowledge fundamental to having an English conversation?

First, Taiwanese must have some knowledge of current events, as a conversation with a foreigner naturally involves topics related to their nation or important to the international community. The news covered by domestic media outlets — typically celebrity gossip and local crimes — reveals the deep disconnect between Taiwanese and the international community.

Students who rely on domestic media outlets for news will likely score low on the TOEIC and Test of English as a Foreign Language reading comprehension tests, which often have questions related to international current events. Although they might understand every word, they would likely fail to grasp the meaning of the entire passage.

Indeed, without some knowledge of current international events, how does one talk about Germany with Germans or about France with the French?

Second, Taiwanese must understand cultural references and idioms commonly used in English.

For example, while everyone knows the word “ghost” and the phrase “to give up,” the phrase “to give up the ghost” might confuse many. Here is another example: While silver is a metal, and a lining is a layer of a different material on the inside of something, what is a “silver lining?”

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