The government must determine its goals for an English-language curriculum and should be realistic about its ability to achieve those goals.
Premier William Lai (賴清德) has said he thinks English should be made a second official language, and one measure proposed to facilitate this was to offer English classes as early as first grade or preschool.
However, the emphasis already placed on English-language study and testing means that a large number of working-age adults in the nation are already capable of communicating in English in a business environment.
Of course there is some disparity between the ability of Taiwanese to communicate in English and that of native speakers, but this would not change if language classes were to start one or two years earlier.
Chen Chao-ming (陳超明), a professor of English at Shih Chien University, said that ensuring long-term study is more important than introducing it earlier.
Taiwanese need English ability for the nation to remain competitive, and more exposure to the language will produce more capable speakers, but there is an inherent limit to how proficient one can become in a second or later language, due to differences between how native languages and subsequent languages are learned.
Linguist Stephen Krashen proposed in a 1977 article that while second-language learners make conscious efforts to study through a grammar-based curriculum, native speakers naturally “acquire” the language through an environment that facilitates this.
Children learn to communicate when they are exposed to “comprehensible input” — interesting and understandable language — through meaningful interactions, and they are also able to learn language more naturally because learning the language itself is not the objective for them, he said.
With no expectation for them to produce results in the target language, children also do not experience the anxiety that can stifle acquisition for second-language learners in the classroom, he said, adding that children pick up language in a natural order, rather than being “force-fed” grammar as with a class syllabus.
In an article on the Very Well Family Web site, linguist Carol Bainridge broke this order up into three key stages. In the first stage, children go through “phonemic awareness,” learning which sounds belong in a language and which do not.
Although Bainridge does not say, this stage is probably easier for one’s first language, as there is no frame of reference. When learning second and later languages, learners tend to compare target sounds with those they are already familiar with, which is why it is so hard for Japanese learners of English to say “Michael” rather than “Ma-i-ku-ru.”
Arguably, it is also imperative for phonics to be learned from native speakers early on. For example, it is not uncommon to hear Taiwanese say the letter “g” as “ju” — a Mandarin phoneme found in the word for “to reside” (ju, 居).
The second stage Bainridge identifies is the learning of morphemes, some of which are words and some of which modify words.
This stage is done by second-language learners too, but as Chen said, it is often attempted through rote memorization, which produces poor results.
The third stage is where sentences are learned, and children learn correct sentence order and distinguish meaning. It is common for children at this stage to first say words like “foots” and “standed,” before eventually learning the grammar exceptions naturally through exposure.
In Taiwan, native-level proficiency is not possible, nor is it necessary, and English as an official language makes no sense given the lack of native speakers.
However, better English-language proficiency could be achieved by increasing the number of weekly classes in elementary school, rather than starting lessons a few years earlier.
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