Choosing English over Hokkein

By Wang Wei-ming 王維明  / 

Sat, Mar 30, 2002 - Page 8

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.

In the first half of the 1990s in the US, the Democratic Party managed to reverse the huge budget deficits and turn the nation into a superpower in the world economy, thanks to the promotion of a "knowledge-based economy." Although the US-led global economy has slowed since the Republican Party took office, it is impossible to reverse such an epochal change.

For example, after Mexico's financial crisis in 1994, the head of the IMF commented that the crisis marked the beginning of a new era. Three years later, similar crises decimated Thailand's economy and those of several other nations. These countries, how-ever, seldom examine their own faults and condemn foreign companies for promoting "new economic colonialism." They also use populism and nationalism to confront globalization. Argentina serves as an example.

At the beginning of the 1990s, Japan used to be unconcerned with globalization. But the whole world has become anxious about Japan's financial crisis. But Japan has looked outward to solve its problems. The late prime minister Keizo Obuchi recommended that Japan take English as its second official language to promote the English ability of people. Japanese companies are increasingly limiting the promotion chances of employees with poor English skills. Some foreign-funded companies even use English as the official language in the workplace and use TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication) scores as one criterion for promotion. Although the Japanese have poor English speaking skills, the nation's translation industry is highly developed.

In Singapore, the government even launched a "Speak Good English" campaign last year to improve the grammatically imper-fect "Singlish" -- despite the fact that English is already an official language.

Taiwan barely escaped from the financial crisis of 1997, but what does it have going for it to face increasing global competition today? Does the nation's fate lie solely in the sunset industry of manufacturing eight-inch semiconductor chips? It is already a fact that Taiwan's higher education exists in name only. Those who worry that local businesses may "go west" to China do not understand that since Taiwanese and Chinese are of the same race and share the same language, the Chinese market is particularly good for people in Taiwan whose English is poor.

Globalization involves a change in thinking and habits. English is the language of such thinking. If we turn the issue of language into a fight over reunification and independence -- disregarding the nation's economic predicament and the functions of an official language -- Taiwan may regress to the status it had during World War II.

Wang Wei-ming is an assistant professor at Nan-Jeon Institute of Technology.

Translated by Eddy Chang