As the dispute between Taiwan and the Philippines continues, the incident has exposed Taipei’s lack of expertise at international negotiation, once again highlighting the importance of English-language education.
As a university-level English teacher, I gave a pop quiz on Monday last week to test students on vocabulary pertaining to the issue. Among the 38 freshmen who took the quiz, only one spelled “the Philippines” correctly and she was an exchange student from China.
As for the English words in the government’s four demands — an apology, punishment of the guilty, compensation for the fisherman’s family and fishery pact negotiations — about half of the students were unable to spell the word “punishment” and about two-thirds of them were unable to spell “apology” and “negotiation.” Only three students were able to spell “compensation” and all three were either Chinese or foreign students.
Moreover, most students said that they seldom read English-language newspapers and magazines or listen to radio programs in English, and hardly ever watch English news programs on television. This situation is worrisome.
Of course, I am not suggesting that a person’s vocabulary size is indicative of their proficiency in a language, but that many of Taiwan’s university students can hardly write or speak in the target language (English in this case) shows that there is room for improvement in Taiwan’s English education.
To improve the quality of the nation’s English education, it is necessary to increase the number of class hours devoted to studying English. For example, elementary-school students in New Taipei City currently have just one or two English lessons between 40 and 80 minutes long every week. To improve their English, the New Taipei City Government recently announced that it would add one 40-minute lesson a week starting in August in the next academic year — this new policy is a good start.
Next, teachers should add authentic and practical materials to meet students’ needs in the real world. Some of the textbooks and reading material used in English classes are not only boring and outdated, they fail to prepare students for the linguistic challenges they will face outside the classroom because many of them cannot even write a resume or autobiography in English for a job application.
Also needed to improve English-language education in Taiwan are diverse and flexible teaching methods. Jeffrey Parrott, an American who teaches at Jinwen University of Science and Technology, recently commented that Taiwanese teachers seem to favor a "teacher-centered" approach in the classroom: Teachers do most of the talking, while students take notes. This means that students have little chance to practice their English in class.
To remedy this situation, he recommended adopting a "student-centered" approach to teaching that allows students to communicate with each other in English by working in pairs, doing group activities, giving presentations, making speeches and holding debates.
Last, but not least, students should read English-language newspapers and magazines, listen to radio programs in English and watch English news programs on TV or the Internet to boost learning autonomy and develop an international outlook.
As the Ministry of Education pushes for a 12-year compulsory education program, it should also pay attention to class hours, course materials and teaching methods in English education. Students’ inability to spell basic English words might be just the tip of the iceberg.
Ruby Hsu (徐薇), founder of one of the nation’s largest English cram school chains, expressed the same concern earlier this month. In critical remarks on a TVBS talk show, she said that the Taiwanese curriculum requires elementary-school students to memorize only 200 English words in six years, while students in Hong Kong and Singapore must memorize 1,000 words in the same time, and Chinese students must memorize 800.
How can Taiwan’s English-language education be competitive under such circumstances?
Hopefully, the government will learn from the recent incident and try to improve the nation’s English education so Taiwanese students can catch up with those from the four Asian Tigers and the Philippines. If Taiwan’s students cannot write or speak even basic English, how will they ever be able to take part in international negotiations?
Chang Sheng-en is an assistant professor of English at Shih Hsin University.