Sun, Jan 07, 2001 - Page 24 News List

Success is on the tip of his tongue

Although junior high school student Burt Chen was born into an average family and has never attended a cram school for English, he has run circles around not only his peers, but older students. Winning the Taipei City English speech contest was just another step on his road to mastering what comes easy for him

By Chang Ju-ping  /  STAFF REPORTER

Bert Chen already has a library of over 2000 English books.

PHOTO: GEORGE TSORNG, TAIPEI TIMES

For many Taiwanese children and their parents, English proficiency is an important symbol of academic success, but many find the obstacles -- inexperienced teachers, lack of interesting materials or absence of an environment in which to practice -- insuperable. So when 15-year-old Burt Chen (陳昱宏), the son of a postal clerk and an insurance salesperson, beat Ma Yuan-chung (馬元中), the daughter of Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) for first place in last year's Taipei City Government-sponsored junior high school speech contest, this perennial theme got another workover. But with this story, many of the popular preconceptions were overturned.

Most people tend to imagine Chen to be a typical preppie, like Ma Yuan-chung, who attends a private school and whose well-educated parents are able to reinforce his language skills. But in Chen's case neither assumption holds true. He comes from a family in which no English is spoken, and while his parents are far from poverty-stricken, he attends an ordinary public junior high school.

Burt Chen has never enjoyed the luxury of cram schools to help him learn English nor has he gone abroad to study. Although Chen has enjoyed none of the advantages provided by either money or family background, once you have met him, it isn't difficult to understand how he might have achieved his success.

Practice makes perfect

When Chen first greeted me at his home on the hill near the Shihpai (石牌) MRT station, I immediately understood how he could have beaten the bright and advantaged daughter of Taipei's mayor. He insisted on speaking English to me, immediately displaying his near-perfect North American accent and a vocabulary that exceeds what you'd expect even from a serious college student. Chen's success destroys one "myth" after another about the problems of studying English in Taiwan.

"I learned everything on my own," said Chen. "Since I was three."

When Chen was a child, he would talk to Westerners on the street or in English bookstores to practice his spoken English.

Location may also have helped Chen.

"Moving from Sanchung (三重) to Shihpai was convenient for me," said Chen, who relocated with his parents and one younger sister to northern Taipei when he was nine. Shihpai is close to Tienmu (天母), an up-market residential area that has traditionally attracted foreigners.

"I would talk to them on the street to practice English," Chen said. Even when Chen was only six and still in primary school, people would often still mistake him for a child brought up overseas, as his attention to English studies had affected his Chinese accent. Chen's English teacher, Lisa Hsu (許欣芳) is constantly amazed by Chen's English skills. "He is better than high school kids. I have worked with senior high [students] and I know his level is above theirs." Hsu treats her exceptional student with great understanding, allowing him to study what he wants during class time.

Hsu says that Chen is a modest kid who does not show off. Nevertheless, Chen is not unaware of his own talents, and in speaking of the time he sat in on an English course at Tamkang University when only 10, he says he got "high-flying grades."

Hsu attributes Chen's success to the willingness of his parents to support his talent. "I believe the parents' attitude and attention to provide him with resources is what makes him successful today," she said.

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