They look like empty classrooms tucked away amid farmland and condos in rural Taiwan. But to the King Car Education Foundation, a Taiwanese nonprofit organization that promotes the study of English, they're a nation.
"We're creating an environment where students must speak English," says King Car official Poly Chang (張孋) as she flips through blueprints of her US$2 million country in a school -- Taiwan's first "English village."
The "nation" -- three floors of rooms attached to a Taoyuan County school -- is still just a vision, but sponsors are lining up to make it a reality. Local airline Eva Air will donate a Boeing fuselage to put on the first floor. Students will disembark from the jet's cross-section, going through "customs," all the while speaking English, Chang says.
A local bank is renovating one classroom in its own image to go with a mock hotel lounge and post office, among other border-town trappings. Instead of attending lectures -- the traditional learning model in Taiwan -- students will cruise the venues, practicing English in real-life scenarios. The instructors, Chang says, will be more like actors on a movie set than classroom teachers.
"We want to use English villages to show Taiwan there are other ways to study English," she says.
Taiwan's "Global Happy English Village," set to open in the fall as English villages in South Korea and Japan do a booming business, reflects what experts say is a global English-learning "fever" -- especially in East Asia, where Taiwan is at the forefront of the movement to learn English. Not even the much-anticipated rise of Mandarin as a foreign language, with its 30 million learners worldwide, comes close to rivaling the spread of English, says Stephen Krashen, a second language acquisition professor at the University of Southern California.
By 2010, two billion people will be studying English and half the world's population -- or 3 billion people -- will speak it, according to English Next, a British Council report published last year.
Nearly 600 million people speak English as a first or foreign language. The popularity of English worldwide, Krashen says, "is growing."
"When Israel talks to Japan, when Korea talks to Brazil, when Germany talks to Ethiopia, it is in English," he adds.
To be sure, Mandarin is surging as a second language; Beijing estimates 100 million people worldwide will be studying it within the decade. Already, Mandarin is the most spoken language on the planet, with most of the country's 1.3 billion people, who comprise 20 percent of the world's population, speaking it.
The Chinese language-learning "boom," Krashen insists, is "at best a mini-boom" in the US, where only 25,000 students, from the elementary to university levels, study it.
"A close look at `Mandarin fever'" there, he says, "shows [it] is exaggerated."
In China, by contrast, more than 100 million people -- a figure equaling roughly one-third of the US population -- have studied English.
"English fever is, to some extent, justified," Krashen says. "English has in fact become the world's second language."
In Taiwan, the "fever" has led to its first English village and a trebling of English students since studying the language became compulsory for elementary students starting in 2001, says James Oladejo, an English professor at National Kaohsiung Normal University.