Huwei Township (虎尾) in Yunlin County, population 70,000, might look like your typical Taiwanese township with its rows of shops lining the edge of a highway, but start chatting to locals and it will soon become clear that there is something rather unusual about this community.
On one of the streets, Denny Liao, the 62-year-old owner of a juice store, sees students coming to his store and instead of speaking to them in Mandarin or Taiwanese, he asks them in English: “How may I help you?”
He expects a response in English, too.
On a shelf of his store stands a green plastic sign that reads: “Dung-Ren Community English Village Learning Site.”
Several streets away, Cheng Chien-chih, who runs a small clothing store, in fluent English invites foreign customers to visit his wife’s handicraft and folk arts shop next door.
His store, too, has a sign like the one at Liao’s.
Liao and Cheng are among about 40 residents who have been voluntarily assisting Dongren Junior High School’s English Village program.
The idea came from Lin Cheng-hsiung, the principal of school. Since 2009, he has been overseeing the project, which tries to get the whole community involved in speaking English, so that the school’s children will have an environment that promotes English learning.
As part of the project, the adults in the community can attend a free community English class that helps them learn and improve their English, so they can help the students.
The project — known as the Dongren International English Village — has become one of the most successful programs of its kind in the nation, attracting the attention of media and other schools around the country that hope to learn from the Dongren experience.
“We have influenced high schools close to ours, including Huwei Senior High School, which has decided to open a special English class for gifted students. Even schools in other cities and counties are attracted by our English teaching program,” Lin said.
That’s no small feat for Yunlin County, an agricultural bastion that is economically less developed than northern Taiwan. Compared with big cities, the county has fewer after-school centers that teach English and fewer foreign tourists, which makes English learning challenging for the local children.
In 2006, Lin was asked by the county’s Bureau of Education to try to improve English learning for the county’s students, but was given a budget of just NT$3.98 million (US$132,000) from the financially strapped local government.
“That’s all I got for the project, while other rich counties and cities like Taoyuan and Kaohsiung would get as much as NT$10 million to fund an English Village program aimed at lifting students’ English speaking proficiency,” Lin said.
With so little to work with, he thought: “Why not turn the community into a big English village?”
Lin and his school staff then busied themselves setting up the “village.” They transformed empty classrooms into facilities equipped with life-size models of an “airport check-in counter,” a section of an airplane cabin, a corner of a supermarket and a restaurant. Lin later made the acquaintance of Wolf Wu, a businessman who returned from Australia to Huwei, his hometown, not long ago to open an English cram school.
Lin and Wu then jointly set up the non-profit Yunlin International Education Communication Promotion Association, through which they opened their free English class for community residents.