When Huang Mu-yin (黃木姻) arrived in Taoyuan seven years ago to serve as principal of Dong An Elementary School, she found that low enrolment was a problem because some parents were reluctant to send their children to the school because of its “exotic” feature.
The school is in a neighborhood outside the Taoyuan metropolitan area, where rent is relatively low, thus attracting urban commuters, Aborigines and immigrants to settle here.
“Our school has students from more than 20 ethnic groups. Among the 750 students, nearly 130 are new immigrants and another 130 are Aboriginal children,” Huang said.
Many parents were worried that enrolling their children in a school with so many immigrants’ children would expose them to an academically inferior environment.
Huang, however, thought it was a chance for the school to become unique compared with other urban campuses.
“What a shame it would be if students are ignorant about the school’s multicultural environment,” Huang said. “It is our job to let students learn cultural diversity through lessons and activities.”
Instead of dismissing the mother tongues and cultures of the students and their immigrant parents, most of whom were mothers from Vietnam or Indonesia, Dong An Elementary School in 2012 started a multicultural education program and encouraged students to learn Vietnamese and Indonesian.
Over the past few years, Huang has successfully turned Dong An into a popular school where not only children of immigrant parents are fond of learning their mother’s language and culture, mainstream Taiwanese students are also keen to learn to speak the languages of new immigrants.
“A good education broadens students’ horizons and we have achieved that at Dong An by promoting cultural awareness on campus,” Huang said.
Little did Huang know that the school was pioneering what later became nationwide education policy.
In late June, the Ministry of Education approved new curriculum guidelines, which took effect this month, giving elementary-school students the option to study one of seven Southeast Asian languages, aside from Hoklo (commonly known as Taiwanese), Hakka and Aboriginal languages.
The languages are: Indonesian (Bahasa), Cambodian, Thai, Burmese, Filipino, Vietnamese and Malay.
It is the first time they have been written into the curriculum of the 12-year compulsory education systems, the ministry said.
One of the reasons this new policy has been adopted is because of the changing demographics in Taiwan, where there were 187,839 foreign spouses married to Taiwanese as of July 31, excluding those from China, Hong Kong and Macau, according to government data.
Among such foreign spouses, 107,440 (19 percent) were from Vietnam, 30,246 (5.5 percent) from Indonesia, 9,893 (1.8 percent) from the Philippines, 9,026 (1.6 percent) from Thailand and 4,332 from Cambodia (0.79 percent), the data showed.
Dong An and Huang have not only served the school well, they have also inadvertently helped Taiwan recognize the value of immigrants and cultural diversity.
The school is now a role model for other schools nationwide, and Huang and Dong An’s teachers have helped develop textbooks for teaching the languages.
When Huang started to promote multicultural education at Dong An seven years ago, she had to start from scratch because the teachers were not familiar with the concept.
Parents also had lots of questions regarding the school’s new policy. Some of them questioned the need to learn Southeast Asian languages.
To engage the students’ families in the multicultural program and because there were no Southeast Asian teachers available, Dong An encouraged parents with immigrant backgrounds to become teachers at the school and to make children’s books in Southeast Asian languages as ad hoc textbooks.
“We trained the parents in teaching techniques and some of them later became qualified teaching support staff,” Huang said.
To make sure that students are immersed in a multicultural environment, Dong An also provides a nonstop learning process, including language courses during the school year, and language workshops during the winter and summer breaks.
Besides teaching the languages, the schools’ teachers also find every opportunity they can to teach students about immigrant cultures — from the Thai water splashing festival to Vietnamese traditional clothing, as well as famous scenic attractions in those countries.
Huang said that while children might not be able to understand why some people wear a headscarf or dislike the fragrance of curry or fish sauce, they must learn to respect other cultures.
“Through learning new immigrants’ languages and their cultures, students will also learn to respect, understand and appreciate those cultures,” Huang said.
After years of efforts, Dong An started to receive positive feedback.
Dong An student Chen Pei-chi (陳沛芹) found learning Indonesian and Vietnamese at school quite “useful,” because she had the chance to practice those languages with her mother’s Southeast Asian colleagues.
Chen’s mom is a Taiwanese who works in Thailand.
Wu Li-ling (吳俐陵) and Wu Hui-ling (吳蕙伶) are students and teacher’s assistants of Dong An’s Vietnamese-language course, who both have parents who came from Vietnam.
The two were encouraged by their parents to learn Vietnamese at school.
“Learning Vietnamese is interesting, because we can practice the language with our family,” they said, adding that they have also gained a stronger understanding of their cultural roots.
To prepare for the new language courses, the ministry’s K-12 Education Administration has trained 2,465 teachers to teach the seven mother tongues of new immigrants, ministry official Tsai Chih-ming (蔡志明) said.
However, the number of qualified teachers might present a challenge.
Ministry statistics show that for this school year, there would be about 6,000 first-graders who are children of new immigrants (not including those whose parents are from China, Hong Kong and Macau), but only 2,513 of them are expected to sign up for the new immigrant language courses.
Tsai said the low willingness to learn one’s mother tongue could be linked to the self-confidence of the students and their new immigrant parents, who are mostly not from a high socioeconomic background.
After courses are given for a certain period of time, the ministry will invite education experts to conduct research to understand why students, especially those with immigrant backgrounds, have opted not to study those languages, Tsai said.
Unlike the teaching of Mandarin or English in Taiwan, which starts with the phonetic system “bopomofo” or the alphabet, the ministry-created learning materials for new immigrant languages focus on real-life situations and encourage students to speak first.
These include greetings and family conversations, with spelling, reading and writing to be taught later in higher grade levels.
Tseng Hsiu-chu (曾秀珠), principal of New Taipei City’s Beihsin Elementary School and head of the city’s new immigrant language advisory group, said the new approach is intended to attract and motivate kids to learn immigrant languages.
Tseng’s school started to experiment with the new curriculum last year.
She said she always reminded teachers at her school that they have to help students like the foreign language first, to make them want to learn it.
She said she hoped parents can treat new immigrant language and culture courses with a positive and open mind.
“In terms of cultures, there’s no good or bad, just different,” Tseng said.
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