Taipei Times: Would you explain the reasons behind the drive to build Taiwan into a bilingual nation?
Chen Mei-ling (陳美伶): Trade groups, academics and lawmakers have called on the government to make English the nation’s second official language and the Cabinet in September promulgated the goal to build Taiwan into a bilingual nation by 2030. It is important for a nation to have broad horizons and possess international communication skills to stay competitive in the era of globalization. When I visited Germany earlier this year, I was impressed that its officials all communicated in fluent English instead of their native language.
Singapore, Japan, South Korea and China appreciate the importance of English proficiency and have gained significant headway in promoting it. Taiwan, on the other hand, has showed little progress. Many Taiwanese have good English skills, but are afraid to speak the language due to a lack of opportunities.
Photo: Huang Yao-cheng, Taipei Times
TT: The government has promoted English-language learning for years. What will make it different this time?
Chen: In the past, the government approached the issue from a supply-side perspective and focused on improving the physical environment, such as adding English signs for public buildings, roads and tourist attractions. The strategy failed to involve the private sector and the public.
This time, a demand-driven approach will guide the effort with a focus on verbal communication. Gone is the emphasis on exams, that drove teachers and students to give top priority to spelling and grammar accuracy. Rather, we hope that by 2030 people will be brave and ready to speak, listen, read and write in English, even if they still make mistakes.
TT: Why doesn’t the National Development Council propose additional funding for implementing the bilingual policy?
Chen: We aim to achieve the goal the best we can while keeping costs to a minimum. Government agencies can use their existing funds to promote English as they see fit. However, if authorities need extra money, the Ministry of Education can submit requests.
With the trend of a digital economy, people with English-language learning needs can use digital learning platforms to improve their skills anytime, anywhere. There are many free English-language learning channels in the private sector and over the Internet. The council will integrate the resources and set up a platform with related details on its Web site within a year.
TT: Are there any incentives for companies and employees to improve their English?
Chen: The bilingual policy covers all aspects of society, including students, the public sector, enterprises, as well as financial, medical and social-welfare institutions.
The government encourages companies to enhance their English. Some large technology companies actually use English for internal communication. The government is planning incentives for English translations of products and advertisements. English proficiency can be used for subsidy applications and reviews.
All government agencies should plan their own English-language enhancement measures and provide resources. The Cabinet’s personnel administration is to draw up measures to cultivate English-language proficiency for civil servants, especially for those who deal with foreign affairs.
Many government employees have excellent English communication skills, but many are shy when speaking to foreigners. The ministries should make good use of their English-speaking colleagues to help create an environment where all feel comfortable to communicate in English. At the council, I have encouraged colleagues to communicate in English as much as possible.
TT: What are the biggest challenges for the bilingual policy?
Chen: Many say that it might take more than a decade to build Taiwan into a bilingual country, as it took Singapore 20 years to implement its English policy. The colonial background of Singapore and Hong Kong lent a helping hand. Strong English proficiency in Singapore, Malaysia and India helps them win investment from multi-national companies and create well-paid jobs for local people. The trend helps boost their economic growth.
Taiwan will prove a more attractive foreign investment destination if people can demonstrate English communication skills, as most are already able to speak Mandarin, another widely used language in the world. Furthermore, Taiwan has the competitive edge of being a law-abiding and democratic society.
TT: Will the bilingual policy suppress efforts to preserve mother-tongue culture?
Chen: There is no need to worry about that or imbalanced development between urban and rural areas, because the prevalence of digital technology would help narrow the gap. Social media, artificial intelligence, augmented reality and other applications provide free personalized English-language learning accessible to everyone, everywhere.
According to the Cabinet’s blueprint, education is the key to achieving the 2030 goal. The Ministry of Education has been given three months to present proposals to promote bilingualism throughout the education system.
The goals include having English-language classes taught in English at elementary and junior-high schools, and skill-based courses at vocational high schools also to be taught in English. Local governments would implement the plan based on the unique characteristics of the city or county.
The education departments of about 18 colleges have agreed to provide a series of courses offering training and accreditation of English-language teachers. The number of teachers able to offer instruction in English is expected to grow to 3,000 in eight years and 5,000 by 2030.
TT: Has the council set up short-term goals for the bilingual policy campaign?
Chen: The council has drawn up key performance indicators for evaluating the effectiveness of the bilingual policy. They include making all official government Web sites bilingual, making official documents used by foreigners bilingual, providing bilingual frontline services in public settings, making the government’s public data available in English, making laws and regulations that pertain to foreigners bilingual, promoting bilingual services in cultural and educational settings, training civil servants to conduct business in English, and making professional and technical licensure exams available in English.
Within a year, more than 50 percent of official documents and licensure exams used by foreigners should be made available in English, 60 percent of frontline public services should be available in English, and 70 percent of the laws and regulations that pertain to foreigners should be available in English.
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