On WEDNESDAY, the College Entrance Examination Center (CEEC) announced the results of the Department Required Test. I have been grading English exams in the Joint College Entrance Examination (JCEE), General Scholastic Ability Tests and the Department Required Test for more than 10 years. From grading the writing section of these tests, I have seen that many test-takers score poorly in both translation and composition. They often make basic spelling and grammar mistakes, not to mention errors in more advanced areas of examination such as rhetoric, structural organization, arguments and reasoning. Some even give up completely and score a “zero.”
Many years ago, a friendly senior-high school English teacher advised me that students coming from the Grades 1 to 9 curriculum were particularly difficult to teach because — in that curriculum — English class hours have been reduced and the textbooks have been simplified. As a result, their English skills are much worse than that of previous students, almost to the point that their shortcomings cannot be rectified. The teacher suggested that college teachers need to mentally prepare for this and come up with a response to the problem.
Thinking back over what he told me, I realize that he hit the nail on the head. In addition to the other issues seen among senior-high school students, the stunningly bad English of college and graduate students is also a major problem.
In Greek mythology, the cunning and evil King Sisyphus leaked one of Zeus’ secrets. After his death, he was punished in the underworld by being forced to roll a boulder to the top of a hill, but the boulder would always roll back down, forcing him to repeat this action for eternity. As a result of this myth, “a Sisyphean task” has come to be used to describe an interminable, meaningless and frustrating activity.
Taiwanese attach great importance to speaking English and one could even say that learning English is a national activity. Experts have proposed numerous projects, drawn up plans, compiled countless teaching materials and expended a massive amount of labor and resources on English education. However, these attempts have been largely ineffective at improving students’ English skills and this is both frustrating and confusing. Is it Taiwanese students’ destiny to roll this stone up the hill only to watch it roll to the bottom again? Teaching English in Taiwan is a Sisyphean task if ever there was one.
Are English students doomed to continually start over again, regardless of the effort they put in? Or could it be that educators are being unrealistic and aiming too high? People are forgetting that they should be pragmatic and solve the problem at its root, focusing on the essentials.
Recently, Taiwan’s overall competitiveness has stagnated and even deteriorated. Financial and economic experts as well as government officials have drawn up blueprints, issued prescriptions and allocated budgets, but the problem remains. From this perspective, Taiwan’s weak competitiveness and the poor level of English of its students have something in common.
Starting in 2014, Taiwan’s compulsory education system will be extended from nine to 12 years and this change is being met by a steady stream of concerns and questions. The simplification of textbooks in the Grades 1 to 9 curriculum is one negative example of what could happen as a result of the change.
Will the open admission design of the 12-year system further damage the nation’s competitiveness? As the saying goes: “The fall of one leaf heralds autumn” — the low scores seen in English exams may have already answered that question.
Hugo Tseng is an associate professor of English at Soochow University.
Translated By Eddy Chang
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