Premier William Lai’s (賴清德) plan to make English an official language is sure to be controversial — and while it might be a good thing, how the government plans to carry it out should be watched closely.
The Ministry of Education is to present an official report to Lai with recommendations on how to proceed. With a government and populace prone to placing more importance on symbolism and grandiose-sounding ideas than practicalities, it is very important that this does not turn into an empty slogan, like the fabled “Green Silicon Valley.”
What will making English an official language really do? In a sense, the nation is already bilingual — Taiwanese are taught English at school from a young age, most road signs are in Chinese and English, Taipei’s MRT metropolitan rail system uses both and most museums have English signage.
However, everyone knows that the nation’s English-language education is horribly ineffective and that museum labels and government publications are often riddled with embarrassing errors. These problems would not be magically solved by making English an official language.
The government should make sure it has the talent to carry out the ideas: If government agencies continue cutting corners and do not hire English proofreaders for their documents and publications, the whole notion would simply become a joke. It would be ridiculous to make English an official language when general proficiency is still poor.
Perhaps the government should work on the practical aspects and wait to see some solid improvement and results first.
For example, the ministry could focus on ways of improving the way English is taught, including establishing bilingual schools or classes and emphasizing spoken English — something that is sorely needed regardless of whether English is an official language.
These are things that the government has been looking at and should carry out, regardless of whether a language is official.
What about the implications of such a move? While English is immensely important in today’s world, especially when Taiwan needs all the international recognition it can get, should a nation that has constantly faced identity issues and has a long history of colonial oppression make yet another foreign language official?
While everyone speaks Mandarin today, it was essentially forced upon the populace by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) after its retreat from China in 1949, while speakers of other languages were punished at school.
The government has been making efforts to save other languages such as Hoklo (also known as Taiwanese), Hakka and the various Aboriginal tongues, but without practical use, these languages remain in grave danger of dying out, despite being taught in schools and being made national languages. The Taiwanese public already knows that English is important, as evidenced by the significant number of English-language cram schools nationwide.
International competitiveness is important, but native identity, culture and heritage are also essential to the dignity of a person and a nation — especially one that only a few decades ago freed itself from the shackles of cultural imperialism and authoritarian rule. More resources should be dedicated to fostering a meaningful environment for these languages, while the English-language education system has long been in place and just needs to be fixed.
There is no denying that English is important and should be learned by all, but perhaps the government should fix the myriad of existing problems before making it an official language.
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