At a June 12 news conference held by the Talent Circulation Alliance to announce the release of its white paper for this year, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) emphasized that, in this era of globalization, Taiwan should focus on improving foreign language and digital abilities when cultivating talent, so that it stands out from global competitors.
I suggest the government should consider building a professional translation industry.
If the public believes that there is a relationship between learning English and national competitiveness, then the nation must consider the social cost of language education.
This should be assessed to maximise educational effectiveness: Is the long-term social cost of English language education proportional to its effect?
Taiwan could learn from Japan, which sees English learning from a social cost perspective. Just as in Taiwan, most Japanese do not need English in their private lives or at work. English education and school admission requirements in Japan are not so different from Taiwan, as everyone has to learn English in elementary and high school.
However, Japan has added another socially costly item by building a foreign-language translation industry.
Japan attaches great importance to translation, which has become a specialized industry. The professional status of translators is similar to that of lawyers and accountants — they are paid well and are given great respect. Interpreters are available at international meetings in Japan, so that attendees can express themselves in their mother tongues.
As for media in other languages, from lengthy publications such as novels, books and journals to short pop culture translations such as film subtitles and song lyrics, the quality of translation is quite high.
The timeliness and quality of translated works has lowered the pressure on the public to keep learning foreign languages after graduating from high school. Since foreign languages are no longer a barrier to knowledge or expression, the translation sector has boosted Japan’s overall national competitiveness.
Meanwhile, those working in the service sector, including restaurants, hotels and transportation, have understood the close connection between their jobs and foreign language abilities, so they have a stronger motivation to learn those languages.
In Japan, it is not uncommon to encounter professionals in such businesses who either speak fluent English or can at least understand and express work-related information.
In comparison, Taiwan has transferred the social cost of learning English to every individual. Many Taiwanese start to learn English in elementary school or even earlier. After graduating from college, having studied the language for more than 10 years, they can hardly write or speak complete sentences.
How much time and money have they spent? They might have lost their passion for language learning due to frustrating experiences, too. This loss is also a social cost.
Japan has adopted the concept of social division of labor by centralizing resources to bolster the translation sector and cultivate translation talent. By doing so, other businesses can rely on and trust in the high quality of translations, which reduces the pressure and cost of cultivating their staff’s English skills.
To learn a foreign language effectively, people usually need to find a close connection between the language and themselves. In other words, if Taiwan fails to adopt the social cost perspective and does not understand the important social role of having a professional translation industry, it will take a long time to become a bilingual nation.
Chang Jui-chuan is a lecturer at National Chung Hsing University’s Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures.
Translated by Eddy Chang
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