In an opinion piece, Chang Jui-chuan (張睿銓) suggested that Taiwan focus its efforts not on making citizens “bilingual,” but on building a robust translation industry, as Japan has done (“The social cost of English education,” June 29, page 6).
Although Chang makes some good points — Taiwan could certainly improve its translation capabilities — the nation needs a different sort of pivot: from bilingualism to multilingualism.
There are reasons why Japan might not be the most suitable role model for the nation’s language policy. Bluntly put, Japan’s status in the world is unquestioned. The same cannot be said of Taiwan.
Many confuse it with Thailand or assume it is either part of China or should be. Taiwan needs to communicate its message to the world — what it is, what it stands for, that it exists — in a way Japan simply does not.
Translation is valuable and necessary, but as it breaks down barriers between interlocutors, it also creates them. There is a reason why people say that subtleties are often “lost in translation.”
The burden falls not just on interlocutors, but on translators to ensure that messages are understood across cultural boundaries.
Instead, Taiwan might want to look to Palestine. Although they are not exactly the same, both nations want peace, recognition and to be understood on their own terms, but have repeatedly been denied a seat at the table by the international community.
Palestine’s message is understood more clearly, because communicators of that message have something Taiwan needs: intercultural communicative competence.
This is cultivated in part through multilingualism. The more languages someone is aware of and can communicate in, the more likely they are to be sensitive to and able to speak to others’ perspectives on the world.
Simply employing translators will not make Taiwan’s message more persuasive to the world over time. However, encouraging a multilingual citizenry will.
The social cost of learning English in Taiwan is dire, simply because it is poorly taught. Research confirms that most teachers are aware of better ways to teach communicative competence, but feel unable to use those methods due to the pressures of the examination system, the lack of communicative practice in required textbooks, large class sizes and lack of time.
Research also confirms that, if handled well, there is no social cost to learning multiple languages.
Instead of spending effort and money bringing over foreign language teachers who might not be as qualified as expected, the Taiwanese government should first deconstruct the English examination system and recognize reputable English language teaching qualifications.
There are already many talented teachers in Taiwan. Give them the support they need, and they can then be cultivated into teacher trainers, putting Taiwan’s multilingual future into Taiwanese hands.
At the same time, Taiwan must recognize that the phrase “bilingual country” is inappropriate. Taiwan is already a multilingual society.
Giving similar attention to Taiwan’s other languages, as well as English, merely formalizes and supports an existing reality, while improving Taiwanese’s ability to access all their languages. It also can help build a society that treasures its own culture, while showing its face to the world.
Jenna Lynn Cody studies teaching English to speakers of other languages and intercultural education at the University of Exeter’s Graduate School of Education.
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