Last week a government source revealed that the Ministry of Education is embarking on an ambitious program to rapidly increase the number of university courses taught in English.
Starting with a pilot program involving four universities, the ministry aims to have 90 percent of doctoral degree courses, 70 percent of master’s degree courses and 50 percent of undergraduate courses taught in English within the next few years.
The government’s motivation is to “internationalize” education to attract more foreign students, the source said.
On the face of it, this seems plausible, as it would help plug a severe shortfall in student enrollment caused by Taiwan’s declining birth rate.
However, there might be other, more strategic motivations behind the government’s desire to boost English-language tuition.
The policy is better understood as the fruition of Vice President William Lai’s (賴清德) plan, unveiled in 2018 when he was premier, to transform Taiwan into a full-fledged bilingual nation, with Chinese and English as its official languages.
Lai’s aim to elevate English as an official language — and the ministry’s push to increase English-
language teaching at universities — could be interpreted as part of a wider strategy of the Democratic Progressive Party to desinicize Taiwan and develop a unique indigenous identity for the nation.
President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) flagship New Southbound Policy is about decoupling the nation’s economy from China’s, as much is it was about transforming Taiwan into a truly international trading nation. In the same way, the push to create a bilingual nation is about decoupling Taiwan from the linguistic and cultural ties that bind it to China, as much as it is an attempt to internationalize the education system.
Prior to Tsai’s ascent to power in 2016, the eight years of former president Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration saw Taiwan move away from the US to engage more closely with China. The current emphasis on boosting English proficiency is perhaps a reflection of Taiwan’s return over the past four years into the orbit of “Uncle Sam.” As the nation’s center of gravity shifts back to the West, we are seeing a renewed emphasis on English.
Aside from the political and strategic rationale, there may be other tangible benefits to creating a truly bilingual nation. The lingua franca of a globalized world, fluency in English has given Singaporeans, Malaysians and Indians a distinct advantage over their Taiwanese counterparts.
It should be possible to teach classes primarily in English, with additional classes in Mandarin, Hoklo, Hakka and Aboriginal languages. It might even be an improvement on the current situation, where Mandarin is afforded a special status over other local languages.
Singapore provides a model: English is the primary language of instruction, but ethnic Malay, Chinese and Tamil Indian students also learn their own languages.
However, is it feasible to drastically increase the number of courses taught in English without a root-and-branch reform of the education system? Are there enough university instructors who can teach in English? In addition, if Taiwan becomes a truly bilingual nation, would its status as a vital depository of traditional Chinese culture, free from the corruptions of communism, be irreparably damaged?
As Beijing does its best to strip Hong Kong of its unique identity, it is likely that the next generation of Hong Kongers would be taught simplified Chinese characters. This would leave Taiwan as possibly the sole remaining area of the Chinese-speaking world using traditional characters.
As the government wrestles with unpacking a complex linguistic legacy left by successive waves of colonization, it must chart a course that preserves Taiwan’s unique linguistic heritage, while also adequately equipping future generations with the skills that they need to thrive in the world outside.
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