On Monday, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) hosted the first consultation to discuss Taiwan’s “2030 Bilingual Country” policy. The policy will need careful coordination and clearer articulation of its basic premise: It is by no means certain that it is well conceived, possible or even desirable.
What happened to Taiwan being a multilingual nation, home to users of Chinese, Hoklo (commonly known as Taiwanese), Hakka and various Aboriginal languages, supposedly protected by the Development of National Languages Act (國家語言發展法)?
The National Development Council laid out its plans in its Blueprint for Developing Taiwan into a Bilingual Nation by 2030 (二○三○雙語國家政策發展藍圖), which says that the bilingual policy and national language policy are to be “run in parallel.” If that sounds like a half-baked idea, that is probably because it is.
The languages that people speak reflect and inform their culture, which is why their preservation, promotion and protection are so important. Creating an entirely new language environment, especially within the ambitious time frame of a decade, would risk disenfranchising whole sections of the population from their culture. More needs to be known about how the government intends to walk both paths at the same time.
In its blueprint, the council points to Singapore and India as countries whose global competitiveness has been enhanced by a high level of English proficiency, but this is blind to the historical context in which their proficiency developed: English as the language of colonialists used to control the colonized, despite a numerical disadvantage. Taiwan’s situation is different.
While the government is focusing on English to move Taiwan away from its reliance on China, this should not be confused with moving away from a future in which Chinese will take on a much more important place in international exchanges, especially in a resurgent Asia.
A reading of the blueprint might give the impression that the “bilingual nation” project is not intended as much to help Taiwanese improve their international competitiveness through English proficiency, as it is to transform Taiwan into a more conducive living environment for English speakers.
A considerable part of the blueprint entails the “binligualization” of documents and government Web sites relevant to foreigners, while science parks are encouraged to emphasize English ability when hiring talent and introduce changes to entice foreign companies to move in, as if the language barrier would be enough to keep them out.
Most Taiwanese would likely say that English is important. English is taught in schools and universities, furthered by home schooling and private language schools, and parents are eager to send their children to study overseas — yet English proficiency lags behind that of other nations.
Students are already under considerable academic pressure. Some students are not gifted linguistically. Some students do not have access to the educational resources provided by more affluent households.
The blueprint says that digital learning platforms can increase access to learning materials and reduce the urban-rural divide, but this is true even without government input.
It is difficult to see how the government can convince people to take English communication more seriously than they already are.
The problem is not access to education, but how to turn students into users of the language, not mere repositories of vocabulary and grammar. While the blueprint addresses this point, it also recommends courses teaching English entirely in English, even though the premise behind this approach is questioned in research on teaching English to speakers of other languages.
The government is just at the beginning of the consultation process, but the basic premise, approach and necessity of the policy present complex questions that it must get right.
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