As the government plans its “bilingual national development center” to boost general proficiency in English among Taiwanese, it should devote some effort to improving the overall learning environment, while allowing students with different goals to thrive.
The Cabinet on Thursday approved a draft bill for the center’s establishment by the National Development Council, as part of its plan to make the nation bilingual by 2030. The council said that bilingual talent is in greater demand as more transnational firms invest in Taiwan and local firms connect to global supply chains. The Ministry of Education also plans to spend about NT$587 million (US$21.19 million) funding bilingual education programs at universities nationwide.
To make sure the money is not wasted, the government should consider some questions: Is the nation’s general environment favorable for English learners? Why are many Taiwanese still not fluent in English even though they start learning it in elementary school or earlier?
Although the council in 2016 issued guidelines for the bilingual presentation of signage for local governments, many road signs still contain inconsistent or incomprehensible translations, which need to be remade.
For example, the media in October last year found various translations of “Gaomei Wetlands” (高美濕地) on public signs in Taichung, including “Gaomei Wetland” and “Gaomei Everglade,” and an installation nearby even read: “KAOMAY.” Hualien County’s Daxue Road (大學路) was once translated into “Big Xue Street,” while Provincial Highway No. 9 (台九線) was translated to “Taiwan nine lines” in Taitung County.
Seeking to improve general English proficiency through education is probably a step in the right direction, but Taiwan’s education system involves too much “cramming.” Students in Taiwan generally spend a disproportionate amount of time memorizing facts and vocabulary for exams. They might ace English tests, but struggle to speak the language in real-world settings.
National Taiwan Normal University in March last year released a report showing that Taiwan was lagging behind China, Japan and South Korea on English vocabulary taught in classrooms and total class hours devoted to English.
Elementary and junior-high school students in Taiwan are only required to learn 300 and 1,200 English words respectively, fewer than the other three countries, the report said, advising the education ministry to adjust the requirements for students. It is regrettable that the university only offered an uncreative suggestion, considering it is one of the nation’s strongholds for cultivating English-teaching talent.
For Taiwan to be considered bilingual, its citizens must be able to use English for daily communication as they would Mandarin. Instead of pushing learners to memorize more vocabulary, authorities should consider how to trigger learners’ “intrinsic motivation” to explore a language’s usage and cultural context even after they leave a classroom.
Rather than opening more bilingual education centers, the government should allocate more funding to support students who wish to travel to English-speaking countries or for exchange programs.
However, is it really necessary for every Taiwanese to learn English, regardless of their career goals? If the government hopes to protect the native languages used by various ethnic groups through the Development of National Languages Act (國家語言發展法), how can it avoid restricting the development of local languages when it is emphasizing English?
Instead of imposing more exams on students and civil servants, the authorities should — in addition to promoting internationalization — allow people with different specialties and interests to develop their strengths in other areas as well.
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