As Taiwan moves toward English-only instruction in 60 percent of elementary and high schools by 2024, with the goal of having a bilingual generation by 2030, the Ministry of Education is looking to ramp up the influx of foreign teachers. Hopefully the plans go beyond this simplistic road map, because some thorny matters need to be addressed.
One of these issues is a frustrating paradox that foreign English teachers in Asia often realize after putting in enough time in the classroom. Countries such as Taiwan, Japan and South Korea place great emphasis on English education, but their societies put up barriers that prevent the language from entering the culture.
With few options for students to practice their language skills outside the classroom, teachers in these countries sometimes wonder if the governments should just declare English a national language, as it is in Singapore, and aim to have it spoken all across society, from retail transactions to government services.
However, imposing a national language on a culture that does not need it is not realistic. Singapore requires a lingua franca to facilitate business and social relations across a variety of cultures. Taiwan, like Japan and South Korea, is not in that situation.
The paradox is that a language cannot be truly mastered by a population that is not fully immersed in it. The crossroads that Taiwan faces in embracing English makes me reflect on the shortcomings of my own officially bilingual country, Canada, in properly teaching French.
Outside of the French-speaking province of Quebec, most schools start teaching the language around grade 6, or age 11, when the language acquisition abilities of children start to decline.
As a result, few Canadians are truly bilingual, especially in English-speaking regions.
In the early days of bilingual policies, in the 1970s, people in non-Francophone provinces complained about having to look at labels in French on their cereal boxes and milk cartons, and resented government efforts to push the language on those who did not need it in their daily lives. The attitude has trickled down through generations.
In Taipei, the government should be prepared to fight such biases against English. For instance, the Taiwanese students I taught in the past rejected my advice to practice fluency by “code switching” — mixing languages in a conversation. I would tell them that a fun way of building confidence is to use Mandarin to fill in parts of speech they do not know when speaking English, or to drop English phrases into Chinese dialogue.
However, many students told me that mixing English and Mandarin is “wrong,” “rude” or “showing off.” In other words, Mandarin should be kept pure, and using English is a cultural intrusion.
This is an unfortunate attitude, as code switching is a fun way to play with a language and make it a part of one’s life. When I lived in Singapore, it was wonderful to listen to the musical ways in which English and Chinese were mixed by speakers who were fluent in both languages. Singaporeans’ ability to code switch shows how bilingualism can add colorful aspects to a culture.
This can be evidenced in the way Chinese, Indian and Malay traditions are celebrated throughout Singapore’s social fabric. Mother tongues thrive as they continue to be spoken at home and with friends, and on dedicated TV channels.
In Singapore, I learned that cultures are not always diminished by the introduction of a new language. Damage is certainly caused when languages are suppressed by decree, as happened in Taiwan during authoritarian rule.
Singapore has done the opposite, as it encouraged the use mother tongues at home and in some parts of the school system.
If the government truly wants Taiwan to be bilingual, it would be wise to study Singapore’s model to learn how it has preserved and perhaps enhanced the nation’s various ethnic cultures while living with English as the dominant language.
Meanwhile, the government would also do well to consider the hardship caused by an overemphasis on standardized test scores. Exams are a constant source of misery for students and instructors alike. Teachers must often overlook practical instruction in favor of test-oriented content, and students come to regard English as another dreaded subject that must be studied rather than can be enjoyed.
Many students are able to master standardized tests without acquiring any meaningful English fluency, while others struggle with the exacting standards of the tests, despite having a high degree of real-world communicative competence. These exams have some value, but are not universal barometers of language ability.
The government also needs to understand that biases against English run deep within institutions that feed the school system.
I had the fortune of working for an English-teaching magazine in Taipei for about two years. Many Taiwanese are familiar with these monthly publications, which are often used in high schools.
I was surprised by how little input was allowed from the foreign English-speaking writers, all of whom possessed individual teaching and writing talents. With rare exceptions, Taiwanese editors decided on topics and lesson structures without their input. The instruction sheets did not contain learning objectives, while teachable vocabulary and grammar were chosen quite randomly, without regard for how they matched the article’s subject or tone.
The in-house constraints led to odd passages. For instance, for a beginner-level article I was assigned to, I had to write about making tea, but could not use the word “pour” because it was considered an intermediate word.
The clumsy workaround (“take the tea out of the pot and put it in a cup”) was stranger than letting the student intuit the meaning of “pour.”
For advanced articles, we had to squeeze in a large number of five-dollar words, creating unreadable purple prose. I could go on.
Pointing out these issues to the local editors was awkward and fruitless. Sometimes they agreed with me, but could not allow me to change the outline for fear of their own boss’ reaction.
However, I should mention that the editors played a valuable role in creating excellent grammar exercises through translation and staged learning. They were also heroes in managing the overwhelming logistics of assembling mountains of coordinated materials, often working 10 or 11-hour days. My issues were not with them personally, but the rigid structure we all worked within.
Overall, it seemed that the system was set up to prevent “foreign influence” from overtaking the “Taiwanese way” of running a business or teaching English — a bias that ensures that the language is taught, but not well enough to threaten the culture.
Other Taiwanese educational publishers I looked into seemed to have the same organizational structure, and browsing through their products, I could tell I was not working at the worst of them.
It is a waste of resources to have several publishers compete to produce materials on behalf of the Ministry of Education. There is no need to have 15 or so magazines and multiple textbook companies fighting for contracts with schools while profits are prioritized above quality.
In tackling English education reform, the government should absorb these companies, run a well-managed textbook and magazine division, and send out one set of high-quality products to the nation’s schools.
The ministry would have an opportunity to adopt internationally recognized methods of creating teaching materials. Professionals from around the globe could be hired to draft them alongside Taiwanese editors.
I would also suggest including educators from Singapore and India on the editorial team to reflect English as a global language. This might help in overcoming fears of English “Americanizing” or “Westernizing” Taiwanese society.
When approached as an international language, English can help locals broadcast their culture to other parts of the world.
Creating a bilingual society has to cut through many layers of culture and politics. There are no easy solutions to the problems that could crop up in this difficult task, but any consideration toward addressing these issues would be worth the effort.
Michael Riches is a copy editor at the Taipei Times.
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