It is dismaying when people misrepresent the government’s bilingual policy, describing it as a threat to native languages and Taiwanese identity. That is completely untrue, and their arguments are at best specious and at worst absurd. Such misinformation can only generate harm. It needs countering with clear, factual statements of what the policy is, what it aims to achieve and why it is fundamentally important for Taiwan and its people.
First, the policy does not put English on a pedestal above any local language. It does not even accord it equal status with Mandarin as an official language.
The purposes of the policy are to give students better conditions for learning English, give all members of the public better English-learning opportunities, and create an environment that enables people to daily see, hear, use and absorb English, while also being friendlier to foreign investors, businesspeople, professionals, students, tourists and others whom, for multiple compelling reasons, Taiwan needs to attract.
The need for raising English proficiency among Taiwanese arises largely from long-standing deficiencies of English teaching in Taiwan’s education system.
It was starkly demonstrated when the 2017 EF English Proficiency Index rated Taiwan as “low proficiency,” ranked 40th out of 80 non-English-speaking countries and territories, below China, Japan and South Korea, and even below Vietnam and Indonesia. In 2018, Taiwan fared even worse, falling to 48th out of 88 countries and territories assessed. The need for a major government initiative to address this situation could not be ignored, and then-premier William Lai (賴清德) responded by announcing the bilingual policy.
Why is English so important for Taiwan?
It is important for enabling those representing Taiwan in international spheres, as well as members of the public using international social media, to speak up for the nation, spread awareness of its status and achievements, counter disinformation from China, project Taiwan’s soft power, and win recognition and support for the nation.
It is important for providing sufficient English-competent talent to meet foreign investors’ staffing needs, and to meet the business needs of domestic firms seeking to cooperate with foreign companies, promote themselves internationally, position themselves in overseas markets, and engage with foreign partners and customers. Meeting these needs is vital for Taiwan’s competitiveness.
It is important for equipping Taiwanese, particularly young people, with a fundamental skill that would qualify them for some of the best job opportunities and career paths in Taiwan, and that is essential for cultivating international mobility.
The need for a more English-friendly environment to cater to foreigners is equally important, not only to meet the needs of foreign investors and business partners, but also for competing with other countries to attract and retain foreign talent needed to fill growing shortages of local talent stemming from the low birthrate and exacerbated by a serious brain drain.
Taiwan’s demographic crisis has caused increasingly serious shortages of talent throughout the workforce.
Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co chairman Mark Liu (劉德音) has cited the shortage as the biggest problem faced by the flagship semiconductor industry.
The Ministry of National Defense has expressed concern that the shortage is impeding vital defense projects.
A lack of renewable energy professionals is retarding the nation’s critically important energy transition.
The Foreign Professionals Act (外國專業人才延攬及僱用法), passed in 2017, has significantly enhanced Taiwan’s attractiveness to foreign talent, with the number of resident foreign professionals increasing from about 32,000 in that year to about 43,000 in November last year.
This has helped raise Taiwan’s IMD World Talent Ranking, with its sub-ranking for ability to attract foreign highly skilled personnel notably climbing from 55th in 2018 to 38th last year.
However, a much bigger influx is still needed. With the supply of foreign workers projected to fall short of demand by 400,000 this decade, the National Development Council (NDC) has targeted increasing the resident population of foreign professionals to 100,000 by 2030. A more foreigner-friendly language environment would boost Taiwan’s chances of achieving that target.
The bilingual policy also aims to help Taiwan’s universities attract more international students by increasing programs taught in English. Besides filling places left empty by the lack of local students, this can also provide a precious source of talent for all parts of the economy.
With the population of people aged 15 or younger dropping from 4.662 million in 2001 to 2.93 million last year, there will likely be more empty places to fill with fewer local graduates.
In response, the Ministry of Education aims to triple international student enrollment from 14,000 at present to 42,000 by 2030, while the NDC is targeting that by 2030 up to 200,000 international students enter Taiwan’s workforce after completing their studies in the nation.
Measures for promoting instruction in English would be crucial to achieving those targets.
For these and many other compelling reasons, it should be evident that bilingualization is key to optimizing national development, prosperity and security.
In reply to those who misguidedly oppose the bilingual policy by expressing concern about its effect on local languages, it needs to be understood that it is only one part of the government’s overall language policy.
It is a key part, but it is far from excluding anything else.
In sum, the government’s language policy is to create the best achievable conditions for fostering bilinguality in Chinese and English, while also providing ample support for sustaining all other local languages.
Premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) accentuated this when announcing a five-year NT$30 billion (US$1.02 billion) program to promote the development of national languages.
As Su said, the government’s language policy has two parallel axes: to ensure the preservation and development of national languages, and to enhance people’s English proficiency.
There is no conflict between these two missions.
With the National Languages Development Act (國家語言發展法), the Indigenous Languages Development Act (原住民族語言發展法) and the Hakka Basic Act (客家基本法) providing comprehensive laws to support, revitalize and sustain Taiwan’s native languages, there is no need to fear any negative effects from the bilingual policy.
If that policy is carried out with sufficient imagination and determination, it can deliver enormous benefits. Given the breadth and magnitude of those benefits, it is hard to conceive of any policy that could serve Taiwan and its people more substantially.
The European Chamber of Commerce Taiwan and the American Chamber of Commerce have strongly endorsed the bilingual policy, which deserves full support from all sections of society and full commitment from all quarters of government.
Peter Whittle is a barrister, translator and language adviser/instructor who is involved in policy promotion at national and local levels in Taiwan.
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