Govt plan to make Taiwan bilingual by raising English proficiency by 2030 too ambitious, say teachers

Education consultant Eric Chao Yang said these things usually take a few decades to take shape. ST PHOTO: ERIC CHAO YANG

TAIPEI - The Taiwanese government has big plans to make Taiwan bilingual in 10 years, but the project to raise English proficiency has drawn flak for being too ambitious, and has sparked concerns that it will dilute attention on the island's indigenous languages.

"Bilingual by 2030" aims to help the younger generation connect with the international community by learning to speak fluently in English and thus promoting Taiwanese values.

The project was first introduced by President Tsai Ing-wen's administration in 2018 and has two main objectives: to elevate national competitiveness and cultivate people's English proficiency.

The administration says it plans to create more English-speaking environments for students to move beyond learning only vocabulary and grammar in school and more opportunities for civil servants to "hone their ability to communicate in English". It also wants to establish an exclusive English-language TV station while encouraging other media outlets to provide English coverage, among other plans.

Of all the local government leaders, New Taipei City Mayor Hou You-yi is the first to be on board with the proposal, saying on Aug 21 that he also plans to make sure English becomes a major part of residents' everyday life by 2030.

Mr Hou has his own initiative named "Making New Taipei City a Bilingual Municipality", which will include digitalising English learning in schools .

English instructors in Taiwan, however, are torn about the government's ambitious plan.

Education consultant and English instructor Eric Chao Yang says while the overall direction of the project is sound, whether the government will be able to reach its goals by 2030 is uncertain.

"They're saying 2030 because (the slogan) is catchy and draws attention, but these things usually take a few decades to take shape," said Mr Yang, 41, who has been in the field of English education in Taiwan for over 16 years.

"As a teacher, one of the many problems I'm worried about is the encroachment of indigenous languages," said Mr Yang.

Before the 1990s, the Kuomintang (KMT) government banned the population from speaking anything but Mandarin despite objections. "Mandarin only, no dialects" was the central government's education policy. But the Yilan county government later went ahead with its decision to allow the teaching of the Taiwanese Minnan dialect in schools.

In 1994, the central government relented and Minnan became a part of the curriculum for elementary schools across Taiwan, but it was not mandatory nor a major part of the curriculum.

It wasn't until 2001 when all elementary school students were required to study one native language or dialect - Minnan, Hakka or an indigenous language.

These aside, Mandarin remains the official dialect spoken in Taiwan.

Some critics also question the government's motive in bringing English into everyday life.

Ms Lee Tsai-lien, a retired high school English teacher, says becoming bilingual could mean making English one of the official languages, like in Singapore, India or Hong Kong.

"But that might be difficult, because these places have once been under British rule, while Taiwan's older generation grew up under the Japanese rule and already had a hard time adapting to a Mandarin-speaking government," she said.

The bilingual policy, she said, could also mean adopting what many European countries are doing - using English as an additional language like a helpful tool, but not geared towards passing examinations.

Ms Lee, 56, is for the European type of policy. "What we need is to figure out is what role English will be playing in our lives and... learn it in order to really use it, not just for tests and exams," she said.

She finds that there needs to be greater clarity on the various aspects of the bilingual project - for example, how some classes such as Chemistry might be taught in English.

Mr Yang encourages educators and parents to voice their opinions on the project.

"There's already an existing demand for (English learning in Taiwan), you see that just from the sheer number of cram schools on the street. This is what the people want, but it's a two-way street too," he said.

"The government needs feedback, and if teachers really feel strongly about this, they need to make their voices heard."

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