Tainan leads push to boost English in Taiwan

Efforts include increasing usage in schools, getting city officials to show basic proficiency

From providing bilingual menus at night markets and cafes, to getting taxi drivers and government officials to speak English, the southern city of Tainan hopes to blaze the trail in promoting English in Taiwan.

By the end of this year, about 15 per cent of the city's government officials will have to introduce themselves or talk about their jobs or hobbies in a 10-minute oral presentation in English. The city's government announcements and documents are now available in both Chinese and English.

The city of 1.9 million is also getting its elementary schools to teach more subjects in English, amid a renewed push by lawmakers and language experts across Taiwan to make English a second language in schools, alongside mother tongues such as the Minnan dialect (Hoklo), Hakka and Aboriginal languages.

In Taiwan, children start learning English in public schools only from Grade 3, or at nine years old.

Under the Tainan plan, children will get more exposure to English, which will be the medium of instruction for mathematics, science and physical education from Grade 3.

In Taiwan, Chinese is the official first language and the medium of instruction for all subjects - even English - in most public elementary and high schools.

The Tainan scheme will be piloted in eight schools in September and will be extended eventually to all schools in Tainan, said Ms Sabrina Tien, deputy director in the city government's Office of English as a Second Official Language.

Other cities, such as Taoyuan, Hsinchu and even Taipei, are introducing English-medium instruction in more subjects, but on a smaller scale.

Taiwan has been trying to improve English standards but lags behind economic competitors such as South Korea.

In an English proficiency index by Swiss-based education firm EF Education First, Taiwan scored a moderate proficiency rating and was 33rd among 72 territories last year, behind Singapore (sixth), South Korea (27th) and Hong Kong (30th). It is, however, ahead of Japan (35th) and China (39th).

However, those who object to making English a second language fear that the greater use of English would be at the expense of Chinese, or guoyu as it is known in Taiwan. Pro-Beijing parties see the promotion of English as a move by pro-independence activists to distance Taiwan from China.

President Tsai Ing-wen, who leads the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), is seeking to expand Taiwan's trade and cultural links with South-east Asia, India, Australia and New Zealand to reduce the island's dependence on China.

"While South-east Asian countries have their own native languages, it is the English language that will bind most people. It makes sense to make English our primary communication tool to ensure we gain a steady footing in the region, and remain competitive and relevant," said Mr Chiu Chih-wei, a DPP lawmaker.

Language experts say Taiwan's competitiveness is at stake.

As Shih-Chien University language expert Chen Chao-ming told The Straits Times: "It is about ensuring that people in Taiwan can still close business deals and get jobs in a highly competitive world where only the best talent who can communicate easily will survive."

While most people in Taiwan have a basic understanding of English, business people, service staff and taxi drivers struggle to hold a conversation in English. The Education Ministry says it is promoting the use of English in schools and boosting teaching standards.

But more needs to be done, said Professor Chen, who compiled Taiwan's first White Paper on making English the second official language in Taiwan in 2015.

He said: "Mastering English has to go beyond classrooms. The government must view English not as an education in which one memorises grammar and vocabulary, but a way of life."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 10, 2017, with the headline Tainan leads push to boost English in Taiwan. Subscribe