Tips for making Taiwan bilingual
As Taiwan moves towards education only in English in 60% of primary and secondary schools by 2024, with the goal of having a bilingual generation by 2030, the Ministry of Education seeks to increase the influx of foreign teachers. Hopefully the plans go beyond this simplistic roadmap, as some thorny issues need to be addressed.
One of these problems is a frustrating paradox that foreign English teachers in Asia often realize after spending enough time in class. Countries like Taiwan, Japan and South Korea place great importance on the teaching of English, but their societies erect barriers that prevent the language from entering the culture.
With few options for students to practice their language skills outside of the classroom, teachers in these countries sometimes wonder whether governments should just declare English the national language, as is the case in Singapore, and aim to get it talked about across society, starting with retail transactions. government services.
However, imposing a national language on a culture that does not need it is not realistic. Singapore needs a lingua franca to facilitate business and social relationships across a variety of cultures. Taiwan, like Japan and South Korea, is not in this situation.
The paradox is that a language cannot really be mastered by a population that is not fully immersed in it. The crossroads Taiwan faces in adopting English makes me reflect on the shortcomings of my own officially bilingual country, Canada, in teaching French properly.
Outside of the French-speaking province of Quebec, most schools begin teaching the language around grade 6 or age 11, when children’s language acquisition skills begin to decline.
Consequently, few Canadians are truly bilingual, especially in the English-speaking regions.
At the start of bilingual policies in the 1970s, residents of non-French-speaking provinces complained of having to look at French labels on their cereal boxes and milk cartons, and resented the government’s efforts to impose language on those who didn’t need it. in their daily life. The attitude has spread through the generations.
In Taipei, the government should be prepared to tackle such prejudices against English. For example, Taiwanese students I have taught in the past have rejected my advice to practice fluency through “code switching” – by mixing languages in a conversation. I would tell them that a fun way to boost their self-confidence is to use Mandarin to fill in parts of speech that they don’t know when they speak English, or to insert English phrases into Chinese dialogue.
However, many students have told me that mixing English and Mandarin is “bad”, “rude” or “showing off”. In other words, Mandarin should be kept pure and the use of English is a cultural intrusion.
This is an unhappy attitude, because changing the code is a fun way to play with a language and make it a part of your 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. The ability of Singaporeans to change codes shows how bilingualism can add colorful aspects to a culture.
This can be demonstrated in the way Chinese, Indian and Malaysian 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 weakened by the introduction of a new language. Damage is certainly done when languages are suppressed by decree, as happened in Taiwan during the authoritarian regime.
Singapore has done the opposite, encouraging the use of mother tongues at home and in parts of the school system.
If the government really wants Taiwan to be bilingual, it would be wise to study the Singapore model to learn how it has preserved and possibly enhanced the country’s diverse ethnic cultures while living with English as the dominant language.
Meanwhile, the government would also do well to take into account the difficulties caused by too much emphasis on standardized test results. Examinations are a constant source of misery for students and instructors. Teachers often have to neglect hands-on instruction in favor of test-oriented content, and students come to see English as another dreaded subject that should be studied rather than enjoyed.
Many students are able to master standardized tests without gaining significant English proficiency, while others struggle with the rigorous standards of testing, despite a high degree of real-world communication proficiency. These exams have some value, but are not universal barometers of language skills.
The government also needs to understand that prejudices against English run deep in the institutions that fuel the school system.
I was fortunate enough to work 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 at how little input came from foreign English-speaking writers, all of whom had individual teaching and writing skills. With rare exceptions, Taiwanese editors have decided on course topics and structures without their input. The instruction sheets did not contain learning objectives, while the teachable vocabulary and grammar were chosen quite randomly, regardless of how they matched the topic or tone of the article.
Internal constraints have led to some strange passages. For example, for a beginner level article I was assigned to write about making tea, but couldn’t use the word “pour” because it was considered an intermediate word.
The awkward workaround (“take the tea out of the teapot and put it in a cup”) was stranger than letting the student guess the meaning of “pouring”.
For the advanced articles, we had to insert a large number of five dollar words, creating unreadable purple prose. I could go on.
Bringing these issues to local publishers was awkward and futile. Sometimes they would agree with me, but couldn’t allow me to change the outline for fear of their own boss’s reaction.
However, I must mention that editors have played a valuable role in creating great grammar exercises through translation and step-by-step learning. They were also heroes in handling the overwhelming logistics of assembling mountains of coordinated materials, often working 10 or 11 hours a day. My problems were not with them personally, but with the rigid structure in which we all worked.
Overall, it seemed that the system had been put in place to prevent “foreign influence” from taking over the “Taiwanese way” of running a business or teaching English – a bias that guaranteed. that the language is taught, but not well enough to threaten the culture.
Other Taiwanese educational publishers that I consulted seemed to have the same organizational structure, and as I browsed through their products, I could tell that I was not working on the worst of them.
It is a waste of resources to have multiple publishers competing to produce material on behalf of the Department of Education. It is not necessary to have fifteen magazines and several textbook companies fighting for contracts with schools when profits take priority over quality.
In tackling the reform of English education, the government is expected to absorb these companies, run a well-run textbook and magazine division, and send a set of high-quality products to schools across the country.
The ministry would be able to adopt internationally recognized methods of creating teaching materials. Professionals from around the world could be hired to write them alongside Taiwanese publishers.
I would also suggest including educators from Singapore and India in the editorial team to reflect English as a global language. This could help overcome fears that English will “Americanize” or “Westernize” Taiwanese society.
When approached as an international language, English can help locals spread their culture to other parts of the world.
The creation of a bilingual society must cross many layers of culture and politics. There are no easy solutions to the problems that might arise in this difficult task, but any consideration to resolve these issues would be worth it.
Michael Riches is a writer for the Taipei Times.
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