Language Diplomacy and Bilingual Ambitions in Taiwan

Language Diplomacy and Bilingual Ambitions in Taiwan

Language Diplomacy and Bilingual Ambitions in Taiwan

In November 2020, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) declared her goal to turn Taiwan into a bilingual country within 10 years. Tsai’s “Bilingual Nation by 2030” agenda is aimed at achieving a high degree of English proficiency among the Taiwanese public. Taipei’s bilingual ambitions are related to several of its diplomatic and economic goals. First, Taiwan hopes to attract more foreign investment and increase international trade opportunities. The government also sees English language capacity as a means to improve international cooperation and strengthen its ties with the global community. Taiwan’s promotion of English learning—coupled with the suggestion from the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT, 美國在台協會) that Taiwan could help replace China’s closing Confucius Institutes—could be an effective method of bolstering US-Taiwan cooperation on language instruction and exchanges.

Bilingual Nation by 2030

Taiwan’s government has highlighted several specific goals in order to achieve national bilingualism. First, English will be used to teach other non-language subjects such as math. To teach in this format, teachers will need higher levels of English fluency and more diverse vocabulary, so the government is working to organize teacher training programs. Second, the government aims to improve translations of relevant government documents and websites for foreigners and international businesses, helping to remove language barriers that could prevent some companies from establishing operations in Taiwan.

Since the announcement of the national bilingual policy, few updates have been reported by the national government. By contrast, some cities and counties in Taiwan—including Taipei, New Taipei, and Pingtung—have publicized their plans to enhance English-language education. These new programs generally focus on improving training for Taiwanese teachers of English and hiring native English speakers. However, the wide variety of strategies at the local level has complicated the national implementation of English learning. For instance, Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) stated that English classes must be taught in at least one-third English to be considered bilingual, but many cities and counties have not specified what exactly a bilingual class entails and how it differs from current teaching methods.

Challenges to Promoting English

Systemic issues make English education in Taiwan a struggle. The largest discrepancy exists between the government focus on communicative teaching on the one hand, and the written exams required for entering high schools and universities [1] and those in the job market [2] on the other. Even students have noted these issues and agreed that a shift in focus from testing to communication and critical thinking would be beneficial. When discussing such a potential shift, Taiwan’s former National Development Council Minister, Chen Mei-ling (陳美伶), said, “Gone is the emphasis on exams.” However, universities still often require students to achieve certain scores on English tests in order to graduate, which may compel teachers to prioritize exam content over practicing effective communication. [3] Scholars have suggested that Japan’s focus on testing will remain the biggest hindrance to reaching its English education goals until serious changes are made. [4] Taiwan has a similar cultural focus on testing, and changing this will be more challenging than a simple shift in rhetorical focus toward communicative language teaching.

Moreover, some foreign commentators have expressed negative views of the bilingual policy. One argument is that, due to the rigid structure of the education system and the relative unimportance of English for most Taiwanese, “bilingual by 2030 will of course fail.” Others have pointed out that true nationwide bilingualism would mean intensive language classes for preschoolers as well as the elderly, a truly massive undertaking for the government to accomplish.

Urban-Rural Divide

There are also issues of equity in language education, especially given the disparities between urban and rural areas and between low-income and high-income families. To this end, Minister Chen has suggested that expanding internet access could help to overcome these divides in terms of language education. However, online English learning resources are not enough to resolve this discrepancy. The online education resources available to students in rural areas are on average much less substantial than those available to urban students. Rural students are also less likely to encounter foreigners or have access to movie theaters showing movies in English. [5] Furthermore, teachers in rural areas often have limited access to training programs. The divide between the language abilities of low-income students versus high-income students is rooted in similar issues of access to resources and other forms of assistance. Not all students, for instance, are able to afford the test preparation offered at cram schools, thus putting them at a disadvantage compared to more affluent peers. [6] This divide is likely to widen in coming years as English listening comprehension (emphasized much more in cram schools than public schools) becomes a focus in entrance exams. Although improving the overall quality of language education in public schools would generally help improve students’ English proficiency, the government may want to consider policies that specifically aim to help underserved groups.

Hiring English Language Teachers

One area where the current English education policy does well—at least in name—is its focus on training local teachers. While foreign teachers do offer some benefits to the classroom—knowledge of Western culture and fluency in spoken English, [7] for example—reliance on foreign teachers is not without drawbacks. Taiwan has struggled to hire foreign teachers in the past, and many foreign teachers arrive in Taiwan with little language education training or experience. They may also lack the Chinese-language skills needed to communicate with students. On the other hand, Taiwanese teachers structure their classes in a way familiar to their students, understand the grammatical struggles their students face, share the same culture, and can communicate in Chinese. However, Taiwanese teachers themselves often admit their English language training is not always sufficient. Accordingly, better training for local teachers may be one step towards improved language education.

Although deeper, systemic issues create the greatest challenges, short term problems exist as well. With Taiwan on a compressed timeline—hoping to achieve nationwide bilingualism in under 10 years—problems that set Taiwan back just one or two years must be acknowledged. In this regard, COVID-19 created a wealth of problems, particularly by complicating the already challenging process of securing foreign employees. As a result of the virus, travel restrictions, visa complications, and other logistical issues, hiring foreign teachers for language classes is harder than before, a dynamic which is unlikely to change for a few years. For instance, Pingtung County had to stop hiring foreign teachers in 2020. Initially, the county had hoped to hire enough English teachers to staff nearly 200 schools within two years, but with only 25 foreign teachers at 48 schools, this goal seems distant.

Image: A still image from a promotional film for the Fulbright Taiwan English Teaching Assistant program, showing an American English teacher at work in an elementary school in Yilan (宜蘭) in northeast Taiwan. (Source: Fulbright Taiwan ETA)

Programs designed to include English in everyday life in Taiwan have been proposed as a means to contribute to an immersive environment, such as through new English TV stations and other media outlets, but these may not succeed in the way the government imagines. While foreigners might appreciate multilingual signs and websites, it is misleading to present these changes as contributing to the creation of an immersive environment in Taiwan. Linguistics research has found that language immersion is not a straightforward tool to use. [8] For instance, immersion alone is often not an effective way for most adults to learn a second language. [9] Indeed, adults generally benefit from explicit instruction on a language’s grammatical features. [10]

Some critics have suggested that Taiwan switch its approach to English education entirely, proposing, for instance, that Taiwan establish a professional translation bureau. Companies could then outsource translation tasks and rely on quick, high-quality, professional translations rather than relying on internal workers who do not specialize in translation. Although such an approach would doubtless have its own problems, a well-established translation service could potentially help Taiwan achieve some of the more strategic aspects of its language policy goals, particularly those related to international investment and competition.

In terms of English-language education, Singapore is often cited as an ideal example for Taiwan. However, the Southeast Asian city-state had its language environment irrevocably altered during its time as a British colony. Government officials in Taiwan have acknowledged this historical difference but still consider the Singaporean model as the ultimate goal. One proposal recommends authorizing English kindergarten programs, which for now are private and not fully legal. Providing authorization could help lower the cost of such programs, making them available to a wider range of families, while also allowing for better regulation overall.

Opportunities for US-Taiwan Collaboration

Despite these struggles, there are areas for Taiwan to cooperate with the United States and other countries on language education as a form of education diplomacy. The US Fulbright program sends about 145 English Teaching Assistants to Taiwan annually, one of the largest Fulbright programs in any country. By contrast, the United States has recently paused all Fulbright and Peace Corps programs in China and Hong Kong indefinitely. Fulbright also sends Taiwanese teachers to the United States to help teach Chinese language classes. For American students, learning Mandarin Chinese from Taiwanese teachers can help expose them to Taiwanese politics and other issues they might not otherwise learn from Chinese instructors. For Taiwan, this type of soft diplomacy is likely an important part of its strategy to remain close to the United States.

With Mandarin Chinese becoming increasingly popular for Americans and other students to study, there are areas in which Taiwan could offer reciprocal language education opportunities. As Chinese language centers in Taiwan offer a noteworthy contribution to Taiwan’s economy, such efforts could yield both diplomatic and financial benefits. The Language Flagship, a US government-funded initiative to help improve Americans’ skills in critical languages, added a location at Taiwan’s National Taiwan University in 2019. In the future, Taiwan may look to increase the reach of its language diplomacy beyond its borders. Because many US universities have recently shut down Chinese-funded Confucius Institutes on their campuses, Taiwan may be able to slip easily into those voids and fill similar demands. Some members of Congress have expressed support for this idea.

In December 2020 the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) and Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) in Washington, DC signed a memorandum regarding international education, emphasizing language education. The memorandum particularly emphasizes newer teaching methods such as content-based instruction and greater opportunities for teachers through programs such as Fulbright. This step towards closer cooperation between these two institutions could also be a way to address some of the extant education issues discussed above.

 Taiwan is also looking to increase its education connections with Europe. A new program announced by Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) aims to bring European students to Taiwanese universities to study in various fields, including Chinese language. Some Taiwanese universities are also planning programs to enable European students to assist with English programs. The MOFA directly attributed these plans to the 2030 bilingualism goal. More generally, Taiwanese universities are being encouraged to increase the number of graduate degrees available in English for both local and foreign students.

Although Taiwan’s language education issues are complex and difficult to solve, approaching them realistically and with a unified national strategy will help Taiwan establish a successful language policy much more quickly. Language education does provide some valuable opportunities for diplomacy, and Taiwan should continue to investigate such avenues. Nonetheless, revising the “bilingual by 2030” catchphrase to represent a more concrete, realistic goal could have a more positive impact in the long run.

The main point: Taiwan’s “Bilingual Nation by 2030” policy, while an impressive goal, would benefit from better communication between levels of government and simpler, more immediate objectives.

[1] Peter Iori Kobayashi, “English in Taiwan,” in Kingsley Bolton, Werner Botha, and Andy Kirkpatrick (eds.) The Handbook of Asian Englishes (John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 2020):547-567. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/9781118791882.ch23

[2] Gareth Price, “English for all? Neoliberalism, globalization, and language policy in Taiwan,” in Language in Society 43.5 (2014): 567-589. https://www.jstor.org/stable/43904599?casa_token=dJxK9e5RRaYAAAAA:vmlWQhkatT3b_oo93Gc1b5vuyPRvJ9c6bZd9SVM-XjVnpNc94R1BoMeThyskeoCa8QkiS0pBdmCcLXPxk0JPQJ4ZcpwZzmwYvcE1KOSAz7JxPHErSKs8

[3] See [1]

[4] Mitsuyo Sakamoto, “Moving towards effective English language teaching in Japan: Issues and challenges,” Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 33.4 (2012): 409-420. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01434632.2012.661437

[5] See [1]

[6] Jihyeon Jeon and Yoonhee Choe, “Cram Schools and English Language Education in East Asian Contexts,” The TESOL Encyclopedia of English Language Teaching (2018): 1-14. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/9781118784235.eelt0668

[7] Fan-Wei Kung, “Reexamining the NS and NNS dichotomy in Taiwanese higher EFL education,” The Asia-Pacific Education Researcher 24.1 (2015): 27-34. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40299-013-0155-0

[8] Claudia G. Cervantes-Soon et al, “Combating inequalities in two-way language immersion programs: Toward critical consciousness in bilingual education spaces,” Review of Research in Education 41.1 (2017): 403-427. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.3102/0091732X17690120

[9] William Littlewood and Baohua Yu, “First language and target language in the foreign language classroom,” Language Teaching 44.1 (2011): 64-77. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/language-teaching/article/abs/first-language-and-target-language-in-the-foreign-language-classroom/D8A726E9B0804DE9C09FCD37E32C1EFA

[10] Robert M. DeKeyser, “Age in learning and teaching grammar,” The TESOL Encyclopedia of English Language Teaching (2018): 1-6. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1002/9781118784235.eelt0106