The Push to Make Taiwan Bilingual

Foreign and local teachers collaborate to stimulate student interest in learning English. Photo: Ministry of Education

The promotion of English proficiency is designed to increase competitiveness in the international arena.

To help ensure this country’s continued competitiveness in an era of globalization, the National Development Council (NDC) last December launched a plan to develop Taiwan into a “bilingual nation” by 2030. The goal is not to establish English as an official language, but to “create an English-speaking environment and make Taiwan a society in which people can communicate in English fluently.”

The NDC says the intent is to “help attract multinational enterprises to invest in Taiwan or do business with the Taiwanese.” At the same time, the policy is seen as creating “better opportunities for career development” and “stronger international competitiveness” so as to reverse the brain drain of recent years.

The national bilingualization goal was first raised in 2018 by then-Premier William Ching-te Lai, who had championed a similar program four years earlier for the city of Tainan during his tenure as mayor.

The national project recognizes the need for a major change in the way English is taught. “Most Taiwanese students have no problem with English grammar, but what we need to focus on more is the ability to communicate,” says NDC Minister Chen Mei-ling. “By improving the comprehension and conversational skills of the next generation of English speakers, we can elevate Taiwan’s international competitiveness.”

To that end, the NDC has drafted a set of common strategies for the various government agencies to follow, in addition to assigning individual goals to particular ministries. The joint strategies stress the creation of bilingual documents and websites, as well as the provision of front-line services and public-service hotlines in English to accommodate foreigners and create a more bilingual overall environment.

Among the more targeted assignments, the Ministry of Culture and the National Communications Commission have been tasked with encouraging the promotion of English through broadcasting media. Specific initiatives include an increase in the number of English-language programs on radio and television and adding English subtitles on certain television programs aired in Mandarin.

For its part, the Financial Supervisory Commission is asking banks to enhance their employees’ English proficiency and create a friendly bilingual environment for financial services. Banks are being encouraged to set up special bilingual service counters, and one to three “bilingual demonstration branches” are due to be opened next year.

In a change long sought by AmCham Taipei, the government will encourage ministries to provide English versions of tender documents for government-procurement cases with potential for foreign investment. The Public Construction Commission will also provide standardized English translations of key terms used in tender documentation for public projects.

Other specific initiatives are designed to raise English proficiency among personnel in hospitals, hotels and other tourism enterprises, and the science and industrial parks. Bus and taxi drivers will receive training in basic English communication.

Naturally the biggest responsibility belongs to the Ministry of Education (MOE), which has devised a 12-year plan for creating a bilingual school system. A number of laws and regulations will have to be revised to inject the necessary flexibility into the educational system.

Implementation is currently in the first of four phases. “The first phase is teacher preparation, and it’s the most important,” Deputy Minister Fan Sun-Lu told Taiwan Business TOPICS. This year eight universities received subsidies to set up English-teaching research centers, and 40 senior secondary-school teachers were sent overseas for advanced training.

In all, 10 Taiwanese universities are slated to establish programs for Teacher Education for Teaching Subjects in English (TETSE). The objective of TETSE is to make it possible for subjects other than English to be taught in English language at the elementary and high-school levels. MOE aims to have 2,000 teachers by 2022 who can teach subjects such as math, science, world history, and geography in English, and 5,000 teachers by 2030.

To start the exposure to English early, MOE’s bilingualization plan calls for developing effective ways to integrate English into preschool caretaking activities and kindergarten curricula. Another prong of the plan is to provide more opportunities for older students to gain more international experience. Besides setting up more exchange programs in partnership with foreign universities, the Ministry will encourage student participation in international forums, such as Model United Nations competitions.

Foreign students and their local host families gather for a pre-meal photo opp. Photo: Ministry of Education

The use of digital technology will be an important tool in promoting English learning. The authorities are conscious of the risk of widening the digital divide between the cities and rural areas, and therefore determined to ensure that computers and internet connections are conveniently available in all parts of Taiwan.

Minister Chen cites the examples of a junior high school in Hualien that conducts all music classes completely in English and an elementary school in Taitung that holds its graduation ceremonies in English. “I don’t think that the difference between smaller and larger cities has to be a real issue anymore,” she says. “The real determinant is whether the motivation is there.”

Also aimed at narrowing the digital divide is the Cool English Online Learning Platform that MOE has established in collaboration with National Taiwan Normal University. The platform is designed to make learning English a fun activity.

So far four programs are being offered. The Voice of America (VOA) movie English program consists of two-minute movie clips with Chinese and English subtitles and tests; a song lyrics game involves listening to English songs and filling in parts of the lyrics in order for the music to continue; “English Village” is an integrated gaming system for learning English through 3D simulated scenes; and a final system provides online help in detecting grammatical errors.

In addition, MOE plans to award scholarships for the professional development of certain teachers working in rural areas on condition that they return to teach in the same rural areas for at least four years. According to Deputy Minister Fan, MOE is also working on a pilot English-immersion teaching program for selected rural schools.

Over the years one of the criticisms of expanding English instruction in the schools is that it could hinder students’ ability to master Mandarin, as well as to learn one of Taiwan’s minority languages. “Our view is that the mother tongue is essential for a country’s culture, so we cannot let that disappear,” says Chen, while also confirming that the NDC places great importance on the cultural value of the minority languages.

Both Chen and Fan express confidence that the promotion of English will not impair students’ proficiency in Chinese or minority languages. They note that the bilingualization blueprint would not increase the time devoted to English classes in school, but rather would call for more subjects to be taught in English.

How will Taiwan be able to gauge the success of the bilingualization program in 2030? In considering that question, the government recognizes that no other country exists to serve as a case study. Some people have suggested Hong Kong and Singapore as models, but both are different from Taiwan in that they formerly were British colonies. The situation in Singapore is more complicated in that it has four official languages, of which English is one, whereas Taiwan aims only to improve the English comprehension and communicative ability of the general population.

As a result, the government has established its own set of KPIs and is closely monitoring the implementation of the NDC’s blueprint.

NDC has explored whether there are any credible international institutions that could eventually help rate Taiwan’s degree of bilingualness, the way the World Economic Forum and others evaluate economic progress. To date, however, no such resource has been discovered.

The NDC’s Chen stresses the government’s resolve to achieve an admittedly ambitious task. “Our market is not just China – it’s the whole world,” she says. “For this reason, we must strive to become bilingual.”

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