Tainan: Bilingual Policy Pioneer

OEASOL has helped vendors at several Tainan night markets add English-language menus and signs to their stalls. Photo: OEASOL

When I arrived in Tainan in the summer of 1991, not even the city’s main roads had bilingual signs. As an English tutor, I had to visit households in different neighborhoods, and thus quickly had to learn how to read Chinese addresses.

A few years later, romanization began to appear at major intersections. More recently, the city government gave tourists a helping hand by placing informative bilingual map boards throughout the downtown area.

Despite those improvements, outsiders who speak no Mandarin still face challenges when exploring or doing business in Tainan. Recognizing this problem, then-mayor William Ching-te Lai – later Taiwan’s premier – announced in 2014 that the city government would begin to promote English as the city’s second official language. The aim, according to the taskforce he established to oversee the policy, has been to “build Tainan into an international city with an English-friendly environment and enhance Tainan’s international competitive edge.”

An “English-friendly environment” would not only benefit foreigners, but also local English learners, explains Tien Linghu, who has served as deputy director of the Office of English as the Second Official Language (OEASOL) since its establishment in March 2015.

“Promoting the new policy to local citizens was a very important first stage,” says Tien. “In Tainan, some locals emphasize mother tongues such as Taiwanese. They were afraid that if we promote English, the next generation might neglect local languages.”

According to Tien, recent opinion surveys show solid public backing for the bilingualization policy. “The attitude of local citizens and civil servants has greatly changed, and there’s been a lot of positive feedback for the events we’ve organized,” she says.

In the early days, OEASOL faced some resistance within city hall. “Many departments feared we’d be adding to their workload, when in fact we’re trying to help them. City government employees were worried they’d have to write official documents in English, which they said would be impossible – writing them in Chinese is difficult enough,” recalls Tien. She notes that between 2013 and 2018, the percentage of Tainan’s civil servants who have passed the GEPT (the Taiwan-designed and administered General English Proficiency Test) increased from 23% to 50%.

OEASOL has worked with the city government’s various bureaus to identify essential or important documents that should be made bilingual. Translation work is outsourced, and the office has developed an SOP to ensure that every translation meets the required standard. Tien says the quality of translated documents has gotten much better over the past four years.

Tainan is one of Taiwan’s bilingualization pioneers. Not surprisingly, other local governments – among them Kao-hsiung and Taichung cities, and Penghu County – have sought advice from OEASOL.

As might be expected in a city that is one of Taiwan’s leading tourist destinations, several OEASOL initiatives aim to make Tainan’s culture and cuisine more accessible to English speakers.

OEASOL seeks to help foreign visitors bet-ter understand Tainan’s traditional culture. Photo: OEASOL

Last year, the office commissioned the writing and recording of a series of audio-guides introducing nine major temples. In July, the city government held an English-language speech contest for tour guides and temple staff at Nankunshen Daitian Temple in the city’s Beimen District.

OEASOL encourages Tainan citizens to think of “English as a tool they can use to win more business, not as a subject they hated at school,” says Tien. One of the office’s ongoing projects is the issuing of EF (“English-friendly”) and EF-Plus certificates to local individuals and businesses. So far, more than 700 shops, restaurants, bus drivers, taxi drivers, and tour guides have received EF certificates. Another 502 have obtained the EF-Plus credential.

Restaurants hoping to attain the basic EF certificate need little more than a bilingual menu they can show to foreign customers. Because translating ever-changing menus would have hugely increased the office’s workload, a new function was added to the OEASOL website. Now, restaurant owners wanting an English-Chinese bill of fare can download common menu components, piece them together, and print out the result.

For EF-Plus, a grasp of 20 to 30 relevant phrases is enough. Applicants can brush up on their English by reading and listening to sample sentences posted on the OEASOL website. The office then sends a native English speaker to evaluate each candidate. Certificates are valid for two years.

“The bilingual menu database is an initiative I particularly applaud,” says Peter Whittle, a freelance translator from the UK who has worked with OEASOL on several projects. “I’m pleased that I prevailed when advocating Hanyu Pinyin transliterations of distinctive Taiwanese foods, instead of using existing English names of similar foreign foods,” he adds. Accordingly, the database translates 粽子 as “zongzi” and 水餃 as “shuijiao,” rather than rendering both as “dumplings.”

In Whittle’s opinion, OEASOL is “doing a pretty good job of providing key information and signage in English, and putting a lot of good-quality English into the physical and online environments.” He qualifies his praise by describing the use of Tongyong Pinyin for place names as “the main deficiency of Tainan’s bilingualization.” In his view, “they need to ditch Tongyong and get in line with everywhere else by fully embracing Hanyu Pinyin.”

Tien notes that in the past OEASOL was “often on the frontline because other bureaus weren’t sure” how to implement bilingualization. “Now the responsible bureaus are able to do it by themselves.”

However, the office faces budgetary and personnel challenges. “The achievements of the bilingual policy are not often tangible, so many do not see the need for more budget or personnel in our office,” she notes. OEASOL currently has a mere four full-time staff, including Tien.

Private-sector support supplements the official budget. One foundation donated NT$20 million. Education businesses like Studio Classroom and Scholastic have provided free content and online memberships for activities like the annual reading festival.

“Policy continuity is another issue, as improving English proficiency takes a lot of time,” says Tien. “The reassignment of bureau chiefs can also have an impact, as some are much more aggressive about bilingualization than others.” 

Could OEASOL eventually work itself out of a job? “Ideally, when every city government bureau is capable of including bilingualization as one of their responsibilities, our office’s mission will be completed,” says Tien. “But we still have a long way to go, and there’s much work to be done by our office.”