In Bilingual Nation Plan, Culture Remains Absent

Though sweeping in its ambition, the Bilingual Nation plan seems to have largely overlooked one key area: culture.

The Blueprint refers to “promoting bilingual services at cultural and educational venues,” but neglects the need to address cultural influences in a larger sense – factors that need to be taken into account in any attempt to increase bilingualism, according to Taiwanese and foreigners working in the cultural field.

“We always talk about culture in relation to the arts, but it’s much more than that,” says Paul Whiteley, who has performed in international musicals including The Phantom of the Opera and Billy Elliot and is now working as a performer, producer, and director in Taiwan. “Culture is the representation of the history and development and the voice of a society – how we express ourselves, how we communicate with each other.”

Whiteley, who was one of the first to gain an Employment Gold Card based on expertise in the arts and culture, says that he was concerned by the absence of the word “culture” from the 2030 Blueprint. “They are missing out on a huge part of what bilingual means, which is factoring in the cultures of other countries and how that is going to have an impact on foreigners wanting to come here and create a life in this country.”

Instead, the Ministry of Culture is focused on “retaining traditional Taiwanese culture and indigenous arts,” he says.

To cater to the bilingual community, in January Whiteley presented Bright Lights for Dark Nights, a collection of Broadway and West End classics sung by himself and four other performers (one American and three Taiwanese), accompanied by Taiwanese musicians. Chinese translations of the lyrics were projected onto the stage.

Also crossing the cultural divide is Derek Lin, a Taiwanese producer, writer, and composer. He wants to present Taiwan’s culture to the world, but in a format that the world can understand: an English-language, Broadway-style musical. In 2014, his musical Zeelandia – set in the period of the Dutch colonization of Taiwan – became the first full-length English original musical created and produced by a Taiwanese team. Now he is rewriting the musical and planning for another stage production in August.

Lin says that while government officials seem serious about wanting to promote a bilingual environment, “I think it needs more time for them to understand that ‘bilingual’ should be more than just translating websites into English.”

“If the population is going to be bilingual naturally, they have to be able to think in both Mandarin and English,” he says. “To have the ability to create using a different language takes more than just understanding that language. You have to understand the culture.”

The previous production of Zeelandia projected Chinese subtitles onto the bottom of the stage, much like a movie. But with advances in technology, it may be possible to view subtitles through augmented reality (AR) glasses, Lin says. “We’re betting that just as people enjoy Hollywood movies and read the subtitles, they can also enjoy a theater piece and read from the subtitles.”

So far, the Ministry of Culture’s involvement in the Bilingual Nation plan appears to be limited to setting up an international video-streaming platform that is slated to produce programs about Taiwan in English – with subtitles in Chinese and English – to promote the island to the world.

The Ministry of Culture has commissioned the official Central News Agency (CNA) to operate a pilot project that is being launched this month. CNA was tapped after the Ministry’s initial choice, the Public Television Service (PTS), expressed concerns that the project would undermine its independence.

Asked about the role of culture in the 2030 plan, the Ministry referred to the video-streaming project. It said the platform would “convey our culture and values to the world, while shaping Taiwan’s brand identity, constructing our country’s international discourse power, and enhancing international people’s knowledge and understanding of Taiwan.” It expressed hope that the platform will become “the most internationally trusted Asian emerging media brand.”

“In this way,” the Ministry said, “it will also promote and spur the development of domestic related industries, and cultivate international communication and technical talents.”