Aiming to Create a “Bilingual Nation”

The government is seeking to greatly increase the level of English fluency in the Taiwan population by 2030 through a variety of programs, mainly focusing on improving the effectiveness of English teaching in the schools. The goal is to raise Taiwan’s international competitiveness. But classroom learning will need to be supplemented through the creation of more “bilingual environments” throughout the society. 

It’s an ambitious goal: turn Taiwan into an English-Mandarin “bilingual nation” by 2030. With broader ability to communicate in English, Taiwan should be able to strengthen its business dealings with the rest of the world, improving the investment climate and creating more job opportunities.

Although the potential benefits are clear, more than two years after the initial plan was published, it is still uncertain which areas of public life and business will be most affected – or even how “Bilingual Nation” should be defined. The government has specified that the term does not necessarily mean designation of English as an official language.

Published in 2018, the Executive Yuan’s “Blueprint for Developing Taiwan into a Bilingual Nation by 2030” aims to raise the level of English proficiency among the general public so as to enhance Taiwan’s overall national competitiveness.

Much of the emphasis in the Blueprint is on education, including recruiting and training more English teachers, transforming certain schools and colleges into flagship bilingual academies, and encouraging more schools to incorporate the use of English in teaching other subjects, such as athletics and social studies.

Besides the changes in the educational system, observers say that if the bilingual policy is to have any chance of working, Taiwan will need to create more English-speaking environments, making the language an integral part of its business and cultural fabric.

The wide-ranging plan calls for improving the English comprehension and speaking skills of primary and secondary students, and even offering English classes for taxi drivers. It also envisions fostering a bilingual environment in the country’s science and industrial parks – for example, by encouraging the hiring of people with better English – as well as the production and broadcast of English-language TV and radio programs.

The authorities note that most government documents and legislation relevant to foreigners are already available in translation; where such materials are still lacking, English versions will be prepared.

Another key focus is on making life easier for non-Chinese-speaking tourists and expats. That means ensuring that English is spoken by personnel at museums and other tourism locations, banks, on the 110 and 119 emergency numbers and government switchboards.

The new policy direction has received some initial pushback from commentators within Taiwan. One criticism is that the plan appears more about convenience for foreigners than upgrading the island’s international competitiveness. Another is that the emphasis on English could undermine the government’s efforts to promote students’ learning of Taiwanese, Hakka, and Indigenous languages.

Anticipating those objections, the Blueprint takes pains to stress the broad national goals that the plan is addressing. “Promoting bilingualism will enable the nation to look forward,” the document reads. It “will enable Taiwan’s next generation to enter the future with greater competitive advantage.” As for the impact on fostering other languages, the Blueprint provides assurance that the promotion of native-language culture will be given “equal importance.”

The goals for the plan are more modest than the phrase “Bilingual Nation” might connote. The aim is not for all citizens to speak English by 2030, or even to install English as a second official language after Mandarin – an idea that the Blueprint says should be studied after 2030.

What the term appears to mean so far is to significantly broaden the proportion of the population – especially among the younger generations – who are comfortable conversing in English, which in turn should enable them to develop more of an international mindset. Besides increasing the amount of English taught in the schools and providing more opportunities for standardized testing of English ability, the program would also seek to raise the level of English competence in government offices by increasing the English component in civil service exams.

Attempting to increase the nation’s collective English skills and provide more bilingual information will be an ambitious undertaking. Corporate and government websites often use poor English, many tourist sites lack information in English or provide only partial translations, and Taiwan’s schools have long been churning out students who are unable to use English in what the Ministry of Education calls a “practical and meaningful way.”

No ready model

There is no roadmap for how to make a country “bilingual.” Taiwan can’t necessarily look to places like Hong Kong and Singapore for lessons on how to incorporate a very different language into its business and public life, as the ubiquitous use of English in those locations is tied to their colonial history.

Also, based on the experience of other countries that undertook similar initiatives, the 2030 target may turn out to be unrealistic. Reaching the goal of bilingualism could take much longer.

In response to a question from Taiwan Business TOPICS about its strategy, the National Development Council (NDC), the bilingual policy’s coordinating agency, said it will “cultivate bilingual talents in various professional fields,” improve the English abilities of civil servants who deal with international organizations and English-speaking countries, and expand Taiwan’s English-testing capabilities to provide affordable and convenient testing options for people.

To improve workers’ English skills and make Taiwan more internationally competitive, the Council says the government will create “benchmark schools” and “professional bilingual benchmark colleges,” promote English courses and relevant extracurricular studies at schools, increase the numbers of English teachers and boost their English-teaching abilities, promote English study for “all ages,” “create English-use environments,” and work with the public and private sectors to create new professional English-proficiency certifications.

Civil servants will undergo intensive English communication training in Taiwan and attend short-term intensive English programs abroad to improve their English communication and writing skills.

The NDC has disclosed that the budget for the first two years of the project will come to NT$4.1 billion (US$146.4 million), but did not provide a breakdown of how the funds would be allocated. The money comes from the government’s Forward-looking Infrastructure Development Program, whose mission is to build infrastructure to promote development over the next three decades, including “human resources infrastructure to nurture talent and boost employment.”

Questions remain over how the bilingual policy will be implemented, which areas of public and business life it will affect the most, and how the government will encourage the private sector to get on board.

“From what I’ve observed, there’s still the traditional mindset – let’s try to find ways of hiring more English teachers in Taiwan,” says David Chang, who initiated the now-disbanded Alliance for a Globally-Oriented Taiwan, a group of expats and Taiwanese who drew up suggestions in 2019 for how the government could implement the 2030 plan.

Expats and Taiwanese volunteer their time to offer suggestions on how to implement the 2030 Bilingual Nation plan, at a meeting of the Alliance for a Globally-Oriented Taiwan in 2019. Photo: Crossroads

“It’s not just about getting more educational resources, it’s about Taiwan’s greater internationalization,” Chang says. “How do we make a greater connection to the rest of the world so that English becomes more relevant in people’s professional and social lives? If you don’t have that demand, and you’re just going to be learning English for the sake of getting good grades, then I don’t see it really much going anywhere.”

The background

The Executive Yuan approved the “Blueprint for Developing Taiwan into a Bilingual Nation by 2030” in December 2018 after it had been drawn up by the NDC, the Yuan’s policy-planning body, with input from the various ministries.

The major policy objective was to cultivate people’s English proficiency by optimizing English-learning platforms and media resources to strengthen people’s English listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills. A secondary objective was to elevate national competitiveness – bolstering Taiwan’s industrial competitiveness, giving people quality job opportunities, and elevating the island’s economic development.

It is not the first attempt by the Taiwan authorities to raise the public’s level of English. According to the Blueprint, the past attempts failed because they were “mostly devised by supply-side thinking, emphasizing the bilingualization of the physical environment of government units, public signage, and tourism, etc.” – but unable to enlist public participation and support.

This time around, the policy will focus on “demand-driven supply,” equipping workers and professionals with better English skills, and using digital technology to reduce the urban-rural divide, whereby students in relatively remote areas may have suffered from insufficient funding for English teachers and learning resources.

The Blueprint notes that a country with a high standard of English has a better chance of luring investment from multinational corporations, creating well-paying employment opportunities. Taiwan must become a bilingual nation to “enable our young generation to have better development opportunities in their homeland, lifting wage levels as a whole and spurring the prosperity of our national economy,” the document says.

In the run-up to the January 2020 presidential and legislative elections, the bilingual initiative appeared to recede to the political backburner, but it has returned to a more prominent place on the public agenda in recent months.

The first 2030 Bilingual Nation policy consultation meeting was held in November with participants that included President Tsai Ing-wen, Vice President Lai Ching-te, Minister of Education Pan Wen-chung, NDC Minister Kung Ming-hsin, and leading figures from the academic and business sectors.

President Tsai Ing-wen and Vice President William Lai attend the first 2030 Bilingual Nation policy consultation meeting at the NDC. Photo: Office of the President

President Tsai told the meeting that the government was “sparing no effort” in transforming Taiwan into a bilingual country by 2030. She said a high standard of English proficiency would mean younger generations could better connect with the world and Taiwan could better share its coronavirus-combating success.

Initial progress

The NDC cites a series of areas in which “preliminary progress” has been achieved on the bilingual policy “with the concerted efforts of various government departments.” They include “improving the English level of relevant public and private services, encouraging banks to set up bilingual model branches, and local government household registration offices setting up English counters or providing English services.”

More and more banks in Taiwan are offering information and services in English. Photo: Louise Watt

To measure the degree of success of implementation, the Council has set up a number of key performance indicators (KPIs), including “the full bilingualization of official websites of each ministry and department; the bilingualization of documents, certificates, legislation, and press releases that are relevant to foreigners; and the provision of bilingual services at government public service areas’ front desks.”

“Already 95% of the documents, certificates, etc. that are relevant to foreigners are now in dual language, which is a good implementation result,” the NDC said in a written answer to TOPICS.

When the plan was first announced, there was concern that it would be too costly to translate the large number of government websites and laws into English, and that spending money on translation for the convenience of foreigners might spark objections from the public.

A YouBike “Sweet Notice” politely gives riders safety and other tips. Photo: Louise Watt

As a long-term solution, David Chang suggests setting up English departments, staffed with native English speakers, within government agencies to cultivate an inhouse international presence, rather than simply sending material to a translation agency. Chang serves as secretary-general of Crossroads, a non-profit focused on increasing exchanges between the Taiwanese and international communities. It has also lobbied the NDC in relation to the 2030 plan.

Obstacles to Chang’s proposal include labor and national security issues – the idea that foreigners are taking jobs away from locals and may even be spies – and a civil service law that makes it difficult for government agencies to hire foreigners, he says.

The NDC has been supporting amendments to the Act for the Recruitment and Employment of Foreign Professionals that would relax restrictions on employing foreign teachers in public schools and ease work and residence requirements for foreign professionals. The revisions would also extend more social security and tax benefits for the foreign professionals.

Although the government hasn’t specified the part that it would like the private sector to play in promoting bilingualism, AmCham Taiwan President Leo Seewald sees a particularly meaningful role for multinational companies in Taiwan. “Given their international connections and perspective, they are especially well-positioned to provide support to this important government initiative,” he says. “Their operations should be models for how to train employees and provide a high standard of bilingual service to the public.”

Some companies have long taken steps in that direction. For example, Citibank Taiwan provides extensive English-language training for its staff, either through one-on-one classes or in groups of four. It also distributes all internal communications, such as emails and videos, in a bilingual format to help equip personnel with the ability to communicate fluently in English.

For its part, PwC Taiwan offers group classes and workshops to help staff members practice their English. Workshop topics may include discussions about world news or the playing of board games, while group classes are more business-driven.

Such efforts are not limited to foreign companies. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC), the world’s largest contract chipmaker, announced in July last year that it had launched an “English learning zone” for its employees, with online English webinars, one-on-one consultations, and business English workshops. By August, more than 3,000 people had taken part in the webinars, the company said.

More needs to be done, however, when it comes to maintaining a bilingual online presence. An informal check just of AmCham member companies, who might be expected to lead the way in bilingual communication, found that only around 28% had fully functioning English websites, while 26% had Taiwan websites only in Chinese. Among the companies offering the most complete English-language services are hotels, travel agencies, and airlines.

Even for those that do maintain English versions of their websites, much less information is available there than on their Chinese-language websites. These companies are generally catering to the local market, and Taiwan’s push to attract more foreign talent hasn’t yet created an impetus for them to offer more English services online.

In the area of financial services, a number of local banks are working on developing bilingual branches. In December, the Financial Supervisory Commission said that 15 banks had opened a total of 69 bilingual branches since 2019, when it began promoting the concept and encouraging banks to help staff improve their English. E. Sun and Hwa Nan Banks have declared that all their branches will be fully bilingual by 2026, and First Commercial is set to follow in 2028.

But it is not yet clear how meaningful this initiative will turn out to be. Crossroads’ Chang remains skeptical. “They might actually have a bilingual person who’s willing to speak to you, but regarding banking services,” it may still be difficult for a foreigner to open a bank account, he says.

To some observers of the government’s bilingual effort, the biggest challenge will be finding ways to make English part of daily life. Before its disbanding, the Alliance for a Globally-Oriented Taiwan came up with several suggestions, including the designation of a National English Language Week once or twice a year and a requirement that all English-language movies shown in theaters display both English and Chinese subtitles.

In an attempt to boost contact with English outside the classroom, the Ministry of Education in 2019 started working with International Community Radio Taipei (ICRT) to produce “News LunchBox.” These English-learning programs for elementary and middle school students are broadcast at lunchtimes and are available for download.

Another prong of the 2030 plan is to create an English-language video streaming platform. The primary purpose is to raise Taiwan’s profile abroad, attracting more foreigners to the island for work or travel and thus contributing to building a more conducive environment for bilingualism.

“In Taiwan we always stay in our comfort zone,” says Ozzie Su, CEO of ZAShare, a social enterprise that organizes large-scale conferences on innovative education. “We have no environments for English-speaking culture,” he says, in contrast to cities like Shanghai and Singapore where “they are using English very naturally” at conferences.

“We translate, but that’s not enough” to have creative brainstorming, effective networking, and the sharing of ideas, Su says. “If you don’t know English, you’re getting nothing.”

ZAShare already runs an annual event that is billed as Asia’s biggest expo on innovation in education. This year, Su intends to expand it into an international creative content conference and festival in the mold of the Austin, Texas-based South by Southwest (SXSW) conference, which isn’t limited to just one industry. His hope is that by 2023, he can put on an English-only event, with no translation.