Improving English Proficiency in Taiwan Requires Comprehensive Change

The March issue of TOPICS focuses on the Taiwan Government’s drive to make the island bilingual. This is one of the few initiatives that has bipartisan support, and while it has taken flight rather gradually, it seems that it will only grow in momentum. At its heart is a recognition that Taiwan will benefit economically and socially from a population that is fully competent in both Chinese and English. 

Some have suggested that “bilingual” might be too strong a nomenclature. At least at this point, it seems we are moving more toward English proficiency than true bilingualism. In any case, whether improving English competency is just a first step or where we end up, this is the right direction for Taiwan. It is the best way to build global connectivity and boost Taiwan’s competitiveness. AmCham Taiwan’s annual Business Climate Survey always highlights the importance of improving Taiwan’s English capability and the international mindedness of its workforce. 

The goal of bilingualism is ambitious to say the least. It requires a whole population, young and old, to learn English or at least improve their current level over the next decade. The Taiwan government, with the National Development Council taking the lead, has begun putting together a plan to accomplish this goal, and AmCham and other international chambers are providing input.

I believe the focus must be on children’s education – particularly at the elementary school level. As the parent of three children presently in the local Taiwanese school system, I know that the current exam-based approach to English education – stressing grammar points over spoken fluency – will not work. This approach is outdated in any case and if we look forward 10 years, speaking and verbal comprehension skills will become more useful than writing skills.

Due to the rapid advancement of artificial intelligence, there are already apps that correct your spelling and syntax the minute you start typing a sentence. This type of technology will likely extend to all written media in the future. We must therefore prioritize speaking and listening when we teach English. Understanding and being understood is far more important that having perfect grammar.

We also need to consider how to use technology to teach English to the next generation. Taiwan does not have enough qualified teachers and young people already use technology on a daily basis. How do we increase the use of English for what they already do online? How do we get them interested in using the language? There is an abundance of rich, enjoyable English content out there, but we need to help children seek it out. The Taiwan government should expend at least some resources looking at these questions. It is not about how we use English now; it is about how we will use it in the next 10-20 years that matters. 

Finally, I would like to add my thoughts on the opportunity this drive to achieve bilingualism provides for Taiwan’s foreign business community to help out. No one is better positioned to lead by example than we are. The scope of what we can do is vast, but it can start with making sure our local corporate websites are fully bilingual, providing English training to our staff, and offering bilingual services to our local customers. I encourage our members to take a look at your organizations to see what you might be able to do to support bilingualism in Taiwan.