New Approaches to English Learning in Taiwan

This school year, students in 85 selected Taiwanese elementary and junior high schools – an increase from 65 last year – are gaining exposure to English in courses aside from the usual language classes. In those schools, English is being used as a language of instruction in courses such as the arts, humanities, health, and physical education. The scope of the program is to be gradually expanded in future years.

The trial project – part of the 2030 Bilingual Nation plan – is based on the idea that languages can be more easily learned if they are treated as a natural part of life rather than merely as an academic discipline focusing mainly on grammar and syntax. Along the same lines, English classes in the future will place more emphasis on speaking the language, instead of concentrating on reading comprehension.

Another innovation under the 2030 Bilingual Nation plan will be the transformation of certain senior high schools, colleges, and universities into what are being called “flagship” or “benchmark” bilingual institutions. The Ministry of Education, which envisions the establishment of these specialized bilingual academies in fields such as finance and technology, has earmarked NT$979 million (about US$34 million) to fund the planning stage.

According to a December announcement, the ministry will prioritize institutions offering courses in such subjects as trade negotiation, intellectual property, semiconductors, finance, law, architecture, technology, and public health.

The ministry told TOPICS that by next year it hopes to have a list of potential schools for inclusion in the project, with at least one school where 30% or more of the departments are completely bilingual. The goal is for four fully transformed benchmark schools to be operational by 2030.

Taiwan’s education system has long faced criticism for its heavy focus on preparing students to pass tests at the expense of nurturing creativity. It has also been turning out students who are largely unprepared to use English to converse with foreigners or in a work environment.

Cram schools that hire native English speakers as teachers have become popular as a way of giving students more real-life English-speaking experience. Photo: Paul’s Quality Academy

The situation is part of the reason for the explosion in the number of cram schools, as some parents and companies look for opportunities to give students a more real-life English-speaking experience.

Paul Huang, who operates Paul’s Quality Academy cram schools in Taipei and Taoyuan, says it should be feasible for Taiwan to become basically bilingual by 2030 provided the education authorities make two changes in the system. The first is to group students in classes according to their English ability – not simply their age or year in school. “That way teachers can better cater to their needs,” he says.

Secondly, he regards it as vital – as the government appears to recognize – to gear instruction toward enabling students to engage in actual conversation. Huang says current practice puts too much stress on written tests of grammatical rules. “The actual usage of the language, like talking and interaction, isn’t really applied to the teaching methodology.”

The Education Ministry says it expects to recruit 300 more foreign teachers this year.

Even before the Bilingual Nation plan was published, some local governments had already started their own experiments in bilingual teaching. In some cases, they have been aided by a Fulbright Foundation program that has been bringing recent U.S. college graduates to Taiwan as English Teaching Assistants.

One foreign teacher at a junior high school sounded a note of caution about teaching other subjects in English, noting that the content of the course must be carefully tailored to match the English level of the students. He says that in his home economics classes, he is expected to discuss types of fabric such as cotton and polyester even though “the kids barely speak English.”

To achieve its targets under the Bilingual Nation program, the Education Ministry says that it will be pushing local governments to develop English education by 2030, offering subsidies for bilingual education at 7,450 schools, “professional workplace experience activities” at 1,000 schools, and “professional workplace courses” at 100 schools.

The authorities also plan to work with the American and British governments on English-language education. In December, the U.S. and Taiwan signed a memorandum of understanding to increase educational exchange, mostly by expanding existing Fulbright and Department of State education programs. In addition, the American Institute in Taiwan has announced that it will work with the Taipei, Changhua, and other local governments to support bilingual education by organizing professional development workshops for teachers.

The Education Ministry has also begun the training of bilingual teachers. In 2019, it subsidized eight teacher-training colleges to set up bilingual teaching research centers and develop teaching methods and materials. During the 2019-2020 academic year, nine teacher training colleges launched bilingual teacher training courses, with a total of 322 students enrolled. In 2020, 150 teachers took part in bilingual teaching classes.

For the future, the Ministry plans to increase the budget for teacher training. It aims to send 3,845 teachers abroad for short-term training and give advanced training to 5,700 teachers within Taiwan. The Ministry has also received assistance from the British Council in assessing the English skills of Taiwanese students. The results might be used as reference when setting KPIs to measure the long-term success of the bilingual policy.

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