On June 2, 2022, the Taipei Times published an article titled “Bilingual Policy Deserves Support” by Peter Whittle.
From the onset, I think it is important for me to explicitly state that I support bilingual education. I think that idea may get lost in some of my criticism of policy in this blog and my other writings, particularly for readers who do not know me personally.
But Taiwan’s policy leaves much to be desired, and it deserves critique rather than an open acceptance. One can both generally support the overall idea of a bilingual policy while still desiring for it to be improved. From this perspective, I disagree with Whittle’s call for “full support from all sections of society.”
There is a lot to unpack in Whittle’s commentary, but I will mainly focus on one statement, specifically in terms of education:
The policy does not put English on a pedestal above any local language. It does not even accord it equal status with Mandarin as an official language.
The statement Whittle makes here is not false if reading the policy alone, but I am not sure it reflects the political intention and implementation reality of the policy.
Let me begin with “equal status” of Mandarin and English.
The original Blueprint describes President Tsai’s hope of “equal importance … attached to Chinese and English” (National Development Council, 2018, p. 2), and Ferrer and Lin (2021), among several other scholars, have commented on the English dominance in the policy.
Does the policy give English status as an official language? No.
Has there been a push by some in the government toward this for a long time? Yes, for over a decade, and some might suggest the bilingual policy is another stepping stone toward achieving that goal (Wang, 2021).
As for local languages, the Blueprint says the following:
Side by side with implementation of the bilingual nation policy, equal importance will also be attached to the promotion of native language culture. (National Development Council, 2018, p. 5)
The policy’s text clearly supports Whittle’s claim, but policy does not always reflect implementation reality. I would argue that implementation reality is what matters most.
In schools, national languages are allocated one period per week in elementary and junior high (exception Grade 9 with zero periods), and two course credits in high school. Compare this with the bilingual policy which generally calls for English to be incorporated in 1/3 of the curriculum.
This objectively is far from equal and is hardly sufficient to revitalize these languages. Whittle likely knows this given his criticism of the English curriculum in the article.
The government’s language policy has two parallel axes: to ensure the preservation and development of national languages, and to enhance people’s English proficiency. There is no conflict between these two missions.
This is exactly the problem: “two parallel axes.” The two axes are the cause of unequal treatment and is why people perceive one policy as a threat to the other.
I think there is a need for one language-in-education policy that promotes plurilingualism and is clear on the role of each language within the school.
Let me give an example of what this might look like:
- A national language could be used for administrative and procedural purposes—that is, school announcements, assemblies, and classroom management/rapport.
- Academic instruction would happen predominantly in Mandarin.
- English would be incorporated throughout the curriculum in the form of task-based learning.
This is simply one option. Another would be to incorporate a translanguaging approach throughout the curriculum that eliminates such hard boundaries between languages. There are, of course, other options as well.
The point is, if Taiwan truly wants to give equal status to all its languages, it should create a comprehensive and unified policy to do so, not treat them in separate documents through “two parallel axes.”
I agree with Whittle in principle that raising English proficiency and revitalizing national languages alongside Mandarin “can deliver enormous benefits.”
But as it stands currently, my view is that this goal is not being approached “with sufficient imagination and determination.”