A Response to “Tips for Making Taiwan Bilingual”

On October, 10, 2021, the Taipei Times printed an opinion piece by Michael Riches titled “Tips for Making Taiwan Bilingual.”

I would like to provide my response to some statements in the article.

As Taiwan moves toward English-only instruction in 60 percent of elementary and high schools by 2024, with the goal of having a bilingual generation by 2030, the Ministry of Education is looking to ramp up the influx of foreign teachers. Hopefully the plans go beyond this simplistic road map, because some thorny matters need to be addressed. (para. 1)

I can assure you the plan goes beyond “ramp[ing] up the influx of foreign teachers.”

On teacher training alone, the Ministry of Education has implemented several programs to train and empower local teachers for bilingual education, including in-service teacher programs at 12 universities (NTNU is one), a preservice teacher program at 14 universities (I teach in the one at NTNU), and a scholarship program for bilingual education preservice teachers (we have 10 bilingual scholarship students at NTNU). Cities are also holding their own professional development programs, for example, the New Taipei City bilingual education teacher workshop series where I was a speaker last week.

There is a lot of activity surrounding bilingual education in Taiwan at the moment. Foreign teachers are only a small fraction of the plan.

With few options for students to practice their language skills outside the classroom, teachers in these countries sometimes wonder if the governments should just declare English a national language, as it is in Singapore, and aim to have it spoken all across society, from retail transactions to government services.

However, imposing a national language on a culture that does not need it is not realistic. Singapore requires a lingua franca to facilitate business and social relations across a variety of cultures. Taiwan, like Japan and South Korea, is not in that situation. (para. 3 and 4)

Yes, that’s a terrible idea; I am glad we are in agreement on that. Not only is it unrealistic, but it also is not needed and would cause more harm than good.

Language is more than just a communication tool: it is culture, history, knowledge,  identity, to name a few. According to the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, Taiwan has already lost 9 languages between 1950 and 2010. Several more are heading in that direction. Much would be lost if Taiwan adopted English in the way Singapore did (more on that below).

Outside of the French-speaking province of Quebec, most schools start teaching the language around grade 6, or age 11, when the language acquisition abilities of children start to decline. (para 6)

This is a misinterpretation of the research and a widespread myth. Francois Grosjean explains this in his article “How Early a Second Language? Misconceptions about age and second language acquisition.” The age factor should not be a concern for Taiwan, though there are many factors that are, one main factor being …

The government would also do well to consider the hardship caused by an overemphasis on standardized test scores. Exams are a constant source of misery for students and instructors alike. Teachers must often overlook practical instruction in favor of test-oriented content, and students come to regard English as another dreaded subject that must be studied rather than can be enjoyed.

Many students are able to master standardized tests without acquiring any meaningful English fluency, while others struggle with the exacting standards of the tests, despite having a high degree of real-world communicative competence. These exams have some value, but are not universal barometers of language ability. (para. 16 and 17).

Exactly! The current high-stakes testing system is not compatible with bilingual education.

Teachers feel pressure to complete a “coverage curriculum” rather than teach a results-based one in order to help students pass their tests. I see this as being one of the main barriers to a successful bilingual education policy. In fact, that’s where Singapore went wrong…

In Singapore, I learned that cultures are not always diminished by the introduction of a new language. Damage is certainly caused when languages are suppressed by decree, as happened in Taiwan during authoritarian rule.

Singapore has done the opposite, as it encouraged the use mother tongues at home and in some parts of the school system

No, Singapore is a terrible example and one Taiwan should absolutely not follow. Lee and Hua (2021), in their article titled “Examinations in Singapore’s Bilingual Policy: Effects on Chinese Language Education,” showed that Singapore’s policy actually turned into a monolingual one (though that was not the plan).

In Singapore, there has been a rise of English in the home since 1980 to the point that English is now spoken more than Mandarin Chinese in ethnic-Chinese homes.

Why? Singapore’s standardized testing system (see point above).

Is that the bilingual nation Taiwan wants to become? An English-dominant one?

Creating a bilingual society has to cut through … politics. There are no easy solutions to the problems that could crop up in this difficult task, but any consideration toward addressing these issues would be worth the effort. (para. 32 and 33)

Creating a bilingual education system is complex. It has failed in many parts of the world due to monolingual ideologies, and there certainly is no shortage of similarly inspired politics in many of the ideas being put forth in Taiwan

The author is correct—”no easy solutions” and a very “difficult task”—but I believe it is possible.  In education, anything is possible.