A Response to Taipei Times’ Improving Native Language Policy

On February 16, 2024, the Taipei Times published an opinion piece by Ng Siu-lin, deputy director of the Northern Taiwan Society.

In the article, Huang applauds the passing of the National Languages Act, specifically commending its promotion of national language courses from primary through upper secondary school.

At the same time, the author raises attention to several issues, namely the teacher shortage, lack of materials, and curriculum gaps between education stages.

All of these are certainly problems that need addressing, but I would bet that even if we could solve these three issues tomorrow, the outcomes of the national language curriculum would fall below expectations.

Why?

It’s very simple: the two key elements for developing and maintaining bilingualism are not satisfied.

What are the two key elements: exposure and need.

To keep this post brief, I will only discuss the first of these two elements—exposure.

Exposure is the amount of time a person is in contact with a language.

According to the national curriculum guidelines, elementary and junior high school students will have one period per week of national language instruction, except in ninth grade, when there is a gap. Then, in high school, students will take two credits per semester, roughly equivalent to 36 hours of instruction.

So, is this enough exposure? I would argue no, not if you want to develop so-called independent users of the language.

To be considered an independent language user, you would need to reach a B1 level on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR).

Every person develops language proficiency at a different pace based on various factors, but it is generally said that an average of 200 hours of consistent and quality instruction is required to move up one CEFR level.

Notice I said consistent and quality instruction. We will revisit why I said that in a moment. But first, let’s break down how many hours of national language instruction students will receive in their primary and secondary education.

In primary school, a class period is 40 minutes. An academic year has two 20-week semesters, so 40 minutes times 40 weeks equals 1,600 minutes, which is just over 26 hours. Multiply that by six years in primary school, and the cumulative hours is 160 hours.

If we are being generous, we could say students may be approaching a CEFR A1 level at the end of primary school. But, of course, this does not account for language loss during summer vacation. Remember, I said consistent instruction is required.

Let’s move to junior high, where periods are 45 minutes. Similarly, we have 40 weeks in the academic year times 45 minutes per week, which equals 1,800 minutes, or 30 hours. Now in junior high, the curriculum only calls for national language courses in grades seven and eight, not ninth grade, so our cumulative total is 220 at the end of eighth grade, which should be sufficient for most to reach a CEFR A1 level, assuming quality instruction, which the Taipei Times opinion piece has called into question.

But here comes the problem. That year-long gap in ninth grade likely brings students back to a pre-A1 level because people’s language proficiency recedes when the language is not used.

Now that students have entered high school, they will have to regain those losses and continue on their path to proficiency. In high school, students will receive an estimated 36 hours of instruction per semester, 72 hours per year. Multiply this by three years, and there is a total of 216 hours of instruction, sufficient for moving up one CEFR level, though, again, not accounting for summers.

If students enter high school somewhere below CEFR A1, then by the end of twelfth grade, the likelihood of them reaching the threshold for independent user, that is, CEFR B1, is slim. At best, I estimate the top students will leave high school with a CEFR A2 proficiency.

Therefore, if we actually care about raising the proficiency of national languages among students, they will need substantially more exposure to these languages. Unfortunately, the Taiwanese curriculum is already overloaded, so adding more periods dedicated to national languages is probably not feasible.

However, what potentially is feasible is encouraging all teachers, not just those teaching national languages, to find ways to incorporate these languages into their classes.

In other words, apply the principles of bilingual education to enhance exposure. Similar to how teachers are incorporating English alongside Mandarin in their classes as a result of the bilingual policy, there is similar opportunity to bring national languages into the mix.

Of course, this will require teachers to learn how to balance multiple languages in the classroom, which isn’t an easy task.

But it is trainable.

I think if we are already training future bilingual teachers to balance Mandarin and English, we can simultaneously encourage them to consider incorporating a national language as well to enhance the national languages curriculum.

In essence, we should not see the bilingual education policy and the national languages policy as two separate entities. We should approach them as a singular goal—promoting multilingualism in Taiwanese schools.

Do Taiwan’s Bilingual Classes Need Language Objectives?

A lot of teachers in Taiwan have been asking recently whether they still need to write language objectives, citing a professor’s post on Facebook saying they do not.

The short answer to this question is the professor’s post was true: the Ministry of Education is no longer encouraging professors to recommend bilingual teachers to write language objectives.

But, like most things in life, it isn’t that simple.

Let’s start with the reasons behind why language objectives are no longer being promotred.

Unlike in Europe, where they practice Content and Language Integrated Learning, often known as CLIL, the current trend in bilingual schools in Taiwan is to focus exclusively on content rather than balancing content and language.

Instead of providing explicit instruction in language, as would be done in CLIL, bilingual teachers in Taiwan are simply tasked with providing opportunities for exposure to English in their content classrooms.

To understand this distinction, it may be helpful to refer to a framework by Paul Nation called the Four Strands.

Nation proposed the four strands as a framework for foreign language classrooms, but this framework is helpful for understanding when language objectives are appropriate in the bilingual classroom.

The four strands are meaning-focused input, meaning-focused output, language-focused learning, and fluency development.

Language objectives are most applicable to the strand called language-focused learning. In this strand, students’ attention is deliberately drawn to the features of language, be it sentence structure and grammar or discourse-level features. In other words, it is teaching about language.

But generally, the teaching about language remains the role of English teachers in Taiwan, not bilingual teachers.

Of course, bilingual teachers may teach students to a few new vocabulary words, but vocabulary alone doesn’t constitute language-focused learning in my mind, because students always learn new vocabulary words in their content classes, even in their first language. It only becomes language-focused learning, and subsequently, CLIL, when sentence level and discourse level features are also directly taught, and in my experience visiting Taiwanese bilingual schools in northern Taiwan, that is rarely happening.

So if we are not doing language-focused learning, then having teachers write language objectives serves no real purpose.

Does that mean bilingual teachers ignore language altogether? No.

Though bilingual teachers may not do language-focused learning in their content classes, they should be facilitating the other three strands, meaning-focused input, meaning-focused output, and fluency practice.

To briefly explain, meaning-focused input and output are where students engage with English that is around their actual proficiency level. It doesn’t mean they have to know every word nor have to be 100% accurate, but they have to know enough words or be accurate enough to understand or express meaning. Fluency practice is similar, but the difference is that students would know 100% of the words and would be 100% accurate.

With this in mind, bilingual teachers in Taiwan do not need to write language objectives, but they do need to consider how students will engage in English communication in their classes. In my program, I refer to these as communication objectives. Bilingual teachers don’t need to explicitly teach language, but they do need to consider what and when students will hear, read, speak, and write English in their content classrooms.

So while the short answer to the question was yes, no more language objectives in the Taiwanese bilingual classroom, the longer answer is that bilingual teachers should be focusing on how they will facilitate English communication at the appropriate level for students in their class. Therefore, my recommendation is that teachers write communication objectives for each lesson, defining when students will be exposed to meaning-focused English.

Reflections on the recent petition calling for a stop to Taiwan’s Bilingual 2030 policy

On April 7, 2023, an online petition titled「雙語政策」有違國家語言發展法精神,影響國家正常教育發展,建議停止錯誤政策,落實多語臺灣、英語友善 [The “bilingual policy” violates the spirit of the Development of National Languages Act and affects the country’s normal educational development. It is recommended to stop the harmful policy and promote an English-friendly multilingual Taiwan] was posted on Taiwan’s government public policy participation platform Join.gov.tw.

According to this editorial in the Taipei Times, the petition received a maximum 5,000 signatures within three days, suggesting the sentiment to stop the Bilingual 2030 policy is shared by many (or, at the very least, 5,000) people in Taiwan.

Here is an English translation (my own) of the petition’s opening:

行政院強推「雙語政策」,不僅有違《國家語言發展法》多語臺灣之精神,更已嚴重影響國家正常教育發展,有鑑於此一錯誤政策對國家造成之深遠影響,為使學校教育重回正軌,維護學生受教權,建議停止此一破壞臺灣語言生態的中英雙語政策,落實「多語臺灣,英語友善」。
[The Executive Yuan’s forced promotion of the “bilingual policy” not only violates the spirit of multilingual Taiwan in the “Development of National Languages Act “, but also seriously affects the normal education development of the country. To set the country back on track and protect students’ right to education, it is suggested that the Chinese-English bilingual policy, which is harmful to Taiwan’s linguistic landscape, be stopped and an “English-friendly multilingual Taiwan” policy be adopted.

From this, we see two main points of opposition to the bilingual education policy:

  1. Concerns bilingual education will affect student learning outcomes.
  2. Concerns that bilingual education will affect efforts to revitalize local languages in Taiwan.

Both are certainly legitimate concerns and should be a part of the discussion around bilingual education in Taiwan. I’ll provide my brief thoughts on both below.

Will the Bilingual Policy Affect Learning Outcomes?

Regarding bilingual education affecting student learning outcomes, I believe this is legitimate if English is used as the exclusive language of instruction in a subject classroom, particularly if the students have lower levels of English proficiency.

But does English-medium instruction = bilingual education?

No.

And in fact, Taiwan’s bilingual policy does not require exclusive English in high schools (as I discuss here), and the policy for junior high school and primary school is even more flexible for teachers to choose how multiple languages may be used in class.

If teachers are properly trained on appropriately using languages in the bilingual classroom, I think bilingual education can lead toward positive outcomes for both subject learning and language development.

Unfortunately, I do not believe appropriate bilingual practices are being implemented at this time in many classrooms in Taiwan, based on my and my colleagues’ observations.

Proper long-term teacher training can help toward this end, but my feeling is the implementation is outpacing our current capacity to properly train bilingual teachers, and as a result, the potential for deficits in learning outcomes is real.

Will the Bilingual Policy Negatively Affect National Language Revitalization?

As I have written previously here, I do not necessarily believe the bilingual policy in and of itself puts national language revitalization efforts in jeopardy, but I do contend that the fact there are two separate policies rather than one integrated language-in-education policy is cause for concern.

A multilingual education in schools is possible. In Luxembourg, there are three languages used for instruction throughout the curriculum: Luxemburgish, German, and French. Garcia (2012) describes what this looks like:

“When children enter schools, they are first taught in the home language, Luxemburgish; but very soon the same teacher introduces German, which is genetically related to Luxemburgish, for initial reading and writing. Subsequently, the primary school teacher responsible for all subjects introduces French as a subject.”

[Later, in secondary school], “history is taught in German or in French, depending on the grade. Philosophy is taught in French when handling French texts, and in German or French when handling German texts. French is used to teach political economy, civics, mathematics, physics, and chemistry; but biology and geography is taught in German in the lower grades and in French in the higher grades. Economics is taught through the medium of French, whereas arts and music are taught through either German or French, depending on the grade.”

Bilingual Education in the 21st Century: A Global Perspective by Ofelia García

Could Taiwan do something similar in schools with a national language, Mandarin, and English?

I don’t see why not.

But it would require a lot of stakeholder support and a significant amount of coordinated planning and teacher training at all levels of education.

Concluding Thoughts

I do not think the general spirit of the Bilingual 2030 policy will inherently lead to the issues put forth in the petition, but I do have some major concerns that the policy’s implementation may very well result in undesired outcomes for schools and society.

Does this mean I support a full stop of the bilingual policy?

I’m very conflicted on this.

Bilingual and multilingual education has the potential to be of great benefit to students who receive it. However, this form of education is complex and requires a lot of planning and training. It isn’t as simple as just adding or changing the language of instruction–it requires changes in practices and beliefs among all stakeholders in all areas of the school. And to be frank, change takes time … perhaps longer than the seven years until 2030.

If Taiwan can accept that the road to a quality bilingual education will take a great amount of time, effort, money, and willingness to try new things, then I see no reason not to continue working toward this goal if society desires such.

But if policymakers, school administrators, and educators continue to think of bilingual education simply as “adding English in a classroom”, then perhaps a reconsideration of the policy is in order.