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.