Case Interview – Why Taiwan won’t be an English speaking country as it plans to achieve by 2030

Taiwan will likely miss its target to have a chunk of its population fluently speak the English language as it plans to achieve by 2030, according to a language professor from The National Taiwan University (NTU).

Getting the majority of Taiwanese to read and speak the English language fluently is key component to increase the nation’s overall competitiveness, according to the National Development Council.

Taiwan is currently aiming to become an innovation hub in the Asian region, and having a majority of the Taiwanese fluently speaking the language will hopefully help attract talented foreigners to live and work in Taiwan companies in highly technical functions. Currently, many foreigners are hired to do marketing jobs to the foreigners’ home country, leveraging their native language skills.

Focusing on the wrong thing

In an interview, NTU Associate Professor Karen Chung said Taiwan would not be an English-speaking country unless the government implements a change in the way English is taught in classrooms, instead of drafting laws to make English as an official language.

“Before we say that we’re going to use legislation to make English another official language, we first have to ask ourselves: “What’s a good way to learn English?” Normally in education, we don’t use legislation… to teach people, the first step is education, and I think that step has largely been missed in this whole process,” Professor Chung said.

Professor Chung taught at NTU for 30 years before retiring earlier this year. She taught English, linguistics, and phonetics, with a specialization in English listening skills and pronunciation. She also co-hosts an English teaching radio program called “Ivy English”, and writes monthly articles for the magazine English Island.

Improving but missing a key step of including listening training in the curriculum

“It’s [English-language usage among Taiwanese is] getting better and better I think especially since Taiwan is internationalizing more and people are having more contact with foreigners, which pushes them to practice more. The internet is also contributing a lot to language learning motivation and practice – but we are still missing a big step,” Chung said.

Part of the government’s 2030 plan is to enable more local networks create content in English. The goal is to make sure that students are not only good at taking English tests, but to us the language in everyday life.

“I think we already have more English television shows than anyone could watch in 15 lifetimes. Anybody who has Netflix has as much English TV as you could possible want. And then there’s always YouTube, if you don’t want to spend money on Netflix. There’s already so much English content available that you could hardly even scratch the surface of it. So that really is not what we should be focusing on,” she said.

“The one thing that’s missing from English education is listening. We have almost no listening training at all,” Prof. Chung said.

She explained that teaching English is like teaching Chinese to foreigners. You would certainly have a foreigner listen to and repeat the four tones right from the beginning.”

“Every language actually is pretty much the same: you always start with listening. If you don’t have the sounds of the language in your head, you will have no sense of what is correct. If you rely only on your knowledge of grammar and vocabulary, you will put together some sentences that no native speaker would ever say,” she said.

“If you, as [language learners], are just putting together your own sentences from the bits and pieces that you have memorized by heart for the test, you’re going to put together crazy sentences that no English speaker is going to understand at least with a lot of thinking,” she further noted.

How listening fast-tracks learning

Prof. Chung explained that our brain has two systems. System One is the unconscious brain that does things automatically, like getting up, brushing your teeth and getting dressed, while System Two is our “calculus” brain that requires a lot of conscious effort to function.

“Whenever we use our analytical conscious brain [System Two], it uses up a lot of brain resources. It’s careful and it can be very precise and logical, but it is very slow and it uses up lots and lots of energy,” Prof. Chung said. “Listening practice helps internalize and automate use of ready-made language chunks,” she added.

“Basically, the way English is taught in Taiwan, students are trained to use this very resource-hogging system to try to speak a language without having gotten enough sounds in their ears beforehand,” she noted.

Government needs a good PR to promote its Bilingual Nation 2030 plan correctly

In a separate interview, Jenna Lynn Cody clarified the wrong interpretations of the media and even of some government officials about the Bilingual Nation 2030. Cody, from the US, is well-versed with the Bilingual Nation 2030 plan, having been invited by the Taiwan government as a consultant during the plan’s formulation

For starters, she said that the title of the plan is a misrepresentation of its whole goal.

“I would say [the official title *Bilingual Nation 2030*] is not optimal. First of all, Taiwan is already a multilingual nation so it’s very odd to be using bilingual as a label. Officially speaking, the blueprint, the updated one, from the National Development Council specifically states that equal attention should be given to the promotion of local languages and other mother tongues, so that would be Taiwanese Hakka, indigenous languages and Southeast Asian languages because there are so many Taiwanese children who have a parent from Southeast Asia alongside English… I think Taiwan Multilingual Nation would be a far more suitable title,” Cody said.

Why is it called Bilingual Nation 2030?

“That’s the name that Lai Ching-te, the Vice President William Lai, gave the program back when he implemented it as the mayor of Tainan city and I what I can say is he was [advised] by people I know that this was not an optimal name for the program but he stuck with it anyway… and now everyone assumes the focus is entirely Mandarin and English and if you read the plan that’s just not correct,” Cody said.

Improving the conduct of business for foreigners

Regarding the English language usage among Taiwanese, Cody said the plan specifically involves improving the quality of English language instruction in schools through CLIA and EMI training, improving government websites documents and processes for foreign immigrants and business people and improving the English proficiency of people who will actually be dealing with foreigners in their daily lives.

Cody is a Delta-qualified teacher trainer and Business English trainer with a Master of Education (MEd) in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages from the University of Exeter. She has been in Taiwan for more than ten years as English Instructor, Corporate Trainer, and IELTS preparation instructor. Cody is also a contributing writer for Ketagalan Media.

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