Fri, Sep 07, 2018 - Page 8 News List

English as national language a mere slogan

By Chang Sheng-en 張聖恩

The Chinese National Federation of Industries released a white paper in July calling on the government to promote the use of English to “increase the internationalization and visibility of Taiwan.”

In response, Premier William Lai (賴清德) last month pledged to propose a “bilingual country” policy next year that would aim to make English a “second official language.”

There is a legitimate reason for the federation’s call.

According to the US-based Educational Testing Service, which develops the Test of English as a Foreign Language and Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC), Taiwan’s top 1,000 companies mostly require a threshold of 550 points on the TOEIC, which is much lower than the 700 points required by South Korea’s top enterprises in the 990-point test.

Even so, the average score for Taiwanese university students last year was a mere 517, meaning that many college students were not able to reach the low threshold.

Over almost two decades, each president has proposed a similar policy, then abandoned it due to the complexity and sensitivity of the issue. Lai’s bold pronouncement has stirred up controversy once again.

Apart from the high costs involved, academics questioned the necessity and feasibility of holding every government meeting and publishing all official documents in Chinese and English, while others expressed concern over potential drawbacks.

For example, Richard Lee (李家同), an honorary professor at National Tsing Hua University, pointed out that most bilingual countries in Asia are former British colonies. Tung Yu-li (董玉莉), a lecturer of English at Chung Yuan Christian University, warned that the measure might damage national identity. A newspaper even accused Lai of promoting “desinicization”(去中國化) by lowering the status of Chinese as Taiwan’s sole official language.

Putting aside questions of national identity and other controversial aspects of the policy, in the face of globalization, it would perhaps be more pragmatic to effectively improve the English proficiency of Taiwanese.

Universities should increase class hours devoted to English, and adopt practical materials and flexible teaching methods. They should offer bilingual or all-English classes to good students to prepare them for English in the workplace.

Unfortunately, many local universities are doing precisely the opposite. In an attempt to save money, most have canceled English courses, except for first-year students, while combining classes so that they can have more than 150 students each.

Meanwhile, many universities have changed first-year English courses from “compulsory” to “optional” to lay off part-time English teachers as the number of classes declined.

No wonder English ability among university students is worse than among senior-high school students, who last year scored an average of 559 on the TOEIC — 42 points higher than the average for college students.

The intention of the government’s policy is good, but it might be aiming a little too high. How can Taiwan possibly make English a second official language when many universities keep cutting courses and teachers?

If the government is determined to resolve the problem, it should start from the basics by fixing English-language education to cultivate sufficient talent while gradually building an English-friendly environment.

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