Saturday, January 9, 2021

A Bilingual By 2030 Throwdown


Bilingual by 2030 is a complicated topic on its own terms alone. Using it as a hook on which to hang your favorite opinion without discussing the merits of the actual policy is not the way to go with this.

As talk about Bilingual by 2030 ramps up in political circles, so too has commentary about it. To that end, a podcast I recorded with Donovan Smith of Taiwan Report has just come out, and I do hope people will at least listen to what I have to say on the topic.

A lot of that commentary, however, seems to come from a place of not actually having read the National Development Council blueprint for the program. It feels as though many consider Bilingual By 2030 to be a nail on which to hang their favorite opinions and arguments but don't seem particularly interested in discussing the program itself

While some of those discussions are worth having — they often revolve around colonialism, linguistic imperialism and issues of equality — they’ll be better-informed and more relevant with a better understanding of the initiative. Through that understanding, we can also see that many other conversations — that students or teachers will be “forced” to take or teach certain classes and that goes against their “culture” — are perhaps less relevant. 

This time around, I'm not just a commentator with an opinion. I have a Master of Education (MEd) and the focus of my research was intercultural communicative competence in teacher training. Because Bilingual by 2030 references intercultural communication and plans for teacher training toward the program goals are still being ironed out, I wove that thread into my topic and discussed it at some length with my participants: all teacher trainers, an equal mix of local and foreign. Since then, I've been working with relevant training programs with both English language teachers and subject teachers at all levels: both K-12 and university, focusing in great part on EMI (English as a Medium of Instruction), which is more or less how the National Development Council has recommended this program be implemented.

As I discuss some of the nuts and bolts of the initiative in the podcast, I won’t go over them in detail here. 

There is one thing worth pointing out which we did not get to in the podcast: much of the criticism of Bilingual by 2030 comes from a place of concern over the preservation of local languages and relevance to Taiwanese local culture. Although the blueprint for the initiative addresses this, it’s still an extremely valid point. However, I worry that it veers too far into localist, hide-in-our-shell, don’t-need-the-world attitudes that actually imitate, rather than challenge, colonialist thinking.

If you’ve read your Pennycook — and I have — you’ll know that when the British colonized Asia (and the world), their particular brand of Victorian linguistic imperialism was not simply centered around forcing English on local populations. People reduce it to that now, but it’s only half the story. Their approach was a lot more subtle, and far more diabolical. They did promote English education...for the local elites, who were already wealthy. The plan was to co-opt them as loyal subjects of the Empire by giving them this tool for international discourse and an education in their mold. For everyone else, they actively discouraged the learning of English, and instead promoted local heritage and language through local-language education only, mostly at the primary level only. 

They used many of the same “preserve local culture, respect local values” rhetoric that language preservationists use today. In Hong Kong, they even took the “it’s a Confucian society!” route. The ultimate goal, however, was to divide people by class: an English-speaking educated elite loyal to them, and the workers who would create wealth for the Empire. They didn’t want the everyday people to learn English; their goal was never to eradicate local language. If everyone learned English, including the farmers, miners, laborers and fishermen, new perspectives on the world and new discourse tools would be accessible to them, and they might start getting ideas that they perhaps deserved more than to be a grunt worker creating wealth they would never get to enjoy. 

I am certain that those who want to focus on local/heritage language preservation today and steer away from English as a colonial language “irrelevant to local culture” have nobler intentions. They don’t want class divisions amplified by linguistic ones. I believe they truly care for local culture, that it is not a cover for some diabolical scheme. However, it’s worrying how much of this rhetoric sounds exactly like the old colonial arguments that sought to keep non-elites in their “place”. 

It’s also concerning that so few people realize that the results would likely be similar. If you tell people what language they “need” or is “relevant” to them, it is impossible to do so neutrally. You’ll always be making a choice about who “needs” it and who doesn’t. That’s the new linguistic imperialism. People have the right to make that decision for themselves. While my wish would be for people to embrace both international and local languages, that choice isn’t mine to make. 

If you want people to cherish local languages, support a change in local attitudes that comes from the people who would actually learn those languages. The general consensus of language education specialists is that while local language classes in school can’t hurt — and I do support CLIL classes in those languages, as well — that they tend to be most successfully learned in a rich local context; in homes and communities, with accessible and engaging media in those languages. International languages like English can be successfully learned in a rich educational environment (so, bilingual or multilingual education) as a robust global media environment and uncountable international contexts already exist where it can take root. 

And the great news is that Second Language Acquisition theory doesn’t put any sort of cap on how many languages one can learn, nor at what age they can be learned. How culture transmits through language is also becoming better understood, which I discuss in the podcast. To paraphrase someone I interviewed, with English it’s not like when the KMT forced [the Taiwanese] all to learn Mandarin. “At least we have choices now [regarding what to learn and how to learn it], we can say yes or no.”

That’s really the heart of Bilingual by 2030: the goal was never to force all Taiwanese to learn English, nor make students take classes they don’t want to take. It was to make Taiwan English-accessible and more open to the international community. Taiwan doesn’t need English because it is culturally relevant, it needs it in ways countries like Japan and South Korea don’t, but ones like Palestine do: to get its message to the world, to be heard, to be recognized, to fight back.

I’ll end with an anecdote which is not in the podcast, as I’m trying to offer additional material here. 

One person I interviewed discussed how being forced to learn a language that his parents didn’t speak was “brutal” — “it was like they cut my tongue” by attempting to sever their connection to the Taiwanese language. But English was not historically the language of local cultural oppression in Taiwan. That person was talking about having to learn Mandarin, not English. 

While one could say that one colonizer language is as bad as the next, and implying that English is somehow a superior foreign language than Mandarin is just taking the Great Power game from international politics to language learning, I would argue for a more thoughtful approach: both languages are colonizer languages in some places. Taiwan does not have the same history as Hong Kong or Singapore, so how Taiwan relates to English would be correspondingly different. Where those places discuss the legacy of English — not politically neutral and certainly not always beneficial — the more accurate comparison in Taiwan is still Mandarin, and English needs to be discussed on its own terms. While English has its own problematic history, with Mandarin, Taiwan can only reach the world through China. 

With English, Taiwan can join the international discussion, including the one taking place across Asia, and potentially counter Chinese hegemony. In fact, that’s probably the greatest value this language has to Taiwan: not centered on the West, or as only a tool to talk to the West, but as a tool to talk to the world, including their neighbors in Asia. That that language happens to be English is, in Pennycook’s words, not natural, neutral or necessarily beneficial, but it is true.

I offer a way forward in the podcast which I’ll summarize here: parachuting in foreign teachers with no clear plan or using “digital solutions” won’t bridge the urban/rural divide and let people from any community decide if they “need” English or not. But facilitating local teachers becoming teacher trainers themselves — many already exist but more would be needed — can put language learning into local hands and tailor it to the local context: both in Taiwan and communities within Taiwan. Eventually, that would mean that local teachers would be training new foreign arrivals; this would be an excellent development. Fostering a rich language education environment beyond language as a classroom subject to be tested via examinations, and focusing instead on communication tools assessed contextually would be a part of that. Recognizing and potentially sponsoring the higher-quality international teaching certifications would as well — those with sufficient practicum hours, external moderation and international accreditation. 

From my experience working with local teachers, there is enthusiasm for this, although some current barriers may seem insurmountable. Younger teachers seem particularly supportive, and research shows that Taiwanese teachers of all ages are open to these approaches but report being held back by the need to prepare for (largely useless) exams. The old story that people don’t want change because of “Asian culture”, “collectivism” or “Confucius” is quite a bit over-stated. Culture is not static, learners do have the ability to make choices for themselves, and, as both Kumaravadivelu and Holliday note, it’s downright paternalistic to stereotype “Asian” cultures so broadly or make statements about “what’s best” for every member of these cultures.

In short, if implemented in a principled way, Bilingual by 2030 is the government’s most thoughtful language policy yet...despite the unfortunate name and utterly bungled messaging. 

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