Showing posts with label education. Show all posts
Showing posts with label education. Show all posts

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Schools in Taiwan bear more responsibility for racism and native speakerism than "market demand"

There is no reason for these doors to be closed. 

When I first moved to Taiwan, I worked at one of the big chain cram schools. Every Friday, I had a class of rowdy upper elementary school kids. I wasn't very good at my job - frankly, I should not have even had that job - and they overwhelmed me. My co-teacher was an Indonesian woman who was simply amazing. Better than me, for sure. She probably still is, even though my teaching now would be unrecognizable to anyone who knew me then. The kids were awed by her; they listened to her. 

That school treated her well, though I will never know if we were paid equally (I can't be certain, but probably not). In the years after, I came to realize something: such respect is rare from schools in Taiwan, for both teachers of color and non-native speaker teachers.

These are two distinct groups - non-native speakers can be White, and native speakers are often not - but the way many schools in Taiwan think about both groups is rooted in White supremacy. Many will prioritize hiring, or only hire, White teachers. Others will hire only native speakers, but not native speakers of Asian heritage. Or they will define "native speaker" ridiculously narrowly - as though the term is possible to define at all.

Native speakerism is as wrong as racism in language teaching, an issue I've gone into before. The qualities of a good teacher include experience, quality training (which may not be the same as a certification, though some certifications are better than others), an appropriate level of English, the ability to plan and execute useful lessons well, preferably over the course of a complete syllabus, and who has good classroom management practices, and an open-minded, hardworking, growth-oriented mindset.

This is already well-known in Taiwan. However, when confronted with the issue, these schools will say it's "the market". "The market" demands native speakers. "The market" prefers White teachers. "The market" will take teachers who are not White, but no Asians. "The market" wants native speakers, but will take a European non-native speaker over a native-speaker teacher of Asian heritage.

The schools never examine their own role in how discriminatory the entire system is.

However, starting from that first year in Taiwan, it has become clear the market is not the main problem. Yes, one will meet racist or native speakerist parents and students; I don't deny they exist. But good teachers - wherever they come from and whatever language they learned first - tend to build strong relationships with their learners. Good teachers are usually successful in the classroom - even more so when the schools that hire them stand by them.

While some parents and students are unreasonable, for the most part, when asked to open their minds to a teacher who looks different or has a different accent to what they expected - they do.

The biggest problem, then, is likely the schools. Why do they insist that students and parents will only accept a certain type of teacher, when that's not necessarily the case?

For some, it's simply that they're businesses and don't prioritize education. As such, they're not willing to stand by quality teachers and take a leading role in changing the minds of the "clients" who do make racist or native speakerist demands.

For others, I suspect it's a manufactured preference: selling your "clientele" on the idea that White or 'native-speaker' teachers are somehow inherently superior, even though they aren't.

By the way, there's research to back this up, too.

You probably don't believe me yet, so instead of droning on about it, I'm going to turn my platform over to a group of teachers with varied stories, but who have all experienced some form of marginalization in English teaching in Taiwan. Note the key commonality: when their employers stood by them (and even sometimes when they didn't), these teachers all managed to build strong rapport with their learners, and in some cases the learners' parents. The so-called "market" was often open to instructors from a variety of backgrounds.

Let's start with T.'s story of a new colleague:

At the [school] a few years ago, they had a [private] practice of not considering Asian Americans for English teaching positions. Not that it was public. As the only female instructor, I felt it was essential to replace me with a woman, especially since three-quarters of our students were female: it's hard to prepare adult students to socialize in international settings without access to a female perspectives, experience, or role models.

I was disappointed--and incredulous--when someone told me, "no women have applied." Another employee showed me that several women had indeed applied, but that they had Asian names. I wrote an email to the entire office celebrating the fact that women had applied for the job and explaining why it was so important.
Because of the nature of the organization, and  Taiwan's constitution forbids racial discrimination, and because the director was a humane man, the administration took it seriously, interviewed Asian Americans/Canadians, and hired one.
Conventional belief had it that students would be dissatisfied with Asian-looking teachers, doubting the quality of their English. Instead, the new teacher was extremely popular with the students who valued her perspective of being of Asian descent in Canada and the U.S. The fact she looked Asian probably made it easier for our female students to imagine themselves navigating international business environments in English. So the belief that "customers" will be dissatisfied with teachers who are of Asian descent is outdated.
Even if it isn't, it's unethical and cowardly to give in to that as a business strategy--even when the problem is that parents of kids going to buxibans are unable to assess the authenticity of someone's English. Management needs to educate these "customers" and support their teachers, not cater to racism that sometimes exists primarily in their own imagination.
"Market demands." It seemed people were assuming they know what the "market demands," and were mistaken.
People will justify racist decision-making by saying they are doing it because someone else asked them to, as if they have no responsibility themselves for perpetuating racism when they enforce such "demands." It's not their own racism, it's someone else's that they are enforcing. It doesn't matter what they do or don't think if they enforce racist requests.

P. is from India, and holds a Master's in English Language and Literature. He's a native speaker just as much as I am; the only difference is the variety of English that he speaks.
Having completed by BA Honours in English Studies from a top university in India (2nd for Humanities and Social Sciences), I interned at a school through AIESEC in Taiwan in 2013. I was asked to teach some English lessons and share insight into Indian culture for a primary school in the outskirts of New Taipei City. It was a great experience and I got along really well with fellow colleagues and students overall. I was subject to occasional comments from students about how “black” my skin is and got questions asking me to clarify.
Wanting to pursue teaching in Taiwan, I started looking out for job opportunities. I was a young graduate, who was well travelled and spoke English as a first language – I thought the world was my oyster. I was reminded very quickly in all these ESL jobs forums on FB that I’m a “non-native” speaker of English, I have no knowledge of the “culture” to teach it and should go back to where I came from. These harsh attacks from both Taiwanese and White people in Taiwan.
I found myself a scholarship to do my MA in order to stay, and then looked for jobs. I was so disillusioned for 2 years. There were no opportunities. When some interviewers spoke to me on the phone, they would be so thrilled to hear about my qualification and experience. But when they saw me in person, they were surprised that I was not white. “We didn’t know you were black. Sorry we don’t hire black people.” 

The kind of racism I faced from White teachers was even more shocking. I expected them to be better allies, but they merely saw me a rat coming in to destroy the ESL market and reduce their wages. Even people I considered friends refused to let me help them cover their classes when they wanted time off – they too told me I was Indian and non-native so not good enough for the job.

I tutored math to a kid; I wanted to tutor the kid English instead, but they said I’m Indian so I should teach math, and they chose a white French woman with questionable English to teach him instead. Then I got an online teaching gig where I had to lie that I was Canadian or British. That was my entry point into teaching – I already had a student visa so they were happy to give me the job after a demo and a blatant lie about my father being a Western man. I did this for a few years.

After completing my MA, I started a PhD [but still had trouble finding a teaching job]. This gave me an entry point into universities as a lecturer. I must add that I only got this job because a White female friend left her post there and recommended me. I cried for hours wondering if it was real.

While students took some time to get used to me, we shared a really special bond every semester. They appreciated that I had a unique outlook to my teaching, brought creativity in the classroom, taught ESL through literature and had a more communicative approach in my teaching. Soon I found another part-time gig at another university. I was doing very well there too. I think I can say for sure that I was probably the only, if not the first, Indian to lecture at an English department in Taiwan. While this felt really amazing, it also came with its challenges. There was no scope for development, full time jobs at universities are non-existent, and no PhD means goodbye, eventually. They paid terrible wages for such a position.

This is why I eventually left Taiwan after 5 years. While I saw some success, the cost of it was much more than I could handle. Having moved to Vietnam, I make twice as much money, have professionally developed so much and work at an international organisation where my identity is seen as an asset rather than a liability or something to cover up.

R. is a teacher from Southeast Asia who speaks Mandarin, and whose English is indistinguishable from what some would define as a 'native speaker':
[I experienced discrimination at] one of those big high school chains. I had to take a test (which I aced) and an interview and the other two people they hired they literally just grabbed from the street because they look foreign. The job was to grade essays and we finished early. The two were allowed to leave early. I had to assist the front desk until my time was up. 

[In another job], I was told I spoke English too quickly at the interview. Then they went and called me a “bilingual” teacher and offered me 550 (with my 10+ years of experience) and said to my face that if a white person rolled in fresh out of college they would be offered 600. This was the moment I decided to stop speaking Chinese unless necessary. I made it my goal to be indistinguishable from a native speaker, a goal I reached maybe a decade ago. 

I don’t get repeat students too much because I teach mostly test prep so it’s usually one shot and done but I do get some students through word of mouth. And my business English students requested more classes when we were done with our first round.

Basically, the students I’ve had seem to like me. The problem is getting through the interview process because I’m often vetted for my ethnicity and passport.

C. has had issues with parents preferring White teachers, but once in a teaching position with school support, was able to be successful, showing that it is possible to fight the racism that exists in the market if schools would take a leading role:

I was born, grew up, and graduated university [in the USA]. I don't know how anyone could argue with me being American after that.

The first school I worked at I didn't know better, but I later found out that white teachers were often paired with a Taiwanese local teacher so that there were two adults to wrangle 30 students. Since I spoke Chinese I had to juggle my class on my own. I also discovered that the White teachers were paid an additional 20,000 NTD per month. I quit.

I worked at a language school as the administrative staff at [a well-known school for teaching foreigners Chinese]. Initially the school was hesitant to hire me because they said students wouldn't know who to go to if they had questions to ask in English. I suggested I should have a sign that read "English secretary". One more than one occasion the parents of a fellow overseas Chinese would come with the student to the office and demand to speak to the 'white lady' they'd spoken to on the phone. It sometimes would take me about 5 minutes to convince the parents that was me.

I have had parents and students quiz me about my English. One mother insisted my English wasn't adequate because she walked into the break room to see me eating a [typical local food] and a real native speaker of English would never eat that.

My current school generally doesn't print my last name on our public roster because of security reasons and because they've discovered my enrollment is higher when parents and students don't see the last name is [a common Chinese name]. My problem wasn't always hiring. My problem was staying the job, typically once the parents met their child's English teacher (me) and complained to the school about my Asian-ness.

Currently, I'm employed at [a language center at a major university] where my clients are the students themselves with minimal parental interference.

I got along great with my students. Currently I would say my students like me a lot too, I have several who have continued on with me for 4-5 years. It's a continuing education class so students can continue to enroll as long as they like.

In previous jobs my problem has been more parents, but it's also schools being too lazy to defend their teachers and just bowing to parental pressure. I mean, if a teacher (me) can help students score well on the TOEFL or win speech contests the school should go to bat for this teacher. Instead they let me go and hired a White teacher because that was the parental demand.

B. is a qualified non-native speaker who was denied opportunities as a non-native speaker, but whose nationality and first language were not an issue once hired:

I've faced this a couple times in person in my years in Taiwan. I'm from Mexico and that was enough to be denied opportunities.

My story is not particularly shocking or entertaining to retell, but living through it felt surreal. The contact person at one school (a private primary school, if memory serves me correctly) and I had exchanged a few emails, she had seen my CV, I went to the school for an interview, and she was very happy with our meeting. Everything pointed to me getting offered the job. Then she went away, left me in that office for a while and when she came back she said she could not offer me the job. I asked why and she matter-of-fact blamed it on my being Mexican. 

Alas, I couldn't get answers. It didn't matter when I pointed out my perfect [English proficiency test] score, my education at an international school, my experience teaching for many years, my teaching certifications - nothing mattered in the slightest. I was told one time at a teaching job interview, almost certainly at this one but I can't be sure, that it wasn't the hiring person's choice but the parents’.

I told her that her reason was insulting and absurd. She didn't budge. She didn't seem nervous or ashamed. Just matter-of-fact. This insensitivity was more than anything, what I found most confounding. I tried to keep my share of the dialog exchange short and calm to give her a chance to explain, to coax a better rationale, but I couldn't take the conversation anywhere. It was as if she simply couldn't muster enough empathy to stay present in our conversation.

I'd had many jobs before and since. I loved the two teaching jobs where I worked for the longest (at least six or seven years). I have experience teaching at all ages, kindergarten to high school, children and adult language centers, large class rosters and small, individual tutoring of children and adults, almost always English because that's where job offers are in constant supply, but occasionally was happy to accidentally land Spanish gigs too.

I first taught at that buxiban when I subbed for someone else. When they were ready to offer me a permanent part-time position they were unsure about my nationality. They asked me to take a test, perhaps it was the the GEPT, and when the perfect result came back they put aside all their concerns — if any customer ever asked they could proudly show them my score. So my nationality really was only ever an issue during job seeking.

Relationships with parents were rare but when they existed I always felt we had good rapport, and when we weren't in complete agreement about something it might be because they're surprised when I tell them their kid's participation in class is an asset. "my shy kid? That’s the first time I’ve heard that!" Perhaps people underestimate how different we can be in another language. I can't think of a single instance where a conflict with a student was at all related to my native-speaker status or nationality.

I tried hard to give them cross-cultural perspectives on linguistic prescriptivism, emphasizing that certain pronunciation of grammatical differences are normal for different communities, but I don't feel like they needed to listen to that from me in order to recognize that whatever linguistic differences were discernible in my own speech didn't take away at all from the quality of the education they were receiving.

S. is a Black American woman and talented teacher who has faced discrimination from "the market", but has been successful and popular with students when working in more professional settings:
I haven't worked at a school that was racist against me for the same reason I don't have friends who are white nationalists. They kinda already exclude me from their lives. [Years ago things were worse], but most schools that discriminate against black people nowadays tend to be [low quality] schools that are below my standards.

[In some cases] I lost performance points for things like "not smiling enough" and for losing students from a class where the parents were actually racist. [I know that because] they sat in the back of my classroom, chatting in Chinese so all the children could hear. They got pissed when I reminded them it was an English immersion classroom, even though I didn't comment on the fact that they were bitching about the Black teacher.

There were schools where kids came back to the school or skipped grades just to be in my classes, and where school owners put their kids specifically in my classes. There is optimism about good schools. But unfortunately it's not easy to find them - not unless you know what to look for.

And for non-white teachers - we don't have the freedom to walk into any job and play glorified babysitter while nursing a hangover like a white person can because those kinds of schools tend to be only about appearance over quality.

Fortunately, however, many of those schools closed down when parents and schools realized that schools that put effort into an effective English program were better than some place whose entire "curriculum" revolved around hitting flashcards with sticky balls and squeaky hammers.

As the quality and expectations of parents have risen, especially under the fact that parents now tend to only have one or two kids who they invest a lot of time and money into with the dropping birth rate, they are seeing through the façade of some unqualified dude who looks like he just stumbled in drunk from an all-night pool party (which more often than not was the case) to wanting to know the results and seeing more professionalism.

N. turned down a job with an online tutoring service because of their discrimination against others, a "business decision" that appears to have been made based on exactly zero market research:
I had a job interview for a curriculum director job. It was a tech company that was developing an online tutoring service. In the interview, I was told I would also have to find and hire teachers. The following conversation won't be 100% accurate, but it is a faithful representation of what happened. 

(Keep reading past the British bit. I'm including it because the racist bit appeared to be a lesser concern for them.)

“There is one problem, we can't use British teachers, only Americans.”
“Because of the accent?”
“Yes. We're launching this service in China, and they're not familiar with British accents.”
“OK, I understand that.”
“Oh, and we can't use Black people.”
“Yes. Because we're targeting second-tier cities in China, we're worried that people won't accept Black teachers.”
“Right, I can't do this job.”
“We know it's not...polite, but we have to do it.”
“It has nothing to do with being polite. This is wrong.”

I forget what I said, but I tried to explain why it's wrong. The interview ended.

The same company, but different person, contacted me last year to see if I could teach for them. I couldn't but asked about the policy. They said they had no idea what I was talking about, but more importantly, told me they hire people of all different races.

These stories all point to the need for schools to examine their own role in perpetuating racism and native speakerism in language teaching in Taiwan. The demand for White, native-speaker teachers exists, but it is not a given and is certainly not immutable. I do believe if these traits were to cease being advertised as some 'special' qualities of teachers in various schools, students would adapt.

If the focus were instead on hiring quality teachers, advertise that and stand by their staff, language education in Taiwan would improve overall. Market demand for White, native speaker teachers would reduce considerably. Schools could take a leading role in this change, and the success that good teachers who don't have the right 'look' or 'sound' have found in their roles shows that such a shift would be largely successful.

Instead of excusing away racism and native speakerism with "but it's the market", we should all call on schools to change the part they play in perpetuating these prejudices, and call on ourselves to be aware and reflective as well. 

Friday, October 18, 2019

No, Chinese don't "like their government" because of economic, historical and cultural reasons: a media analysis/rant


Some sort of "analysis" popped up recently on SupChina which I ardently disagree with. I normally wouldn't bother about writing a whole reaction post for something that's not entirely awful, in a media outlet that's not mainstream. But, I feel like addressing this time as doing so will hit on a few areas of China media literacy and criticality where we all need to stay sharp.

Let me first say that the piece, which talks about why so many Chinese seem to actually like, or even love, their absolutely awful government, isn't wrong per se (though some areas could use a bit more complexity). It's that it doesn't quite draw a clear cause-and-effect line the way it purports to.

In short, the reasons they give in the piece - "the economy! Chinese history! Cultural reasons!" - are all talking points for those who defend the CCP. There's nothing new - it's the same litany you'll hear from one of the more loquacious fifty-cent trolls. By repeating these excuses uncritically, SupChina is legitimizing them - but they are not legitimate.

Think about it this way: how do you get from "China is a country that has a literal gulag archipelago and comparisons to Nazism are not unwarranted" to "but many Chinese citizens like and will defend their government"? 

How could it be as simple as "the economy - and also, culture"? How could we possibly take such an answer on its face, either from SupChina or any given Chinese citizen spouting such excuses? I'll come back to these questions later.

Before I start in on how foolish it would be to do so - and I will start in at length, believe me - let me say two things. 

First, I really appreciate is the emphasis on the lack of political data for China. A lot of "Chinese people think...." analyses lack this crucial detail, making it sound like the writer actually knows what common sentiments are. Even if polling existed, it's doubtful that the people polled would feel comfortable being honest.

Second, I'm going to talk a lot about Chinese people often believing certain things because they're educated to do so, and that education is reinforced by Chinese media. I want to say now that this is not a simple "they're brainwashed!" or racist "they just can't think critically!" diatribe. People in China, as anywhere, are just as capable of critical thought as anyone else and many can and do form the ability. My point is only that institutional barriers to doing so are both intentional, and higher than in many other places.

It's not the economy, stupid - it's what people are primed to think about the economy

The piece expends a huge percentage of its word count on how improving the Chinese economy caused a lot of people in China to look favorably on their government, and almost none on education and media censorship. 

But those who have been positively affected by the economy - which I admit is a massive number - are taught at school that this miracle which has helped them and so much is entirely thanks to their government, whether or not that's true. This message is reinforced by the media. Sure, they can look around them and see that things have gotten a lot better economically (and they have, even since I lived there in the early 2000s). But when no competing stories are allowed regarding why that is, and no stories about those still living in poverty make it into the news, the real point here is that the economy improved stupendously and the CCP gets sole credit for it by taking that sole credit - by force. 

Does the Chinese government really deserve such kudos? I'm no economist, but one thing I've noticed in my adult life is that while economic policies have an impact, generally speaking economic ups and downs can be bolstered or mitigated with such policies but the actual waves can't be changed much. And when an economy has all the factors in place and the market is open enough to give it the necessary space to happen, it's going to happen no matter who's in charge.

It doesn't matter though, because that's not the story. I can't repeat this enough: many Chinese citizens will say "but the CCP lifted millions out of poverty!" not because the CCP itself necessarily did so, but because that's the only narrative they render possible in China.

There's also an implication here that all of the awful things the CCP have done - the genocides, the mass famine, the cultural destruction, the near-total lack of freedom - are not only justified by "the economy", but are necessary components to bolstering it. And that's just nonsense. 

But if you're not taught about all of the atrocities and so are only vaguely aware of them if at all, you don't hear about massive wealth inequality outside of your east coast Chinese bubble, you grow up with a lack of freedom being normal, and you're consistently fed the line that only the CCP could engineer such stunning growth and anything you hear about the horrors they've inflicted on the country are either justified, necessary or simply non-existent, and you are encouraged by both school and society not to think too deeply about it, only then could you ever use "it's the economy!" as a reason for supporting the CCP.

What about the people the economy left behind?

Oh yes, and the fact that you can only use this "but the economic growth! They lifted so many people out of poverty!" story if you are talking about (or to) the people that actually got lifted out of poverty. Of course they'll defend the current system - they benefit from it! And, to quote Upton Sinclair but with less sexism, it's difficult to get someone to understand something when their salary depends on their not understanding it. 

Ask any one of the millions of people in towns and villages that are not on the east coast, which benefited less (if at all) from the economic boom. Rather like Trump voters who really believe that their man is gonna make everything "great" "again" but just needs more time, you might meet a few who think they are temporarily displaced middle class that the CCP is coming to help any day now, but I wonder how many would just look at you like "whatever dude". Ask a Tibetan. Ask an Uighur. Ask a person of Hmong (Miao) or Dong or Li heritage.

But you didn't ask them, did you? You asked some rando on the street in Shanghai with a fashionable bag (real or not). The students who could afford to take your English class. Maybe you talked to Chinese wealthy enough to travel abroad. Or you didn't ask anyone personally and just read the online opinions of Han Chinese wealthy enough to have an Internet connection. 

You asked privileged voices, and so of course you'll get privileged answers.

Wanna know how I know? Here's how:

In the 1990s, the word for tourism (旅游 lǚyóu) was novel for most of China’s population; today, there’s not a single country in the world that Chinese tourists do not visit.

Great, but what you mean is that there's not a single country in the world that Han Chinese tourists do not visit - because good luck getting a passport if you're Uighur.

Again, the article itself isn't wrong per se, a lot of people of this class and background do support the government because they have benefited from the economic gains China has made. But I'm really curious what people who haven't benefited think, and there are still huge numbers of those thanks to that wealth inequality problem (though I concede that we don't really know what the true statistics are, they're probably worse than imagined.)

Can we please leave Confucius out of this?

This is where I think the article in question, and most commentary on China (and Taiwan, and most of East Asia...) goes off the rails and right into a ditch:

Confucian thought is of course an important part of China’s cultural fabric, and if there’s one thing that Confucius was very clear about, it was the need to respect authority.  
Many Chinese people argue that theirs is a more collectivist society, which means that they’re willing to give up some individual rights in exchange for prosperity and the greater good. This argument suits the Chinese government just fine.

No. I have no time for the excuse that "Chinese culture" provides less fertile soil for democracy to take root.

The article name-checks Taiwan, which is also "more collectivist" than the West, and which has Confucius temples and a few people who will tell you the old guy matters (though most people don't think about it much in their daily lives), and yet still has a pretty successful democracy. But Hong Kong is an important example too - it's quite clear that "Chinese culture" is not holding them back. Tiananmen Square happened, and "culture" didn't hold the demonstrators back - tanks and bullets did. So why do people keep saying this?

Again, it's not exactly wrong: the writers were quite right to point out that this line of thinking benefits the CCP and it's not as though Confucius is entirely unimportant. It's not that Chinese society isn't collective at all.

But it's a bit like arguing that "Aristotelian thought is of course an important part of Europe's cultural fabric, and if there's one thing Aristotle was very clear about, it was that a wise monarch would be better than a democracy. That's why European nations often still have royalty."

Besides, it also ignores the similar importance of Lao Tzu and other thinkers to Chinese cultural fabric, and (to oversimplify by a lot), that dude was all about how we should all do what you feel and just chill, okay? Of course, you don't hear as much about him because it benefits the CCP to elevate Confucius.

And, of course, it oversimplifies Confucius. Confucius was all about the need to respect competent authority, but he was just as critical of tyrannical authority. Didn't he say that a tyrannical government was worse than a ferocious tiger (苛政猛於虎)? That was my buddy C-dog, right? I don't have my Chinese proverbs mixed up?

Plus, he was very much a proponent of critical thinking, if you read him right. Confucian education was more than memorization - it was about applying everything you'd learned to real situations. Honestly - do you think some people (not me though) think Koxinga was a legendary general because of how much stuff he memorized? No - it was how well he applied what he'd learned to real battle situations.

So where's all this "Confucian thought is so important" and "we are a collectivist society" and "Confucius said respect authority" coming from? From the very last line quoted above.

These things are oft-quoted as "important" because the CCP has engineered them to be so. It's in the education system, the media, everywhere.

Todd, who lives in China: "But Chinese education is based on Confucianism! So if Confucianism encourages critical thinking, doesn't that mean that Chinese education teaches it?"

Nope. Chinese education isn't Confucian, it's authoritarian. They are very different things. Confucian education did involve a lot of memorization and strong respect for authority, but authoritarian education specifically seeks to instill in you exactly what the people in charge want you to believe. Confucian education was only available to a select wealthy few who could afford it. Authoritarian education seeks to be more universal - not for the noble reasons you might concoct (though good reasons for universal public education exist, and I support it more generally), but to make sure the Party's values are inculcated into as many minds as possible. They even build whole camps where they force it on you! And it definitely does not promote critical thought.

Of course, the CCP wants you to believe this is "Confucian". It sounds better, it comes across as culturally respectful, and provides a handy excuse for why it is so memorization-and-testing-heavy that doesn't sound so...well, authoritarian.

Todd: "But Taiwan's education is like that too!"

Me: "Yes, because Taiwan is in the unfortunate position of being a democracy with a holdover authoritarian education system created by the Japanese and continued by the KMT, which desperately needs to be updated to reflect contemporary Taiwanese society if its democracy is going to weather the coming storms."

If you still want to believe that the reason here is "culture", not "education and media working together as engineered by the CCP", I can't help you, but I also can't stop a Hong Kong protester from jump-kicking your wrong assumptions in the face.

Actual Hong Kong protester who has no time for your bullshit

No, it's not about history either

I mean, everything SupChina said about Chinese history is true. The century of humiliation was a thing - for centuries, Western countries were all about being absolute titclowns to everyone else in the world, including that 1850-1950-or-so century. Of course they were jerks to China too.
This is what the Chinese call the century of humiliation (百年国耻 bǎinián guóchǐ), and every child learns about it at school [emphasis mine]. The Qing dynasty began in 1644. At the height of its powers, it expanded China’s territory to include Taiwan, Tibet, and what is now called Xinjiang. 

But what Chinese schoolchildren don't learn about is how incompetent or outright colonial their own governments used to be in imperial times. I'm sure Chinese history textbooks spend lots of time on the imperialism of Western powers, but very little (if any?) on how the Qing weren't considered Chinese at the time and were also therefore a kind of colonial power in China as well. They probably don't learn as much about how badly Qing forces obliterated the countryside during their conquest and how much poverty this wrought. (If you're curious about some of the cultural products spurred by this devastation, read up on the history of the green lion.)

Let's not forget straight-up racism!
Han chauvinism - that is, supremacist and racist sentiment against non-Han people by Han people in China - is a real thing. In part, it's just a tendency you see across humanity; the racism you see by Han Chinese against, say, Tibetans or Uighurs isn't that different in terms of attitude than what you see in other countries against marginalized groups there. But in part, it's encouraged by the CCP,  because it fits into their narrative of a 'superior Chinese race' and 'all Chinese people owe loyalty to China' to promote Han chauvinism. Plus, it's a handy excuse for the (almost entirely Han) elite to ignore the atrocities happening out west, if they hear about them. "But they're Uighurs. They're terrorists!" is an easy go-to if you want to pretend concentration camps aren't a problem. Same for "but China helped develop Tibet so much. It's good for those backward Tibetans that so many charitable Han Chinese have moved there."

Some of this is implicit in CCP messaging, both in school and the media - portraying ethnic minorities as just Chinese in different colorful costumes and funny hats, which makes it easy to accuse members of those groups that don't want to be "Chinese" of being "separatists". Some of it is more explicit (ever hear that song about being 'the same blood'?) All of it still goes right back to CCP social engineering.

But it's a lot harder to write honestly about the explicit use of racism in China by the CCP as a tool to stay in power than to just throw your hands up and say "Confucius! Century of humiliation! Wealthy east coast!"

What you're told, and what you need to tell yourself

So, of course, this all comes down to the same thing in the end: it's not about "the economy" or "Confucius" or "culture" or "history". It comes down to the CCP engineering what you learn, what you see on TV and online, what you read, what people are willing to say to you, and what you should be afraid of saying.

Why, then, does SupChina spend so much time on tangential issues but just 9½ lines (I counted) on education and the media, when that is literally the entire story and should be the main focus? Everything else branches off of that core, like spokes on a wheel, but this story is written as though the spokes make the wheel. 

This is an excellent time to bring up the way that the United States also has a string of concentration camps, many of which house families and children seeking a better life, or to escape near-certain death, and how many Trumpists will either ignore or defend this, despite having access to a freer media environment and better education than in China.

Yup, because they benefit from the system staying the way it is and are hostile to any changes that endanger their position, if not economic, then race-wise (and often both). They were always pre-disposed to turning a blind eye or making excuses. This hostility and reactionary fear has been harnessed intentionally under Trumpism. You see some of the undercurrents of it in China regarding 'fear' of Uighurs and general Han chauvinism.

In both cases, there's an element of Stockholm syndrome, too. If you see no way to speak out, and no way to escape the system, you find ways to live within the system. You rationalize. It's what human brains do to cope. You were handed all these excuses in school, after all, and it's easy to use them (I mean this for both the United States and China - after all, I grew up learning about so-called "American exceptionalism". Yikes.) You might not even be fully aware of the government's worst atrocities (again, I mean this for both countries, though it's a more intentional ignorance in the US).

The key differences are, first, that in China it's centrally-planned and intentional - most US educational policies vary by state. And, of course, that in the US we can talk about these issues freely. That alone causes so many of those barriers I mentioned in the beginning to come crashing down.

To end with the key question I posed in the beginning - how do you you rationalize or ignore literal gulags and mass murder and defend the regime perpetrating them?

Because it either benefits you to do so, you are taught to do so, or you've created a coping mechanism because you know you can't change it. Or - as I suppose is often true - some combination of the three. It's never actually because "the economy improved" or "it's our culture" or "the century of humiliation" (which ended almost a century ago). Never, ever, not ever.

So why, oh why, would you take the litany of Chinese excuses on their stupid, CCP-engineered faces, as SupChina wants to do?

Look instead at where every one of these excuses originated, and therein lies the answer. 

Friday, July 26, 2019

Native speakerism, teacher training, culture and place

I don't have a good cover photo so just pretend this is metaphorical or something. 

I've been meaning to write this for awhile but current events have been pushing it to the bottom of the queue. Feeling depressed and anxious about the state of affairs in Hong Kong and the rise of Big Uncle Dirk in Taiwan, however, I think it's time for a more uplifting topic.

Teacher training has been my main source of income for about a year now; my trainees are mostly (though not entirely) locals whose first language(s) are not English, but are highly proficient English users. There's a mix of experience levels, though most have had no previous training. 

In the real world, where this is what I'm 'known' for as much as talking smack about Taiwanese politics, I get asked all the time what it's like, how I feel about it, what my impressions are. So I thought I'd share something about that here, as I so rarely write about my actual profession.

Having no particular order in mind for this, I'll just start with what I think is the most interesting part, focusing mostly on the cram school system. 

Native speakerism has been, quite honestly, a cancer in English language education in Taiwan.

I appreciate and value that the work I do is one tiny cog in the fight to end that. Training local teachers who already have the language proficiency but need the classroom know-how to plan and execute a lesson, ascertain and meet learner needs, manage a class room and understand key theoretical basics gives them a leg up: a piece of paper, yes, but also actual knowledge and skills that will make them more effective in the classroom and therefore more likely to succeed in a market that is biased against them.

Not that the word 'native speaker' means anything. I have a former student whom you would not be able to guess, even by accent, was a 'non-native' speaker unless you combed carefully through her writing. I've also met 'native speakers' who were not particularly proficient language users (yes, that's a thing, and the major English proficiency tests generally acknowledge this) and people who have used English since early childhood from countries like India, Singapore and the Philippines but are considered 'non-native'. 

Because, of course, when people say "native speaker", what they really mean is "white". They'll deny that of course - I'm sure I'll get some angry comments - but you it's true. You know it's harder for non-white English teachers, whether they're what might be considered a 'native speaker' or not, to find jobs and command similar pay to white teachers. This was also the attitude on display when everyone's favorite Uncle Dirk dismissed the idea of English teachers from the Philippines (who generally can be considered what most people would call a 'native speaker'), saying "how can a Maria be our teacher?"

Although I don't think that there is a big difference in the classroom between an untrained foreigner and an untrained local with strong English language proficiency, it's hard to argue this to your average person. Training up locals on what I think is a quality course helps make the argument that a "non-native" teacher is no less capable just a little more persuasive.

To be frank, it also feels good to have mostly relinquished my former place in what I see as a racist system. I don't particularly like being a white lady taking up a teaching job that an experienced and trained local could do, and being paid more to do it. It's not that I want to stop all future foreign English teachers from coming here because all the jobs have been taken by locals - I just want the bar to be higher, and the best way to raise the bar is to have better-trained local talent as competition. Bringing in trained and experienced talent from the Philippines and other countries is a great idea as well, and that will be easier if more parents and students (including adult learners) get used to a non-white face leading the class.

This is related to another aspect of teacher training that I find deeply rewarding: the creation of future role models. My trainees, when they become teachers, can be role models to local learners in a way that I could never be as a "native speaker" from an Inner Circle culture (look it up). Someone learning English as a foreign language in Taiwan is going to have a different experience, context and set of reference points and will benefit from having someone with a similar background and experience to look up to and think, "if she can do it, I can too". That's not only more achievable than trying to be 'more like' someone like me, which sets up the impossible standard of learning English as a second language in an attempt to imitate people for whom it's a first language, but I'd argue it's less problematic as well. If the notion of encouraging Taiwanese to imitate Westerners - especially white Westerners - as though we are some sort of ideal - doesn't squick you should. 

Here's where I admit that I lied above: I don't think that's the most interesting issue concerning my job. But I needed to say it to set up my next point. The cultural/identity aspects of Taiwan's education are often thought of as being in flux, depending on who's in power, between "Taiwanization" and "Sinicization". I'd argue, however, that since the debate about identity formation through education has existed in Taiwan - that is, ever since the Taiwanese electorate had a say in the matter - that it's actually been a three-way pull between Taiwanization, Sinicization and internationalization. It's a bit more complicated than that, with both sides trying to claim 'internationalization' alongside their preferred foundation of 'Taiwanization' or 'Sinicization' and both sides being somewhat insincere in the implementation process (though I'd argue the 'Sinicization' side, which I'm sure you've guessed is spearheaded by the KMT, is somewhat more insincere). 

I also happen to believe that 'Taiwanization' is more compatible with internationalization than 'Sinicization' is, despite being dismissed by critics as a form of ethnic nationalism (which it no longer is - if anything that attitude is more evident on the pan-blue, pro-China side). Taiwanization doesn't only seek to promote the notion of a distinct Taiwanese identity, which is a civic identity as much as an ethnic one, and a nation founded on that principle. It also seeks to situate that identity, and Taiwan as a nation, in a regional and global context. Sinicization doesn't go far beyond "we are all Chinese and you just have to accept this identity we've assigned to you". Although this wasn't always the case, it's currently more of an inward-looking movement.

What does all that have to do with teacher training? Well, a lot of people misconstrue 'internationalization' as going no further than a concept of English teaching as something done by foreigners, to Taiwanese students - and bringing in more foreigners to do this. The smiling white person at the front of the classroom telling Taiwanese how to be better "global citizens" through improved English, with "global citizens" of course meaning "people who act in ways that make Westerners feel comfortable".

In a word, barf.

I see internationalization as improving the state of foreign language education without overly focusing on Western countries (which isn't to say that language can be divorced from culture - the general consensus in the field is that it cannot). It's understanding not just the cultural, international and socieconomic context of English learning, but English learning as appropriation - learning it for one's own purposes, to communicate with the outside world as a lingua franca - rather than subjugation to a foreign ideal. And you don't accomplish that with idealized Westerners at the front of every class. You do it with locals up there, or teachers from a range of international backgrounds beyond "Bill is from Canada, and Janice is from the UK!" It helps society get used to the notion that English doesn't have to be a "thing we learn from and about white people", but something additive rather than subtractive, taught for themselves and (mostly) by others who may be like them. And you accomplish that by training up mostly local teachers.

Finally, I simply appreciate a chance to offer the fundamentals of good teaching practice to teachers who will go out and not only use them, but build on them. It's been argued that the sort of approaches I champion are themselves ultimately derived from teaching practices that suit Western cultures better, but I'd dispute that. First, we do talk about methodologies that are currently out-of-fashion, though I don't encourage them. Besides, such methods weren't common in Western countries either until the late 20th century: before that, the way language was taught wasn't that different from how it's taught in much of Asia now. The difference is one of time and institutional constraint, not one of culture.

More importantly, those 'traditional' methods are research-proven to be less effective, depending on what your goal is. If that goal is to communicate, do you think sitting in a 50-person class memorizing texts and repeating grammar points will be the most effective approach, regardless of culture? That English class in Taiwanese schools alone, without outside practice, does not lead to particularly stellar results, should be sufficient evidence that it will not.

But, most vitally, it's that local teachers and students have shown themselves to be open to other approaches. Despite unfounded stereotypes to the contrary, your average Taiwanese student does want their language classes to be more vibrant - fun, useful, communicative - than a traditional grammar-focused approach affords. Your average Taiwanese teacher wants to deliver that, as well, although institutional constraints (such as testing requirements) make it difficult. And as time passes, some of my best students will become head teachers or teacher trainers themselves, and will impart their own advice on what works and what doesn't, and "what works" will be forged of an entirely home-grown consensus. That can happen without me in the picture, but I feel grateful that I get to be a part of it. 

That's just it - I'm not seeking to put people down (such as untrained foreign teachers who come and get jobs easily) or push my own ideas on others. I just want the state of English teaching in Taiwan to be better. My Big Bad - my Final Boss - is probably the national-level exam (and the over-testing that takes place leading up to it). Although there have been changes and improvements, it's not nearly where it needs to be in terms of creating positive washback on the classes learners take. There's not much I can do about that now, but if the overall state of language teaching is both more localized and simply better, it's a step in the right direction. 

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Alliance for a Globally-Oriented Taiwan kicks off

If you're reading this at all, you're probably wondering what happened to me all month. Yeah, well, I'm wondering too. I've been doing a pre-Lunar New Year deep clean of our apartment as I'm not particularly busy with work. Also, the election's still got me down.

Not because my "team" "lost" (they didn't, really: the NPP is the closest thing I've got to a team I root for, and they performed better than anyone expected, including perhaps, quietly, the NPP themselves). People I don't like win elections all the time and I don't fret about it for two months.

No, what causes a sinking feeling in my heart every time I think about it is a far bigger problem: that, although it would be political suicide for the DPP to make a big deal out of it, interference from China was real, and terrifying. We can't prove how effective it was, but there sure seemed to be some effect, and if that's the case they will try it again. And again. And they very well may win. Yikes. I just...can't.

So, let's talk about something positive instead.

This past week, a group of 90-100 people, foreigners and Taiwanese, congregated in the Legislative Yuan to have a large-scale discussion meeting about how to implement the 'bilingual Taiwan' initiative (you might know it as 'English as a second official language', announced by former premier William Lai). Heading the meeting were legislators Karen Yu (余宛如) Rosalia Wu (吳思瑤)as well as National Development Council leadership, Professor Louis Chen of Global Brands Management Association, STARTBOARD and Crossroads.TW founder David Chang. The general attendees were a mix of teachers, school owners, recruiters, academics, NGO and nonprofit representatives, a few activists and some journalists.

One thing that was made clear was that the point is not to suddenly start forcing everyone to speak English, or spend their own money to go to cram school to study English, or to have all official documents in English and Mandarin (but not any other languages more native to or historically linked to Taiwan, such as indigenous languages or Taiwanese). The point is to develop Taiwan's international competitiveness by making it more accessible in English, and to increase the general public's familiarity with English, while potentially reforming the educational system to emphasize English proficiency. And over several decades, as that.

Put that way, it sounds quite reasonable.

The outcome of this meeting is the formation of the Alliance for a Globally-Oriented Taiwan, with more specific action items to be developed in the coming weeks. At minimum we're looking at advocacy, advisory status and policy proposals. While it has the potential to be another layer of talk, there's also the potential for it to be much more than that.

That two legislators and the NDC made sure the meeting took place, were there and paid attention to what foreigners were saying is already huge: I'm not sure it's ever happened before. For that reason alone it might have some real effect.

I won't spend too much time going over what was said by the leaders - that's been covered extensively in the Mandarin-language media and basically boiled down to "we're on your side", "we want to do this in a feasible way" and, of course, that the point isn't just to be bilingual, it's a push for greater internationalization.

Instead, I'll spend some time summarizing some of what came out of the contributors in the general audience.

Not everyone got a chance to speak (I did), but I was happy to hear that most opinions were dead-on (some I disagreed with mildly; there were just a few that I simply wasn't on board with). And yes, I do equate "dead on" with "I agreed with it", because in this particular field I will not hesitate to say that I know what I'm talking about.

There was a general agreement that we need to do a better job of teacher training in Taiwan, with ideas for this ranging from bringing in better-qualified teachers to building a teacher-training program in Taiwan from scratch. The latter is an idea I disagree with quite strongly: internationally-recognized and up-to-standard teaching certifications exist already, from teaching licenses/PGCE programs to CELTA/Trinity to Delta and various Master's programs. There's no need to build a program from scratch when...frankly, to mix metaphors, that wheel's already been invented.

The key is to make them more accessible in Taiwan. If you want to improve your teaching through formal training here, it's quite difficult: the government doesn't recognize programs like CELTA or Delta or any online programs; often for Master's programs (even reputable ones) there are residency requirements so a part-time student, even if they attend face-to-face, is going to have trouble. So we have to make these programs both available and recognized, potentially with a sponsorship program to make them affordable, too.

The owners of Reach To Teach, a reputable teacher recruiting company, pointed out that Taiwan has no program through which novice teachers can come here and work in schools (even as assistants), and the only way to work in a school in Taiwan is to come as a licensed teacher. Japan brings foreign teachers into public schools through JET by having them work as assistants as they are not qualified to actually teach; I'm not sure about Korea's EPIK program. What's more, in those countries novice teachers often earn more than trained teachers are offered in schools in Taiwan.

What everyone agreed on was that salaries in Taiwan being low for everyone, including locals, was going to make it hard to internationalize and attract foreign talent, and would not necessarily attract much local talent to English teaching, either. Before this can happen, pay prospects here simply have to get better.

Of course, as someone else pointed out, South Korea and Japan are not bilingual countries. Because, of course, countries where English is more widely spoken got that way through historical (typically colonial) means, but also because those countries routinely employ a large number of local teachers and don't rely on foreign ones.

That's really key, not only in terms of getting enough foreign teachers to do the job, but also cutting down a native speakerist view of English: that English is a White People thing, that White People go to Other Countries to teach Local People, who Learn It. But a country only becomes multilingual when locals are there making it happen. You can't import that kind of culture shift, nor should you.

(Obviously not every native speaker teacher is white, I'm talking about perceptions, not reality.)

There was a huge outpouring of angst, as well. That's not a criticism; I happen to agree with much of it. The notion that Taiwan needs to 'attract' more foreign talent bothered some, who pointed out quite rightly that many talented foreigners are already here, but can't get work outside of English teaching. Some stay and teach because it's all they can do; some leave because there's just no career future here and go to Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, back to their native countries or elsewhere.

There was also an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the lack of readable English information on Taiwanese websites, including government websites. If Taiwan is truly going to become an English-friendly country, at the bare minimum all government websites need to be translated completely into (good) English.

Quite a bit of dissatisfaction was expressed over Taiwan's horrifying national examination system (including from me). I pointed out that research consistently shows that elementary-school language teachers in Taiwan are happy to incorporate more modern teaching methods into their practice, but  junior and senior high school teachers aren't, and the big difference is that older learners need to be prepared for the massive battery of mostly-useless and actively harmful exams that they have to take. The teachers themselves have said this quite clearly. There is simply no way for a language education program that actually results in English language proficiency to exist side-by-side with those exams.

The issue, of course, is that parents and some teachers fight viciously against any attempt to change the system. The parents think that more accurate assessment is somehow 'less objective' (not realizing that the tests their children are taking now aren't even accurate or related to real-world language use, and take away so much learning time as to actually harm their overall achievement) and some teachers are afraid they'll lose their jobs if schools suddenly start doing things differently. We need to work with both groups to advocate for change and convince them that there's nothing to be afraid of.

And, as usual, immigration is a massive issue. Those of us who want to stay forever - the well-secured roots of an international Taiwan - are concerned with how difficult it still is to obtain dual nationality or even an employment Gold Card. As a friend of mine pointed out, his employer (Academia Sinica) interprets the dual nationality requirements as stated to mean "we'll do what we need to do to get your application through when you get tenure". Imagine having to be a tenured professor at Academia Sinica before you can even approach dual nationality as an educator! Making it easier to move here and work is important for new immigrants; dual nationality is a core concern of us long-termers. Without it, internationalization can't happen, as we'll always be outsiders.

The downside of the meeting is that a lot of the issues discussed - low pay, lack of career opportunities for foreigners etc - are not easily solvable by the government. Even if they were, there's an entire legislature to convince. Two progressive legislators and the NDC are a good start, but it's not the end. There's a lot to be done and simply "this doesn't work! We can't get good jobs!" isn't something that can be specifically targeted, especially when locals are also struggling in a slow-growth economy.

The upside is that, again, it's huge that the meeting happened at all. People in government are interested, and listening, and that's more than I could say even three years ago. (And for us foreigners, is a big reason to support the Tsai administration). That's something, and we need to turn it into something real.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

IELTS takes a political position (and my ongoing battle to fight The Man)

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As my husband noted in his nail-on-the-head post on the same topic, pretty much every IELTS teacher and examiner we know is horrified by the change on IELTS's website of "Taiwan" to "Taiwan, China" (Notably, Hong Kong and Macau bear no such designation. If I didn't already know this was all about politics, I'd say that's odd).

Many of us have written to IELTS to protest the change, including me. I'd include a screenshot, except that e-mail contains references to the nature of my employment which I cannot divulge, but which when blacked out render the letter incoherent. Suffice it to say, it was an angry but basically formal letter of protest and complaint.

We all got the same completely irrelevant form letters in reply, which didn't actually address the issue we wrote about:

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"Thank you for your enquiry and comments. The IELTS Partnership is updating IELTS websites and materials in order to ensure that IELTS remains available to test takers in Taiwan. The IELTS Partnership will continue to deliver IELTS tests in Taiwan, ensuring that the widest number of Taiwanese students and professionals can benefit from the work and study opportunities that the test provides."

You can write to them too, by the way, their email is See if you get the same bogus form letter! It'll be a fun international discourse comparison!

Of course, I wrote back to point out that their form letter reply was irrelevant to the protest lodged and got a snottier, though I suppose more relevant, reply:

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"Thank you for your feedback. Please be aware that your position has been noted. Our priority continues to be to ensure that the widest number of Taiwanese students and professionals can benefit from the work and study opportunities that the IELTS test provides."

This is where I got a little testy. I'd say "I have a short temper", but several days on I decided to send this anyway. It won't make a difference, so please enjoy it as a retort created for your entertainment:

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"If you consider them 'Taiwanese students', why do you list their country as being 'China'?"

Here's the thing. I know perfectly well that we're probably not going to win this, because The Man doesn't care about our tinny complaints. It pretends to be apolitical while taking a political, pro-Beijing position. And that is what you're doing when you list Taiwan as "Taiwan, China": you are taking a political position. You are saying Taiwan is a part of China, a position most Taiwanese do not agree with.

It's hard to fight the power, which as a friend pointed out, is the entire point of having power - so it's harder for people to fight you. IELTS pretends to be a dispassionate language proficiency test, but it's also a source of power: are you a non-native speaker who wants to study in the UK (or other countries) or get certain kinds of visas? You have to take it. It's tied to the government through British Council and the UKVI service. That's power. It's not just a test.

It wants to think it's not The Man, but it absolutely is. And as The Man almost always is, IELTS is wrong.

For me, this is the point at which "Taiwan, China" stops being an abstraction: it's not just an unfair, stupid thing that terrible companies do for money. It affects me personally: I'm associated with the brand. Some of my income comes from them. If I refuse to accept this, there is a real impact on my life, moreso than boycotting airlines or slagging off TOEFL. I don't earn money from those companies. I don't know how I can take dirty money now, so for the first time in a very long time, I'm faced with a choice between a chunk of my income, and my principles.

As China expands its forcefulness, more people like me will start facing that choice. I have to hope enough of them will choose principles, as I'm headed towards doing, but I know that many won't.

This isn't a small issue relegated to Taiwan and China. It affects people like me. It affects international workers and foreign residents.

And, as Brendan pointed out in his excellent post (which you should absolutely read), IELTS is essentially helping China accomplish its political goals, which serve as precursors to its military goals:

The government of the PRC would like nothing more than to take over Taiwan and incorporate it into their territory....This is not the ranting of a conspiracy monger -- China isn’t even trying to hide its intentions. 

 Whether China takes Taiwan by force or by “peaceful” coercion, it doesn’t want the rest of the world to see it as a larger country taking over a smaller, less powerful country. That would look very bad. Instead, China wants the rest of the world to see Taiwan as a recalcitrant part of China that needs to be brought to heel. That’s why (among many things) it’s got people pushing to change “Taiwan” on those drop-down menus to things like “Taiwan, China” or “Taiwan, Province of China”. It’s all about changing the world’s perception of Taiwan so that if Invasion Day comes, the rest of the world doesn’t see Xi Jinping as another Hitler invading Poland. 

And every airline that lists Taiwan as China and every educational institution that forces students to declare their country as “Taiwan, China” is complicit in this. With Beijing -- not politically neutral.

I don't know how to fight that. I don't know how to tell you to fight that. I'm still weighing my options, although I know that not acting is not an option. I don't know what to tell my students, except not to take IELTS.

I know some Taiwan-based examiners read this blog. I know a lot of Taiwanese do, too. I don't know what to tell you.

I considered suggesting a strike, and still think that might be a possibility. I worry, however, that it will hurt local centers like IDP Taipei, who are not our enemies (I suspect a lot of the local employees of IELTS centers are on our side, in fact) without really hurting IELTS as a global organization. It might be our best shot, however, at getting this story to stay in the news and embarrass IELTS as much as possible.

I considered a petition, but TOEFL ignored the one directed at them, and IELTS will too. That's what The Man does - he ignores petitions, because he has power.

I considered saying you should change your scripts and say explicitly that Taiwan is NOT CHINA, but that could hurt candidates' performance and that's not fair. It's not their fault (even with the Chinese candidates, it's not their fault at all that their government sucks).

Of course I will continue to encourage Taiwanese students not to take the test.

Something more should be done, but the result has to hurt IELTS Global. What should that something be? I don't know yet. But I have no intention of going away and I have no intention of quietly choosing money over principles.

All I can say is that I encourage you to organize (and feel free to get in touch with me, by the way. I'm easy to find). Be creative, and don't back down. The Man usually wins, but that doesn't mean you have to sit down and obey meekly.

I wish I had better advice, though. I'm not sure what the next move will be, but I can assure you we're not done here. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

An internationally-recognized English teaching certification course is now available in Taiwan!

Trinity CertTESOL is coming to Taiwan!

As a teacher trainer myself, I'm very excited about this. One of the biggest flaws in the industry of English-teaching workhouses and abbatoirs here is that, once here, if you don't already have a basic pre-service teaching certification, it's difficult to get one as there were no offerings in Taiwan. No Trinity CertTESOL, no CELTA: two of the only - if not the only two - internationally-recognized programs that include practicum hours. And, as a teacher trainer, the only two that I can personally wholeheartedly recommend.

In addition to tuition fees, that meant leaving the country for a month (and losing a month's worth of income, if you could get the time off at all) and paying all associated costs with living in another country for that month - possibly as well as rent back in Taiwan. I know it was a huge financial burden when we went to do CELTA in Turkey.

Now, that's no longer necessary: on November 5th, a part-time (Monday-Friday, 9:30-13:30) certification course is finally available locally! If you can be free in the mornings, you don't have to leave Taiwan or stop working.

Trinity is equivalent to CELTA, which means that it will be useful to you even if you leave Taiwan. Having not only been through CELTA but also Delta and in the middle of a Master's program in the same field, I can say that it's worth it. The curriculum is sound - and I'm a teacher trainer who has completed an equivalent course herself, I would know - and the practicum hours set it apart from weekend or online courses. You will certainly become a better teacher because of it, if you take what you learn from it and incorporate it intelligently and thoughtfully to the classroom while developing your own style.

It's also important to remember that these certifications aren't meant to create insta-teachers or classroom superheroes. Nothing can do that except experience, reflective practice and consistent, high quality professional development. They are pre-service programs, which means they are open to people who have never taught. They aren't even meant to give you all the skills a professional needs: entire multi-year teaching programs exist for that, and not even they can accomplish it. They're meant to give you the fundamentals you need to be competent in the classroom as a novice teacher, or to improve your practice as a current teacher, with the assumption that you will receive further development and institutional support from your employer (how much institutional support you are considered to need post-certification will vary). They are stepping-stones to higher-level in-service teaching degrees. They get you on the track - they're not the end of the road.

You may be wondering how such a certification can help you in Taiwan. I admit that's a real problem here: the complete lack of any sort of qualifications needed to be a "teacher" in Taiwan, and how certifications are generally not rewarded well, which feeds the cycle of mediocrity and poor teaching practice.

But, better jobs in Taiwan do exist. There are fewer of them, but they are generally only open to teachers who have these certifications, or at least, those who do get their resume pushed to the top of the pile. These jobs tend to be more professional and pay better (though I wouldn't say they are wonderful - almost no job in Taiwan is). You may be frustrated that at Happy Oxbridge Engrish Scholar's Acadamy, you won't get a raise for doing this program, and I'm sympathetic to that.

But, better places to work will actually consider you seriously if you do, and that will come with better pay and other perks, like the ability to request more time off (unpaid) or more time off in total (perhaps paid).

Oh, yeah, and you'll just be a better teacher for it.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

This whole "English as the second official language" thing


So you've probably heard that Premier William Lai has promised to make English the "second official language of Taiwan", with the idea that English, being an international language, will help raise Taiwan's visibility and competitiveness.

You may also recall that Lai enacted the same policy when he was governor of Tainan - this is clearly some sort of pet favorite project of his. Of course, if you've been to Tainan, you might notice that English isn't particularly widely-spoken there. That's not a critique of the programs in place, it's an observation from my trips there: the program may be fantastic, but I have not personally noticed a city-wide improvement in English proficiency.

This leads me to wonder whether Lai likes this particular policy because it looks sweeping and potentially transformative, it looks forward-thinking (and specifically focused on a world outside China), but is ultimately toothless. There will be no accountability when language proficiency goals aren't met, which is great for him.

And they will not be met, because the Ministry of Education, at the national level, doesn't know how to set second language proficiency goals that are based in real-world communicative competence. I doubt any study providing reliable data about overall English proficiency in Taiwan will be done.

Hell, forget communicative competence - I'm not even sure scores will go up on the crappy, useless, garbage English exams they've got now.

(Oh, sorry, I should use professional terminology. The tests lack most types of validity, are inauthentic, are so indirect as to be thoroughly unable to measure real-world ability, tend not to test at the discourse level and often don't even make sense.)

I don't mean to imply that I disagree with the general idea of making English a second official language. Many countries have English as one of their official languages, including India, the Philippines and Nigeria. At first glance, it also seems as though these countries do have high(er?) rates of actual English speakers.

That said, those same countries also tend to have a colonial history that is intertwined with English, which Taiwan does not. Generally, English as one of the official languages in those countries happened because of that colonial history, so while there may be correlation, there's no proof of causation. English-medium education in those countries is more likely to exist regardless of official language policy.

I'd still be otherwise on board though: there is a lot of evidence to support the idea of bilingual education, if this is where the policy were going to lead (but it's almost certainly not going to lead there.) A big question in multilingual education is whether policies create learners of languages, or users of languages. I would be strongly supportive of evidence-based, professional-led (as in, actual language teaching and second language acquisition professionals, not ministry officials with general Education degrees) movement towards an English education policy that sought to create users of languages, with assessments and measurements designed accordingly. (Check out the Routledge Handbook of Multilingualism for more on multilingualism in general, including this topic.)

If you want to know why Taiwanese kids study English constantly yet so many can hardly speak it, look right past your folk theories (though some are better than others) and look straight at that. Taiwan as a nation, whether in buxibans or the formal education system, simply does not seek to create language users. Target that, and you've cut the whole damn knot.

That's not likely to happen, however. Even if the programs in place in Tainan are good - and I have it on solid authority that they are, despite a lack of data about their overall effect on English proficiency in the city - national-level obstacles in how language education is viewed in Taiwan will almost certainly make it difficult to roll-out an effective, modern program nationwide.

The overall reliance on exams create absolutely terrible learning benchmarks (benchmarks themselves not necessarily being bad things, it depends on how they are designed and applied). Teacher training, when it is good, can't make up for this due to the pressure to give in to negative washback (I haven't read the material in that link but Kathleen Bailey is reliable, so I feel confident posting it).

The main issue, to my mind, is the overwhelming negative washback of the stressful national high school and university entrance exams. There is already some indication that the exams create a situation where elementary school teachers feel free to implement communicative language teaching (CLT - which is hardly a new concept; it was developed in the 1970s) whereas teachers at the junior high school level and above feel more pressure to teach using older methodologies that they feel better prepare learners for the test (rather than preparing them to actually use English).

If something so mild and mainstream as CLT can't even be successfully implemented nationwide at all grade levels, I don't see how a more innovative curriculum might overcome this obstacle.

This is not a criticism of the teachers themselves. I began my own teacher training career believing teacher training in Taiwan was abysmal; now I've seen enough of their knowledge base and classroom practice I have a more optimistic view. My only gentle critique is that there is a heavy focus on the Applied Linguistics/SLA side of teaching, and not enough on pedagogy/methodology/classroom management and how to apply them.

Others who would have a strong basis of knowledge for evaluating teacher cognition (including their knowledge of how to teach), who have talked to teachers in other contexts in Taiwan, tend to agree: the teachers may well know what they are doing, but there are a lot of barriers to being able to implement their ideas in the classroom.

However, I see no evidence that people in charge of managing language teachers and curricula at the national level know what they are doing, or can handle pushback from more traditionally-minded critics. That's not going to change overnight, and the best-trained teachers in the world will struggle with that hurdle.

On the plus side, multilingualism is not necessarily subtractive - the Taiwanese government got that wrong when they made it illegal for kindergartens to employ foreign teachers (which doesn't necessarily mean the same as not allowing English to be taught in them; I can't find any sort of law against that, but that was certainly what they were going for). The government assumed English would be subtractive and take away from local identity, when it never had to be that way.

Learning a second language at any stage - even at the stage where it could be a second native language, or L1 - doesn't take anything from knowledge of one's other L1. It may take a little longer for both native tongues to develop fully, with a long intermediary "interlanguage" stage, but research clearly shows there is no adverse long-term effect. (For more on this, I recommend Lightbown and Spada's How Languages Are Learned).

If adding English as an "official language" does not have to be subtractive to local languages, then wouldn't it be additive? As in, gaining an additional skill on top of the linguistic competencies one would gain simply being born and raised Taiwanese? Research does show that additive environments produce more successful learning outcomes. I would hope so, but I do question why English is prioritized for "official" status over Taiwanese Hokkien, Hakka or any indigenous languages as languages actually spoken natively in Taiwan. It's hard to make the case for English being an additive rather than subtractive language competency when it is being pushed to the forefront ahead of other neglected local languages. That's close to the definition of what it means to be subtractive!

A final thought: there will be people complaining about this policy as "linguistic imperialism" - I see where they're coming from, but I take a more, let's say, postmodern view. Modernism states that English can only be introduced as a language in a colonial or postcolonial context exploitatively: that it is always subtractive, never additive, and always seeks to overlay this new identity of "English speaker who therefore conforms to Western/Inner Circle norms" onto whatever original culture exists in any given place.

Look...sure. But Taiwan isn't some poor postcolonial backwater exploited by the West - it's a developed democracy exploited by China (where the idea of Mandarin as an official language originated!) If anything, Mandarin is more of a linguistically imperialist language to have as an 'official language' than English!

Taiwan, rather, tends to use English in an 'appropriative' way: those who really learn it want to learn it so they can use it to their own ends, to meet their own goals. Those goals might be as lofty as disseminating a message - perhaps writing an op-ed for the Washington Post about Taiwanese identity - or as workaday as advancing in a chosen career. Taiwanese use of English is far more in line with a postmodern, World Englishes or English as a Lingua Franca model of second language use than a "linguistic imperialism" model.

So, there ya go. This could work - it could be a great idea. We could come together to create a language learning paradigm that created users of English rather than just learners. We could torpedo the language exams, because they are useless trash. We could turn English into something additive to Taiwanese culture - and use it as yet another way to differentiate Taiwan from China.

But we won't, and Taiwan will probably suffer for it. Whatever might have caused the disconnect between Tainan's attempts to implement innovative English curricula and my anecdotal observation that proficiency has not improved, it likely exists at the national level as well and will cause the same problems.

Even now, I notice it is difficult for my students to effectively talk to foreigners (they generally get better after they work with me). Many have expressed a desire to promote Taiwan abroad. Some are actively trying to do this, or hoping to, but they come up against their own language competency limits, and get discouraged. It takes longer to communicate effectively when this happens, and people just don't have the time. As a result, the 'case for Taiwan', the soft power of the Taiwanese people themselves, never quite makes it out of the larval stage. And I see little to suggest that Lai's grand vision for English is going to help those who want to grow wings, because there is no indication that there is a plan to overcoming the obstacles it will face.