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

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 out...it 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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Jerks.


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 globalielts@ielts.org. 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

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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.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Improve English education in Taiwan with this ONE WEIRD TRICK!

My work in Taiwan is dominated by adult students who ask for help with accent training. They need to do business with Koreans, Japanese, various speakers of Southeast Asian languages, Australians, Latinx people, Indians or various Europeans.

You see, all their teachers have been from an "Inner Circle" country (UK, Ireland, US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand). They are therefore most used to those accents, North American ones in particular. They might meet people with those accents, but for business, there is a real need to better understand other Englishes.

My life in Taiwan is unfortunately punctuated by people bloviating about how racism in the English learning industry is somehow acceptable because of "choice" or "the market" or something (their arguments don't make much sense, because they are constructed mostly to avoid confronting uncomfortable issues rather than as stand-alone opinions).

They might try to say that this is acceptable because of some sort of subjective "clarity" of certain accents, although of course how clear an accent is depends in great part on how exposed you are to it compared to other accents (these people are not exactly experts in second language acquisition).

Some pontificate on how it is preferable to be taught by a "native speaker", usually with a very poor understanding of second language acquisition or what being a "native" or "non-native" speaker might actually mean. There is even less recognition that many people in India, Singapore, Nigeria, the Philippines (and more) are, in fact, native speakers, let alone questioning why they aren't recognized as such.

(The answer is racism, by the way. But that's hard for Johnny McBackpacker to admit when it casts doubt on his strongly-held opinion that "the market" is the Fairest Arbiter Of Them All.)

My life in England is characterized by mostly non-native speaking classmates, all of whom are fluent in English, and all of whom know more about the pedagogy of how to teach English than the average Johnny McBackpacker.

Sure, they have accents. But many of them have the accents that my adult students say they need to better understand for their work. Every last one of them is qualified to teach in Taiwan, but many if not most would struggle to get hired here.

We talk about all sorts of things, not least of which is the idea of English as a lingua franca (ELF) or English as an international language (EIL). Most English learners speak regularly with other non-native speakers, some perhaps almost entirely so, especially if they are using English in business or academia.

Back in Taiwan, the consequences are not surprising - all that learning of English from Canadians, Brits and Americans (the so-called 'preferable' native speakers) has actually put those students who tell me they need help with accents at a disadvantage. They get to work and realize, oh, all that time I spent with Teacher Becky listening to dialogues between Tim and Karen, but I actually have to communicate with people who don't speak like Becky, Tim or Karen. I have to do business with Sandeep and Cheng and Fumiko and Nnedi and Abdurrahman and Lupa. 

Of course, most people making hiring decisions are not educators. Even if they realize that they are actually disadvantaging their learners by not providing the English education many instrumentally-motivated Taiwanese learners are likely to need, they don't care. "It's the market." And the market wants white - even Inner Circle "native speaker" teachers who aren't white struggle to get hired.

And I just can't help but think, if y'all hired fluent English-speaking teachers from around the world, ensuring that most learners through their time studying English were exposed to a variety of Englishes, maybe not so many adult learners would come to me asking for help, which I have trouble giving with my Standard American accent. Maybe if we hired more English teachers whose usage represented the speakers and Englishes our learners would actually be communicating with, we wouldn't have this problem.

I mean, I don't want to say "duh", but...duh?

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Another kind of missionary

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A very "Chinese" Last Supper at the Catholic church in Yanshui, Tainan


Something that's been kind of in the back of my head for awhile, brought to the fore by my friend Donovan's interview with a missionary, and then the editorial some guy wrote about it. Now I'm writing about the editorial. Perhaps someone will write a piece about my blog post, and someone will tweet about that, and someone will write an editorial about that incendiary tweet, and then someone will Snapchat it or Tinder it or Grindr it or Blendr it or whatever the kids are doing these days, right up until Donovan covers the whole thing on ICRT again. The circle of life.

Anyway, friends and regular readers will know that I don't care for missionary work. I understand that many missionaries do other good things for communities, but I can't condone the 'I claim to respect your culture but I actually think this part of my culture is better and you should trash what you did before' attitude, or the idea that one does good works toward the ultimate goal of converting people. I say this even as I acknowledge that I can like and even respect individual people of good character who are missionaries.

In any case, what struck me about Mr. Angrypants here wasn't his views on missionary work which I largely agree with, but this:


Academic institutions must focus on the enhancement of logical, critical and independent thinking. Unfortunately, core values of the local culture here are not amenable, often even inimical to such essential educational goals.

The prevailing culture here is authoritarian and honors blind obedience, its education awards rote learning without understanding, it discourages young people from thinking for themselves and it punishes inquisitive minds.


The disingenuous educational paradigms are implemented in so many classrooms here on a daily basis. Therefore, there is no need in Taiwan of an additional input of uncritical thinking by religious groups that aim to hijack the minds of young people through the indoctrination of dubious contents.



I don't entirely disagree with this, though I don't necessarily think my education was that much better. But, it can't be denied that this is a large component of the educational system in Taiwan. Every time I start thinking "oh it's not that bad", I recall a story an adult student (and legit genius and overall cool person) once told me. As a student, he'd had to write three essays, each on one of Sun Yat-sen's Three Buzzwords Principles of the People. For the first two, he just restated what was in the textbook, and got perfect scores. For the third, he decided to offer his own insights as well (I've forgotten what they were, but I remember being impressed with his incisiveness), and got a C.

I don't even blame Taiwan for it too much: it's a holdover from authoritarian rule (dictators want populations that can read, write and do math, but not think too much) that sticks because it claims on the surface to have cultural legitimacy (I'll come back to this). Changing it would take a complex organized effort that considered parents, professional curriculum development, exams, administration and long-term teacher development. I understand why it's so slow to happen.

In short, he's got his tenses wrong. The prevailing culture in Taiwan was authoritarian, but is now democratic with a strong penchant for social movements and activism. The education system just hasn't gotten with the program.

I also suspect quite a few Westerners fundamentally misunderstand the historic role of education in many Asian cultures. Yes, it involves a great deal of memorization, especially of the "classics" (or math equations, or grammar patterns, or whatever). If you do this, you will pass. But historically there has also been a belief that to be truly 'educated' - to be a scholar - it's not enough to simply memorize. You have to take what you've learned and glean insights from it that you can apply to real-world situations. You have to be able to use it, extrapolate on it, consider it, do something with it. Otherwise, you might pass, but you're not a scholar.

Or as we call it in the West, critical thinking.

I'm not an advocate of this particular method of leading learners to criticality and inquisitiveness - it's outdated and just doesn't seem to work that well - but it's simply not true to say that educational traditions in Asia sought to suppress such traits.

But that's not where the real problem lies. This is:


There is another reason for concern. It is obvious that so many young people in Taiwan are literally clueless about major issues that move the world. Their life experience is minimal, their minds are soft and malleable, underdeveloped, easy to bend....

Often, young people are emotionally and intellectually insecure; they have never developed their own ideas about topics of general concern. They are lost when having to move within competitive networks of opinions, assertions and claims — the stuff the modern world is made of.


Therefore, they can be easily manipulated and “guided” by those who do have opinions, no matter whether they are good or bad.
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Asian Mary, Jesus and Joseph
(Frankly I'll take this over white supremacist blue-eyed blonde-haired Jesus)


I'm guessing he doesn't spend a lot of time around Taiwanese student activists. If you think they are easily manipulated or their opinions can be changed or bent, just ask Ma Ying-jiu how that worked out for him.

Seriously, this is one of the most offensive things I've ever read about Taiwan.

Mr. Dude turns a somewhat-valid criticism of the educational system in Taiwan into a narrative of ‘these poor dumb mindless Taiwanese are at the mercy of these missionaries’ as though they are hapless victims too stupid and thoughtless to run their own society.

You know, that society that I just noted above has a strong tradition of activism (nevermind that it used to be called 'rebellion')? The one with arguably the most successful democracy in Asia, some of the freest press in Asia if not the world, with a developed economy that they (not the dictatorship) built?

That society, apparently. According to him, it's full of morons who don't even know how to have opinions.

This literally makes me want to spit. While I don't pretend Taiwan is perfect - there are many issues here that deserve strong, if not vicious, criticism - in this particular way, I have to wonder if we're living in the same country. I mean, sure, I meet idiots here. Every country in the world has its thinkers, its average people and its, um, dimmer bulbs. Every country has its leaders, its normal people and its blind followers. But to just not see all the creativity and insight around him? What's up with that?

For every thicker-skulled person I meet, I also meet people like my student above, who risked a failing grade just to write what he really thought. I see students occupying...all sorts of things, or trying to. I see the student I had who envisioned his presentation as a series of interconnected three-dimensional cubes, in a really insightful way that I hadn't even considered as a potential mind map. I see all the great Taiwanese fiction I've read recently, the beautiful films, the students I tutored who came up with a way to safely and more easily carry water over long distances while using the movement of that water to charge a battery that could be used for electricity, the creatively-decorated cafes, the young people with ideas that they'll launch once they get the money.

I see that while the authoritarian-holdover educational system in Taiwan is accepted, it is not particularly well-liked. Most Taiwanese are well aware of the flaws, and it's entirely understandable that fixing them seems like an impossible effort (if you want to criticize this, fine, but go look at American public schools in underprivileged areas and come back and tell me you still think Western countries are 'better').

I see a country where the education system doesn't teach critical thinking, but plenty of people learned to think critically anyway.

So this guy thinks he has all the answers for how to make Taiwan better and if we’d just do what he says those poor, poor, POOR widdle Taiwanese wouldn’t be taken in by those evil big bad missionaries. Just listen to him, he’ll fix what’s wrong with Taiwan.

He knows how to make this foreign culture better, more thoughtful in ways he can relate to, more like his vision of what it should be like. Of course, without his brilliant insight Taiwan will be lost. Barbaric. Stuck in the past. Or something.

In other words, he's just another kind of missionary.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Yes, we DO love Hakka

As a child, when I'd go to large family get-togethers, my older relatives would take over a part of the living room, sitting on older chairs, to talk about the old days, in the Old Country. They spoke an extremely old language, the last to survive on its branch of Indo-European.

I didn't understand Western Armenian then, and I don't now. To me, it sounded like a series of guttural scrapes and growls strung together with something that was not quite Russian but also not quite Turkish (I later learned that it was on a completely different branch from Russian, and not related at all to Turkish - it just had a lot of Turkish borrowings given our family's Anatolian history).

One by one, those messengers from the Old Country died, including the last person from the generation that survived the genocide. Only my grandfather and great aunt (whom I haven't seen since 2000) were left. And then my grandfather recently passed away as well.

Grandpa didn't just not teach his children Armenian, he actively refused to do so. We were close and I loved him dearly, but that is the truth. When he moved to America he made himself as American as he could possibly be, and that included speaking English and having children who spoke it too. He didn't even like talking about his early years in Athens. He did such a good job that you wouldn't have known English wasn't his first - or even his second - language unless he told you, which he wasn't likely to do.

I never understood what it was I'd lost by not learning Armenian until I went to Turkey (and later to Armenia), passing through the ancestral hometowns of both my great grandfather and grandmother in the deep south, around Tarsus and Hatay. I lost a connection to the Armenians still there, only some of whom spoke English. I lost all of the details of the stories I'd learned as a child - about the genocide, the resistance on Musa Dagh, all the personal bits. Not just the cultural stories, but the personal details that involved my actual relatives. My grandpa didn't like talking about it, and my great grandmother died before I cultivated an interest (and there was a language barrier, as well). The stone engravings on the Armenian church in Vakifli. The old songs, which I could understand translations of but not really understand.

I come back to this thought periodically as I have experiences in Taiwan. The friend who couldn't really converse with her grandmother, because she'd never learned Hakka. The students who all spoke Taiwanese natively, but who were not actively teaching it to their children (and, as a result, the children were not learning it). Reading Rose Rose I Love You, and not getting all the jokes because I was reading it in a language other than the one it was written in. The translator did an excellent job explaining all of the wordplay, referencing and language-based jokes, but it wasn't the same as natively just "getting it". I imagine that if I see Tshiong in theaters, which I am planning to do, I'll feel similarly.

This mirrors my entire relationship to Taiwan. I have lived here for some time, but a lot of the references and in-jokes have to be explained to me. I don't speak Taiwanese natively and never will (even if I come to speak it well, which frankly is also unlikely), so I'll never just get it on a molecular level.

Imagine my disappointment, then, when I read this, um, questionable editorial in the News Lens about "letting Hakka go". Perhaps Eryk Smith is a "member of the tribe" by marriage - sure, fine - although I did wonder why, then, he'd reference lei cha as something Hakka. Every Hakka I know points to it as an invention for tourists. In any case, I'm not sure being married to a Hakka quite gives one enough credentials to speak for all Hakka people.

Anyway, that doesn't matter much. What does matter is that every point he makes goes against everything I know as a child of the Armenian diaspora and also as a kinda-sorta off-brand linguist.

There are some arguments in favor of cutting off the funding allocated to preserving Hakka - as a friend pointed out on Facebook:

The Hakka community gets a disproportionate amount of budget because they are traditionally “Blue” and a swing vote in many areas of Taiwan, which is why there’s budget for “we love Hakka” on ICRT, but not something actually useful to the foreign community like “we love Hoklo”. 
“Let it die” is too strong. Change it to “lose the pork” and I’m on board.


I agree - it doesn't need all the pork it gets (for the wrong reasons). But that doesn't mean we shouldn't preserve it. Do you know what doesn't cost a lot of money? Early childhood immersion programs and, later on, CLIL (content and language integrated learning). The curricula for these already exist - it's the courses students already take. They'd just be taught in Hakka. And what does that produce? Native speakers of Hakka who also have other native languages such as Mandarin, Taiwanese or even English.

In any case, saying it's fine not to pass on language as cultural heritage hurts to read - down to the cells, it hurts - because I am a product of that "who cares, it's a bad investment, let it die" attitude to language learning, and it was to my detriment.

First of all, any sociolinguist or even TESOL specialist (I can call myself the latter, perhaps not the former) will tell you that culture and language are linked, though not always inextricably so. If you lose a language, you lose something intangible but real and irretrievable about its culture. As Kumaravadivelu notes of Wierzbicka in Cultural Globalization and Language Education, "Culture-specific words...are conceptual tools that reflect a society's past experience of doing and thinking about things in certain ways; and they may help to perpetuate these ways."

While Wierzbicka goes on to say that these tools may be "modified or discarded" and do not make up the sum of a cultural or social outlook, there is a clear connection.

While this ability to adapt and discard may be true of Taiwanese society as a whole, by losing these words, we lose a sense of conception and culture unique to Hakka society, just as my family has lost its ability to relate to certain Armenian cultural concepts - and just as I was never given the chance to gain it.

Simply put, you cannot teach "cultural history" and "stories" in any language you like - or rather, you can, but you inevitably lose something. By teaching Hakka stories in Taiwanese, Mandarin or English, you lose some ways of thinking about these stories unique to Hakka. You lose what makes them whole. What you have is just a story on paper, from a culture you no longer know natively. You lose the textures, the cadences, the topography of cultural heritage - the things that make old stories alive, relevant and linked to who you are. Lin Shao-mao is a character in a story in Mandarin, Taiwanese or English. He's typed up. Flat on a page. Black-on-white, maybe with some pictures. He's a part of who you are as a people in Hakka.

In English, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh - a part of my cultural heritage - is a book I can read. It means something, but it lacks psychological topography. This hymn in Armenian (this is a video I took earlier this year in a monastery outside Yerevan) is beautiful, but because I can't understand it in any way, it lacks certain textures that I might have otherwise understood. Natively.

As language preservationists will also point out, the value of preserving a language is not in how "useful" it is, or the return on investment it provides, but in retaining that connection, those ideas from the past that cannot be fully rendered in another language. You don't save a language based on how many people speak it, you save it for the unique knowledge it contains. Not everybody has a capitalist view of language learning, in which only the languages with the highest ROI are learned - some people are after something a little more thoughtful and a little less cold.

I mean, I didn't marry Brendan because he was "a good investment" (although I could argue that he was, depending on how you define "investment"). I married him because I love him. I don't try to pick up Taiwanese because it's a good investment. I do it because I love Taiwan. Sometimes you do things simply because you love them.

In any case, is it not a good investment to understand the cultural connections inherent in the language of your ancestors, that no other language can fully convey? Someday, I'd like to learn Western Armenian. It's a terrible "investment" in terms of usefulness, compared to Chinese, Arabic, Spanish or even Turkish - but it's a great investment if I want to fully understand some of the intangibles of my heritage.

And, as language teachers will point out, there is a way to ensure that Hakka continues to exist without putting older children and young adults through pointless language classes: learning it natively. Although there is a lot to be criticized about the "critical period hypothesis", as Lightbown and Spada point out in How Languages Are Learned, they and others do acknowledge that research has not yet found a limit to the number of languages one can learn natively. If that government budget were spent ensuring that very young children learned Hakka as a first language, alongside Mandarin and perhaps Taiwanese (and perhaps even English), it wouldn't be a drain on young people's time. It would just come naturally.

There is truly no need to argue about this - although leave it to the Taiwanese government to screw up language education - language teaching theory has more or less settled it. It is no longer one of the Great Questions.

Finally, as I hope Eryk Smith surely knows, if some people pick up "a working knowledge" of Hakka from their grandparents, but then do not teach it to their children, Hakka won't continue to be a minority language. Nobody is trying to make Hakka the primary language of Taiwan - that will never happen. It won't exist at all, however, if nobody teaches it to their children.

And then we'll have lost something indeed. I wonder how many great-grandchildren who never learned Hakka will make the trip back to Miaoli or Meinong or Beipu or even Yangmei, just as I did on Musa Dagh, and sigh not only at what they'd lost, but what their short-sighted ancestors never allowed them to gain. 

Friday, November 24, 2017

Islands in the Stream: on a lack of mentoring in ELT in Taiwan

Just recently, an opportunity more or less fell in my lap.

Well, I say that as though it appeared out of nowhere with no work on my part, but that's not entirely true. As a result of completing a Cambridge Delta, I made useful connections in the professional teaching world in Taiwan: a network I wouldn't have been able to build if I hadn't put in that work and, I suppose, stood out while doing it. One of those people helped ensure we had access to the reading and sources we needed and has been a supportive person in the field since. He hasn't been the only supportive person, but he's certainly been the most supportive one. Hence, a chance to level up. Climb one ring higher on the professional ladder.

In other ways, I've had peers, trainers and other TEFL professionals - yes, it is a profession if you do it properly - who have been helpful or supportive. What I've learned on all of these qualification and degree courses, including in my current MEd program, have been useful and interesting and have helped me develop as a teacher, but arguably the biggest benefit has been connecting to this international network of professional teachers more as I progress professionally. This is true in any field - TEFL is no less different once you get out of the "fancy daycare" sewer end.

I have tried to pass that on as much as I am able, referring people I felt were talented, doing classroom observations and giving feedback, being a part of a group that meets to discuss TEFL-related issues and loaning out books from my now-considerable professional library. I hope to do more of it in the future.

But, I've been lucky. I was in a position where I was able to do the Delta and move on to the MEd (again, with support not just professionally but financially), and having the foothold to even do that can be an obstacle for many in Taiwan. Even so, despite my good luck, local support is minimal: a handful of dedicated people at best.

Yes, there are associations - well, there's one - and very few of the long-term professionals I know attend their events. I've been given several reasons for this which I won't repeat here.

In any case, associations aren't really the answer - what the TEFL world in Taiwan seems to lack is mentoring. 

Some could benefit from group or individual support when studying for Delta, as it can seem like an impossible feat. Some need the security of knowing there are people who can be their Delta tutors - but in Taiwan, the pool of qualified people is tiny, and most don't have the time (myself included - I'm not there yet but I will be soon, and I can only hope that at that point, I will have the time).

Some have trouble even accessing the readings they need for Delta and Master's programs - someone in Taiwan likely has the books they need, but it's hard to know who.

Some quite rightly want to find work that will help sponsor them for professional development, which is not impossible but certainly rare.

Some burn out as university teachers in an academic setting with little support, because the language department is so poorly run - low pay, purposeless meetings, large class sizes, with no incentive to publish nor many opportunities to collaborate with others on development, research or publication. There don't seem to be too many mentors there, either, nor much advice they can offer for dealing with such poor working conditions.

Some are talented but can't get their foot in the door at institutions that would value them because of bad timing and a lack of opportunities to demonstrate that talent.

The support I'm talking about doesn't have to be very high-level: it needn't be advanced degree holders working together or reaching out to bring others up. It could be peer-to-peer, with teachers working together within schools - yes, even buxibans - and finding, creating or referring opportunities to receive or provide training, observe each other for learning/feedback, design or improve a curriculum or syllabus or research or write. Yet not even that is always readily available. Not even the "fancy daycares" need to be the "sewer end" of the industry, and arguably would be far more pleasant places to work if there were more incentives to work together. It doesn't have to be as horrible as it is, and it should be easier to climb out and do better than $600/hour in an insecure job where educating the learners is not the chief priority.

All in all, people just don't seem to talk. The official learning and classwork inherent in professional development is important, but so is talking, and it's not happening. I know quite a few professionals in the field, and none so far has described to me a real mentoring experience they've had in Taiwan. Having that former Delta tutor who has passed opportunities my way - essentially a form of the mentorship I'm talking about - feels like a stroke of luck few others get in Taiwan.

I'm describing what I see in the foreign teaching community here, but I'm not sure it's much better in local circles. Certainly, local and foreign teaching circles don't overlap much, which is another problem. They can and should. Why they don't is beyond me, although I can't help but think we are actively disincentivized from creating such an environment.

Across the sea, I see a friend teaching at a university in Japan who goes to conferences across the country, has a strong professional network, is able to publish and attend conferences abroad, and is not only able to climb the ladder, but there is a ladder to climb. She has people to talk shop with, people to meet, avenues of collaboration.

I want that for Taiwan. While I know that anything that happens here will necessarily be smaller-scale, it's sad that it doesn't seem to exist much at all.

One problem is the difficulty in accessing the professional development training where one builds such networks. While arguably fair for a fresh college graduate to be earning NT$600 a month - this works out to about US$20/hour in a country that's cheaper to live in - it's not enough to save to go abroad to do training. There is little professional development available in Taiwan itself (yet).

Another is that the vast majority of English teachers in Taiwan are unqualified. A strong professional support network of mentors and mentees requires a mix of leaders and learners, and there are so few leaders in education in Taiwan. I can name maybe 20 whom I know personally in the foreign community outside of the international schools, and I'd imagine some out there whom I don't know - but the number is likely quite small. Many schools have teacher trainers, most of whom were given the job because they've been teaching a few years longer, nothing more. While there is value in this, teaching for a longer period of time doesn't necessarily make one a better teacher (though it helps) or necessarily qualified to train. Many of the truly qualified ones I know in Taiwan are either too busy to take on that kind of role, and some have either left or are planning to leave. Of those, I've heard more than one story of someone who doesn't want to leave, but feels pushed out by how education works in Taiwan.

Of those who stay, as far as I know not one of them stays because they think the situation here is great. They stay, as I do, because they want to be here. It actively costs them career-wise, as it will probably cost me.

It doesn't help, either, that most institutions are run by businesspeople with no background in education. Although the atmosphere is collegial at my various workplaces now, I've seen plenty where building professional relationships for development purposes wasn't even considered, because it didn't occur to the businessperson at the top that teachers were professionals who could benefit from it. Other times, it's simply not encouraged, or seen as an active threat (in one memorable case I think they worried about us organizing, and organized labor is more difficult to exploit). Certainly as all such work is currently unpaid at most institutions, leading to a further lack of incentives.

I'm not sure what to do about all this except to do my best to be a mentor myself to the extent that I am able. When I reached out my arms, a few people pulled me up; I want to do the same for others. But if we create a stronger professional support network in Taiwan, it will make professional development easier and more accessible. We might not have a ladder in terms of training programs (yet) but we really ought to have one in terms of networking and support.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Let's talk about sex education in Taiwan

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It's a popular expat pastime to point out ways that Taiwan is different from one's home country - you know, the typical "back home we have churches but here we have temples" type of narrative. I do it myself sometimes. There's nothing wrong with that type of story - vive la difference and all - but it's interesting sometimes to look at ways in which countries on two different ends of the world are more alike than they are different - for better or worse. And sometimes both.

This is one of those "both" times - an interesting article appeared on NPR pointing out Taiwan's forward thinking sex education curriculum (although implementation is far from perfect, as teachers incorporate it into other subjects as they see fit) as well as opposition to it. Both good (the modern, pragmatic curriculum content) and bad (anti-gay groups saying the same-sex relationship education is 'improper') are quite similar to the debate over this issue that goes on in my own country.

I've long been critical of sex education in the USA - as the article points out, what is taught (if anything) is state rather than federally mandated, so American children in different states might graduate with wildly different knowledge about sex and reproduction. More age-appropriate knowledge is always better in this regard (with "age appropriate" meaning "a strong knowledge base before a young person becomes sexually active, and whatever knowledge they are curious about regardless of age"), so it is never a good thing for a student in one state to have less knowledge than a student in another. When sex ed is taught, as it was in my school, I wonder about the content. I learned about sexually transmitted diseases and reproduction, but did not learn much about female anatomy - I had to inquire on my own to learn that one can pee with a tampon in, for example, and that's just unfortunate as it should have been taught - and nothing at all about physically and emotionally healthy sexual relationships (with the emotional part especially ignored). I learned that from a combination of talking with my mother, reading a book she'd given me, and honestly, learning on my own.

Imagine if I hadn't had a good upbringing or open-minded mother. Imagine what I might not have known about healthy sexuality simply because I was born into a more conservative family or state. Imagine how much of a problem that might have been for me as an adult - even with a pretty good education in these matters from home, I still made (relatively minor) mistakes. What sorts of bigger mistakes might I have made without this healthy upbringing?

And, frankly, I think it's just stupid to pretend sex - and how to enjoy it in a healthy way - is somehow a shameful topic that we must avoid talking about to children or even in (some) polite company. Everyone is either doin' it, will do it, or wants to do it. It makes about as much sense to pretend it doesn't exist as not building public bathrooms (we all excrete, too) or not eating in public or even talking about eating or admitting we eat. I also think it's stupid to consider basic health education, including how to have healthy relationships in general, as inappropriate for children. If you're old enough to notice that you have sex organs, you are old enough to know what they're for. If you're old enough to know how and why you poop, you are old enough to know how babies are made. If you're old enough to know that your parents (hopefully) have sex, you're old enough to know the good things and dangers of doing it yourself.

And if you're old enough to ask, you're old enough to deserve an answer.

So, yeah, not too happy with my own country on this front. If we could stop being so terrified of a basic (and fun!) biological function, maybe we could have a happier and healthier population as a whole. If we could do that, maybe we could understand this biology in a more evidence-based way, which would lead to less misogyny and gender discrimination and less homophobia and anti-gay fearmongering.

As for Taiwan, frankly, I'm not sure what to make of sex ed here. I know a curriculum exists, and I have seen with my own eyes attempts at public service campaigns on the topic: I once had a culture shock moment in the MRT as I watched a safe sex commercial play on the televisions that announce the time of the next train. And yet, I'm  surprised by how often I come across straight-up head-scratcher beliefs. For example:

- That you cannot or should not use a tampon if you are a virgin
- That if you merely sleep in the same bed as a person of the opposite sex, you might get pregnant
- That if you drink cold drinks on your period, the menstrual lining will "harden" and stop flowing out (I know this one comes from older Chinese beliefs, but to me, hearing it is akin to hearing a Westerner talk about the healing properties of leeches)
- That homosexuality leads to AIDS epidemics
- That the percentage of LGBT people would decrease if we'd only raise children a certain way
- That it is "not normal" to be gay (often backed up with painfully flawed historical or demographic arguments)
- That criminalizing sex work will stop it
- That teaching abstinence or withholding education will stop young people from having sex
- That men "always" want to have sex but women "usually don't"
- That sex is a female "duty" to her husband


...so, basically, aside from the whole no-cold-drinks-on-yer-period thing it's more or less just like the US. As I don't think the US's sex education programs are particularly praiseworthy, I also have to wonder if Taiwan's national program is effective as so many of the same myths and misconceptions persist. It's even the same people - those anti-gay, usually religious types who are a few conspiracy theories shy of thinking the Earth is flat, who want to impose their ridiculous and frankly made-up morality on the rest of us - causing trouble and spreading lies.

A little slice of America in the Far East. In the worst possible way.

It's a shame, because unlike the US where a Puritanical past coupled with (pun intended) waves of immigrants who, while they bring diversity to the US, might not exactly bring a cutting-edge understanding of sexuality, this never had to be the outcome in Taiwan. Taiwanese culture is often dismissed as "conservative" and "repressed" by foreigners who don't know better, but the reality is a lot more complicated than that, and is not necessarily always conservative by Western standards. There is room in Taiwanese culture to be open about these things.


And then there's hilarity like this:


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This brochure is outdated now, but I still think it proves a point. I had originally thought of it as a good thing: an attempt to educate, albeit a flawed one. Now, I'm not so sure. Why is it in English? I don't remember seeing a similar on in Chinese (although one might exist). Do they think foreigners need to be educated to avoid "seductions in cities"? Are we seen as the problem? That's a problem in itself, but the childish presentation and straight-up hilarious English - why on Earth did they think that "工欲善其事,必先利其器" was a good idiom to use? This alone renders it useless and ineffective for even this misguided goal.

What's more, instead of all the useful information they could have put on the back, they chose "avoid seductions", "flowers with dazzling beauty can take your life" and...sharpening tools?

Despite all that talk of a progressive national sex education curriculum, is this really what it boils down to?

I don't know, as I don't work in a public school, I don't research this issue and although I've had friends tell me they had very little or no sex education in school, they are all old enough that their observations would not necessarily reflect today's reality.

So I'm not sure what to think, but I do know that Taiwan can, and should, improve in this area. It is entirely in keeping with local culture that it do so.