Showing posts with label higher_education. Show all posts
Showing posts with label higher_education. Show all posts

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

This whole "English as the second official language" thing

0-2


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.

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.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Red Tide: Taiwan, education and Western liberals

I had lots of great pictures from this protest, and lost all of them. A shame. So I've stolen this from Wikicommons like a scrub and I'm not even sorry. 


On October 10th, 2006, I was sitting in a Starbucks across the street from Taipei Main Station watching an angry wave of red roll by.

I had arrived in Taiwan just one month before, knowing next to nothing about Taiwan but thinking, as young graduates often do, that I knew quite a bit. It went something like this: there were two main parties in the "Republic of China" - the KMT, which I knew about, and the other one, which I didn't. The KMT had been the republicans-in-the-lower-case-sense who had fled from China, establishing themselves in the last vestige of "Free China", which was Taiwan. I hadn't known what Taiwan had been before that, so I assumed it had been Chinese. That must have been accurate, my subconscious surmised, because nobody had corrected me. The KMT had helped to develop the island into an industrialized and prosperous nation, eventually granting the people democracy. About a third of Taiwanese supported "reunification", a third independence, and a third were undecided. The language of Taiwan was Mandarin Chinese, and the people were Chinese. Chiang Kai-shek had been "corrupt", which was unfortunate, but he was much better than Mao Zedong. Because they had fled China, the KMT obviously did not support "reunification", which even then I did not think was a good idea. I didn't know about the other party. The current president was Chen Shui-bian, who was that other party, and who was pretty bad because he'd stolen some money, so the protesters were probably right. I knew that cross-Strait relations was "a complex issue" but ultimately, as the people of Taiwan had no consensus despite having democratized and having no other impediment, the current status quo was in everyone's best interest.

Pretty clear, right? Wow, I sure did know a lot! Practically a PhD-level expert, that was me. Just hand me my diploma.

I considered myself a good liberal: educated, well-traveled, thoughtful, engaged - a reader, talker and thinker. I cared about egalitarianism, justice, freedom and democracy, and simply doing the right thing even if it is to your detriment. I considered myself open-minded. I was secure both in my liberalism and my opinions and knowledge on Taiwan.

After all, this is what I had been taught. This was the entirety of the history of Taiwan that I had learned in my high school Social Studies class, crammed in at the end of a long unit on China. This was the version of history I defended to my teenage students in China when the subject came up. Nobody mentioned Taiwan in college, even though I'd studied International Affairs with a concentration in Asia. My main focus was South Asia, but that was still no excuse. I hadn't thought anything of it at the time, because it hadn't occurred to me that it might be important.

I had taken one course focusing on China in college - Chinese Culture Through Film. The professor was a lovely woman who had studied in Taiwan, but "had actually wanted to go to the Mainland". At the time, China had been closed to visitors, but she "had a Mao suit" that she "wore all the time", and thought of her professors in Taiwan as "doughy, soft capitalists."

While there might have been a thread of bitter irony in there, a knowledge that her earlier belief in the greatness of Mao's socialism had been misguided - to put it kindly - I hadn't picked up on it. I hadn't been to China yet but I felt a wave of sympathy for this viewpoint, because I assumed, being the larger country, that China was "more interesting" and Taiwan a backwater - of course someone would prefer to go to China.

This was what I knew about Taiwan. Therefore, this was all there was to know about Taiwan.

I'd come primarily because, after a lackluster year in China, I thought I'd give the place a try. I figured I'd probably leave in 2-3 years.

So I sat there as an incoming tide of vermilion-shirted marchers engulfed the street, flooding in to the Starbucks, banging drums, shouting for the president to step down, and generally making much merrier than you'd expect at an American protest.

The person I'd planned to meet so we could check out the action together didn't show, so I talked to a few other people there: protesters and regular coffee-drinkers alike about the Red Shirts and Taiwan in general. I don't remember many of the details of that conversation, but I do remember thinking that nothing I was told fit with the paradigm of Taiwanese affairs I'd believed. So these guys were KMT? No, not all of them, but most. So they were the other party? Some of them. So, if Chen's the bad guy, his party is the problematic one, yes? Hmm - in some ways, but not others. If the KMT gave Taiwan democracy, why does he hate them so much? Well...

Why do they hate him?
Well...

Wait, so these protesters support "reunification"?
No. Not necessarily. Actually, probably not.

That's the other party?
DEFINITELY not.

It wasn't just a different perspective - it didn't have a place at all. It was like trying to run an iPhone app on an old HTC. It made as much sense as coffee with salt or English on a night market t-shirt when one speaks coherent English.

Later, as I picked my way through the vermilion detritus washed up on the sidewalks - little did I know that protesters diligently cleaning up after themselves would become a feature of future Taiwanese social movements, the leaders of which were still in high school or starting college in 2006 - I thought one thing:

I didn't know much about Taiwan at all, and it was time I started really learning.

My name is Jenna Cody. I am a Typical American Liberal, and that is my origin story.

* * *

It's 2017 now. I still read quite a bit on Taiwan. I differ from the typical American liberal in that I've lived abroad for most of my adult life, and in that I am deeply pro-Taiwan: almost everything I thought I knew when I first arrived I have either found to be wrong, partially wrong, or far more complicated than it at first seemed. What might have been correct is now hopelessly out-of-date.

While not anti-China, I see no good argument for trusting the Communists, nor any argument for "unification" when the Taiwanese clearly don't want it, and generally don't identify primarily as Chinese at all. I hang with cool people - real, bona fide experts, advocates and activists - who know things. I've learned a lot, though I wouldn't call myself an expert.

Most Taiwan supporters I know here are liberals by American standards, although our most visible influential allies in the US are conservatives, often right-wing ones at that. This bothers me for a few reasons, the first of which being that the future of Taiwan is a fundamentally progressive one. How could it be otherwise when Taiwan, to cite just one example, will be the first country in Asia to implement marriage equality? I am not sure that social conservatives are the best allies to a country which, on many (though not all) important issues, would be more likely to side with the American left. Beyond that, I worry that their support of Taiwan is more often than not related more to a fear or dislike of China than any real pro-Taiwan sentiment. And, of course, the very idea of preserving the sovereignty of a self-ruled free democracy is fundamentally liberal.

I am not the first to wonder why it is that the American right has taken up the Taiwan cause, whereas the average American liberal, if they take note of the issue at all, either doesn't think it is particularly important or is more actively pro-China than you'd expect.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that in the pro-Taiwan community, how to talk to American liberals about Taiwan is a core issue. Many of us are mystified as to why a pro-Taiwan stance is not immediately recognized as a liberal one: a sovereign nation, a vibrant and engaged democracy in which civil discourse is taken seriously, freedom of expression, national health insurance and recycling as much as possible are so normal that they're taken for granted, human rights are considered fundamental and both women's and LGBT rights have made great strides, the people are committed to peace and think of the US as an important ally rather than a hegemonic threat.

Taiwan is not perfect, but how is this not every liberal's dream?

Not only is Taiwan democratic and free, but it is standing up against everything liberals hate. Just over a hundred miles away, a brutal authoritarian regime regularly violates human rights, torturing and murdering its own people, restricting basic freedoms and acting increasingly expansionist - both in terms of territorial grabbiness, but also intellectually, trying to control the marketplace of ideas not only at home, but abroad.

Every single day - I cannot say this enough - the Taiwanese people wake up and go about their lives, building their country and making it better, refusing to give up or give in, despite a catastrophe-creating number of missiles pointed right at them. And not only do they refuse to surrender their land and their freedom, but they are committed to solving the problem peacefully. This is the very definition of not only liberalism, but also courage. This is probably the single most heart-rending reason why I stay: I could make more money elsewhere, but I believe in Taiwan.

And yet, for whatever reason, liberals who balk at Russia's expansionism and (now, at least) sympathize with the Palestinians couldn't care less about Taiwan. It makes no difference to them that the thickest, richest, freest democracy in Asia is in real danger of being swallowed up by one of the most horrific dictatorships of our lifetime.

I am not the first person to observe this: both Ketagalan Media and J. Michael Cole have covered this issue extensively.

However, nobody yet seems to have publicly asked the question that could lead to an answer:

Why?

Why don't liberals care about Taiwan - or worse, why are some actively anti-Taiwan? Why is the best writing on Taiwan often found in conservative news sources, and why do liberals start explaining away their apathy whenever Taiwan is brought up?

If we are going to solve the issue of how to talk to American liberals about Taiwan, first we need to know why they don't care to begin with.

I am not an expert, and I don't claim to have a final answer. I can, however, start the conversation. Once we know why, we can formulate solutions.

I tried to write this in a longer post and got bogged down in how much there was to say, so I've decided to split it up into several posts, and I honestly have no idea when it will be finished.

For now, I want to talk about one of the roots of the problem: education.

It isn't surprising that the average Westerner either doesn't care or has inaccurate knowledge about Taiwan when what they are taught is essentially a condensed version of tired KMT talking points. Although my own teacher was careful to note that Chiang Kai-shek was no saint, the KMT as a whole comes out looking rather spiffy in this whole narrative.

It's also not shocking that people assume that China is speaking the truth when they say that annexing China is "reunification" if one's education only covers Taiwan post-1949, heavily implying that before that date, Taiwan and China had always been united. It borders on a lie of omission, and I'd make a solid bet that the average high school Social Studies teacher (and perhaps a few professors who didn't study the region) actually believes that this was the case, or simply hasn't considered the issue long enough to know that it is an issue at all.

It's easy to think that the two sides both see themselves as "China" when that's how it is taught. To be fair, it was the official view of the two governments for some time - the issue is that the few sentences it would take to point out that the official position of the Republic of China does not reflect the view of the people aren't added to this. It's not a big leap to make the argument that nothing can change because both countries use "China" in their official name, and to therefore think that "reunification" either wouldn't be so bad, or that accomplishing it peacefully is possible.

All sorts of nebulous beliefs might form from the mind of a well-meaning liberal with this kind of education: that there was a meaningful "split" in 1949, and that that split was between "Taiwan and China" rather than "the PRC and the ROC". That the KMT is doing the right thing by pursuing closer ties, because after all they brought about successful democratization in Taiwan. That the DPP, considering this history, are the real "troublemakers" by being so "anti-China" (if one even knows who they are). That "one country two systems" is a strong and workable solution.

And most insidiously, that the Taiwanese, being "from China", speaking Chinese, having "the same history" as China and considering themselves "Chinese" would happily "reunite" with China if only China would liberalize and democratize. The very idea that this will never happen and no amount of liberalization on the part of China will change Taiwan's desire for de jure sovereignty, that there was never and will never be a "One China"  that includes Taiwan, is nearly heresy after a curriculum that hits these points.

If you believe that, then it's easy to jump to believing that the US not only has no moral obligation to stand by Taiwan, but that in fact should actively stand down. That it's better for everyone involved - including the Taiwanese if they are considered at all - if "reunification" happens.

So, perhaps as an adult with such an education, you read about the Tsai-Trump phone call. You are predisposed to thinking the party that "advocates independence" is a troublemaker, and as a good liberal you hate Trump, so of course you are upset. Of course Taiwan is the problem.

You might read about Tsai refusing to acknowledge the "1992 Consensus", which the reporter treats as a real consensus that was made and is valid. Being a good, educated liberal, you Google it to find out what it is. As you've always believed that the two sides considered themselves "China", it's not hard to believe that of course they'd agree on "One China", perhaps "with different interpretations." Through that lens, Tsai's refusal to acknowledge this looks like troublemaking rather than an attempt to correct the narrative.

You certainly don't question what you read in the media, because the media hits all of the points that match up with what you've been taught. This confirmation strikes you as plausible and persuasive. As a good liberal, you tend to believe what people say if it lines up with your education. Insisting that the world is different from what teachers teach and textbooks say - and the media you trust confirms - makes you sound like...my god, a right-winger or worse, a Trump supporter. Heavens no!

Let's take this further - not only is the average liberal reader the beneficiary of this kind of education, if they even got that much, but the reporters who wrote the story were too. They can't write better articles, because they genuinely don't know better. They check their facts perhaps with a think tank or simply looking it up, and come across other references to things like "the 1992 Consensus", again from people who don't necessarily know the whole story themselves. The information validates itself in a feedback loop of inaccuracy that nevertheless comforts everyone in it, from teacher to reporter to reader.

Of course, mileage varies. I have friends who have no connection to Taiwan beyond me who know a fair amount about the issue - they're perhaps aware of the web of assurances and communiques that the decaying shanty that is today's US foreign policy on Taiwan is glued together with. Even they tend not to see why the status quo is a long-term problem for Taiwan, or why "economic cooperation" with China is never only economic cooperation.  On the other end, I've met well-meaning educated liberals who genuinely did not think Taiwan was democratic, or even believed that it was already part of China, in a similar position as Hong Kong.

I realize that I'm speaking from experiences I had in school in the 1990s and early 2000s, but honestly, to hear young Westerners today, I'm not sure much has changed.

I know that Taiwan is not likely to get more time in Western educational curricula, but perhaps it doesn't need it, especially in high school. In my school, we spent about as much time on it as we did Australia, and perhaps more than we did on New Zealand. Australia and Taiwan have a similar population, so that's all that can be expected.

However, the time it is given really must be better used. Unwittingly treating Taiwan like nothing more an extension of the KMT regime, before which nothing that happened there mattered, heavily implying that it has always been Chinese is simply not good enough, and is a huge part of why we struggle to gain liberal support now.

It seems simple to say that teachers simply need to teach the truth - a mention of aboriginal settlement, the truth of Qing colonialism, Japanese colonialism (that in my education this was skipped over completely astounds me even today), a bit more time exploring KMT brutality in Taiwan, and a bit less on China's views of Taiwan which can honestly be summed up in one sentence. A few minutes explaining that the current status of Taiwan under international law is undetermined, and what the US's actual Taiwan policy is. A treatment of the views of the people of Taiwan that...well, that take into account their views at all to begin with, and is also accurate. Not using the term "reunification". Making it clear that the Taiwanese are so against unification not because they're just garrulous or quarrelsome, but because their history really is unique. Less time comparing Chiang to Mao, and more on these other issues. You could do it in the same timeframe.

Of course, it's not that simple. Schoolteachers are not omniscient in their subjects. History or Social Studies teachers won't necessarily know these details themselves, and we honestly can't expect that they will. I would probably make an excellent history or Social Studies teacher, and I don't pretend to be an expert in every territorial conflict around the world. I'm not nearly an expert in Abkhazia or South Ossetia - though I can tell you some - and I have been to Georgia. Recently. 
In universities, however, we really do have to do better. We have to stop assuming that someone studying China is equally qualified to teach or talk about Taiwan. Professors who teach Taiwan-related topics should know what they're talking about. We absolutely must fight Chinese influence in non-Chinese institutions of higher education. This is absolutely not too much to ask. Universities can and must do better.

This must go hand-in-hand with looking squarely in the face of what the Chinese government is and how it operates, and teaching that truth. No more tiptoeing around out of fear of being called "racist" (racism, while a real problem, is not the problem here), no more downplaying Chinese human rights abuses and propaganda and other United Front efforts abroad, making the place seem like a liberal's wet dream of socialism, "ethnic food" and adorable pandas. We can't tell the truth about Taiwan until we tell the truth about China.

With China actively trying to peddle its version of history in Western institutions of higher education, this problem is especially intractable. They're pushing their own red tide on the world, and the problem is, people are swallowing it. How are we to target CPD or the textbooks and other materials when the major textbook manufacturers probably aren't that interested (and themselves may have received just this education), and there is a lobby of pro-China activists who will fight us at every turn and - because those listening to our debate also received this education - are just as likely to think we're the zealots and nutjobs with a weak grasp of the facts, not them.

There are other things we can do, however. Right now, a typical liberal belief is that unity is always better, and that 'nationalism' is generally undesirable. Even too much patriotism is viewed with a bit of suspicion - frankly, rightly so. Nationalism is often assumed to be ethnic nationalism - always a bad thing (and yes, I happen to agree with this) and complexity in the debate of unity vs. separation is often ignored. The idea that one might desire sovereignty for one's nation without it being about ethnicity - which, in Taiwan's case, it isn't - doesn't get much play in educational institutions, and the idea that more unity is not always in everyone's best interest (especially when one of the actors in the scenario has insidious intentions or is blatantly expansionist, as China does and is) is given none at all. Even the idea that the United Nations might be failing in some regards doesn't seem to be a point of discussion in the average classroom.

If we can flip on its head the liberal assumptions that unity is always the best decision for all involved, and that nationalism is inherently ethnic and therefore bad, we might just get enough people thinking about Taiwan in a different way, which could lead to a bigger change.

Maybe I'm hopelessly optimistic, but I have to think something will work.

Looking back on the journey I took from thinking I knew everything to actually knowing some things and knowing that there is so much more I have to learn, I realize that it didn't just come. I had to dig. If all I'd done was read media I trusted and compare that against Wikipedia and the education I'd received, I'd still be here defending, say, the KMT's development policy as the real force behind the Taiwan Miracle (hey, some poorly-informed people still do. Even when they're in graduate school). I might still think the 1992 Consensus was a real thing that had been agreed upon. I might accept without question that Taiwan was fully a part of China for the entirety of the Qing dynasty's possession of it, which I might still assume entailed controlling the entire island.

Occasionally, someone will assume that I was 'indoctrinated' into being so staunchly pro-independence through having 'the wrong kind' of friends. In fact, I came to this on my own after a fair amount of reading and simply living here, seeing for myself what Taiwan was about. I keep the company I do because of the way my beliefs have evolved, not the other way around.

Once or twice, it has been insinuated that I feel this way because "anti-China", "China-hating" or "sinophobe" forces in the West use Western educational curricula to inculcate a fear of China into students like me (I can't think of anything more ridiculous - if anything, Western education is too lenient on modern China and mostly wrong about Taiwan).

In fact, I'd say that if someone had the experience I did, sitting in that Starbucks watching a scarlet tsunami of something they could not at all fit into their pre-set notion of what the world was like, and they'd set out to do something about that, they'd probably end up in more or less the same place I have. Especially if they stuck around.

Really learning about this topic is difficult, not only because Taiwan isn't on the radar of most Westerners, but because both China and the KMT are actively trying to muddy the waters, making clear truths more controversial than they ever needed to be, so that even a reader like me can be accused of having been "brainwashed".

I got out of this miasma of inaccurate learning by living here and really digging. The average Western liberal will never live here, or even visit. While they have the critical tools to dig, they probably won't, not because they refuse to think but because they never even realized there was something to dig for - and, frankly, nobody has the time to be well-read in everything. I can't expect of others what I cannot accomplish myself regarding other parts of the world.

Even if someone does dig, there is so much inaccurate information out there that, after awhile, even the most well-meaning person might start to believe it. That's where fighting inaccuracy in media reporting comes in, which will be the subject of my next post on this topic - whenever that is.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

In defense of private institute English teaching

Let me make this clear in the beginning: I'm playing devil's advocate here. I have a lot (no really, a lot) of criticisms of the private teaching market, which in Taiwan usually consist of cram schools/buxibans. I wouldn't call working for them a good work situation generally, and if you do so, you lose a lot of the perks of being a teacher. No one-month-salary annual bonuses, no paid summers off, no access to the pension program, few salaried positions available, and very little job security when most of us are on zero-hour contracts. It is possible to get a job as a nobody with no experience, qualification, training or even relevant volunteer experience, and be thrown into work without adequate training.

The work doesn't pay nearly as well as people seem to think it does - better than more traditional teaching in Taiwan (but not necessarily elsewhere) at both public schools and universities, and better than the average twentysomething office worker, but not nearly on par with credentialed mid-career professionals in other fields. Work hours tend to be long and scattered, and you teach a lot because you need to in order to earn enough money. That gives you much less time to put care into planning lessons, let alone doing research, action research, writing, reading, giving or attending workshops or doing all of the other things I associate with a professional teaching career. Everyone encourages their teachers to seek professional development and certification, but nobody is willing to sponsor it.

And, ethically, a lot of the cram schools here, and around the world, treat their teachers like migrant laborers or are just straight-up racist or the worst kind of neoliberal "we can take what we want from you and offer you as little as possible in return" employers.

I can't say I'm "happy" with the way this industry is run nor with what those who work in it get for their efforts.

However, after spending a month among other experienced English teachers from different contexts around the world, I do have a few things I can say in defense of working in a language institute.

One more caveat before I begin: these advantages only seem to accrue to those who have accumulated experience and often credentials, and in Taiwan are often easier to come by if you stay long enough to get permanent residency. They do not necessarily apply to all new teachers.

First of all, it's easier to get uninterrupted vacation time, although that time is almost always unpaid. Many of my classmates had to fly back (I suspect at their own expense) for work-related duties at their schools partway through the program and miss a week of classes - nobody would ever ask me to do that. If I say I need a block of time off, I get it as long as I request it reasonably far enough in advance, with no "but you have to come back for these specific three days to do this specific thing" in the middle of your six weeks off" nonsense. Other than being expected to show up for class, nobody calls me up and says "you must be here for this, this and that" or "you have to do these things". I essentially have no single boss or manager.

It also means I get as much vacation time as I want, which is very useful on a Master's program and was also useful in the aftermath of my mother's illness and passing, and my dad's heart surgery less than a year later. In late 2014 I told my employers and private students that my absence would be indefinite, and that was fine. I had work to return to five months later when my family issues were more stable. When I needed to take off again just a few months later for my dad's surgery, that was fine too. When I finished the Delta, I told them to hold off on all new classes until I was done, and they did. When I decided to do this Master's program, I said I'd need a few months off over the summer and that was fine. I had free reign to choose the dates and arrange things as I pleased. If I had the money and wanted to take a year off to just do whatever, I could, and I'd still have a good chance at having work offered to me when I was ready.

And unlike many teachers, this leave is not limited to school breaks. My mom's situation started getting really serious in late autumn 2014, long before any school break. You can't plan major family upheavals for summer vacation. They happen when they happen.

The fact that this time is unpaid actually works in my favor: when you have paid leave, of course the leave you get is limited. In Taiwan that could be as little as seven days (which I think is cruel, actually), in the US perhaps two weeks, in Europe five weeks. But ultimately, there is a limit. I have no limit, as long as I have the money to finance it.

On the other side, a lot of my classmates have paid leave and don't have to go in - they have months and months of free time with a salary coming in. Some of them are taking off to just hang out in Europe for awhile, which you can do when you're being paid an expat salary in the Middle East but your university is on break (although, again, you don't get to choose when that break is). It would be great to be able to afford that, but I ultimately can't. I could move to the Middle East - there would be work for me and the pay is stupendous - but I put up with the crappy parts of working in Taiwan like the low pay and scattered hours because I want to be in Taiwan.

A second advantage is the lack of administrative hassle. I have no real administrative duties - I don't have to show up for many meetings, I don't have to do reams of paperwork, I don't have to grade heaps of tests (my IELTS classes have tests, but class sizes are kept low so it's not an onerous task). I don't have to sit in on department meetings, nor do I have to spend time doing extra activities like running a drama club or English Corner (which I'd happily do if I were paid for the extra work, but of course we never are, so I won't do them). I may only get paid for the hours I teach - with the expectation that the pay for them covers lesson planning time, though I'm not convinced it does - but I don't have a lot I have to do outside of those hours beyond planning classes.

I also appreciate that, not working in a big institution, I am not pushed into a testing culture I don't support. I don't have to teach to a test - I help prepare some learners for IELTS, but that's not the same thing - and I don't have to teach towards a test that I think has deep validity issues. I don't need to test my private students at all, nor my business students: some form of direct test of the skills we work on (e.g. giving a presentation in a presentation skills class) serves as adequate assessment for final reports. Even my IELTS students' mock tests don't count for anything other than as a way to check their skills against the demands of the test they will ultimately take. It's just not an issue I have to contend with, so I am free to adopt other methods of assessment, and feedback comes not in the form of grades but real feedback in evaluation reports and conferences. It's actually a really lovely advantage to have and a low-stress, high-efficacy way to teach in a more holistic and meaningful way.

Of course, that's my situation - I'm sure at other cram schools there are tests, and the teachers may not care for those tests, trust the results or particularly care to give them.

Although this is not true in all private teaching contexts, I really appreciate that there's no administration breathing down my neck telling me I have to do certain things in class, not all of which I'd be likely to agree are necessary, nor telling me how I must teach. I have a classmate whose administration is insistent that there be no L1 in the classroom, even though current thinking is that limited use of L1 has a place there. This is despite inviting four-star names in the TEFL world to give workshops to teachers there, who reaffirm that L1 can be put to good use in the classroom. It's "not their policy" so teachers are instructed to ignore all of that.

Nobody would dare tell me how I must teach in a similar way. Back when I worked at a chain school in Taiwan they did to some extent, but as I've moved on to take classes at better schools, I am free to implement a teaching style that aligns with my principles as I see fit with nobody looking over my shoulder or breathing down my neck. I even have a good level of freedom over the coursebooks I use, and when they are assigned, total freedom over how I use them.

Another point worth mentioning is that, at least in Taiwan, I do make more money in the private system than I would in the formal education system (unless I were to work at an international school). The gap is not as big as you might imagine, as I don't get any of the perks - annual bonus, paid summers off, a pension program - but the take-home pay for my work is still somewhat higher. People associate cram schools with low pay, but honestly, the public schools and universities, while they offer stable pay, offer less than what I currently earn. The highest figures I've seen outside the international schools are in the NT$70,000/month range, and to be frank, I find that low. And compared to wages in other parts of the world (Japan, Korea, the Middle East) it is quite low indeed. Nobody stays in Taiwan for the great salaries.

And for that better pay, I also seem to always have more free time. I almost certainly teach more in-class hours, but the lack of administrative and other work required of me means that my peers in the formal education system seem to put in longer hours.

Of course, these advantages don't accrue to every teacher in the private language school game, and newer teachers especially are more likely to find themselves in schools that have a set curriculum and way of teaching, with all of the associated tests and administrative duties, and are likely to be trained to teach in that specific way (on the other hand. newer teachers are less likely to have teaching principles formed over a long period of experience and training that they are loathe to set aside).

It is worth noting, though, that not all cram schools are created equal. In Taiwan, not everyone is a third-rate chain school or one-off with a silly name like "Mickey Bear America Funtime English ABC School" or for adults, "Oxbridge Scholar's Engrish Acadamy". The two places I take classes with are both classified for business purposes as "buxibans", but they are run more professionally than one generally , as educational institutions that, while private, are managed by people who actually care about the education they are providing. There really are better places one can work for, it's not all chum.

In short, it's not all bad. People wonder why, after seeking out all of this training and development and being easily qualified to teach in a more formal setting, why I am still teaching for hourly pay. I am not entirely in the cram school system as I take classes where I please and have my own private students, but the structure of what I do isn't all that different.

I do it because of the freedom to teach how I like, the freedom from tests and administrative work, the freedom from limits on my time off, and freedom from a school bureaucracy telling me how to do things.

Perhaps someday I'll move on and work for a university or international school (I can't imagine working with learners younger than high-school age) or more formal educational institution, but if/when I do, along with the advantages (paid summers off! A more 'prestige' job description! Perhaps time to research and publish!), I'll also be acutely aware of what I'm losing.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Taiwan doesn't value professional educators, or, why I'm still pissed at the government

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Yes, I know that sounds like a giant duh headline, something we all know. But bear with me, please. 

Earlier today, I got a message from a student thanking me for helping bring his IELTS score to the level he'd need to go abroad, a fairly dramatic improvement for what was a short class (this is not typical; it usually happens when a student has the language level needed but needs guidance as to how the test works and how the productive skills sections are assessed). Another student let me know recently that she also got the score she needs, and will be attending a top school in the UK. These are young people who are Taiwan's brightest lights and future leaders - in the two examples above, they'll be going to some of the best schools in the world and studying in a science faculty.

It felt great, but it also hit me: this is why I'm angry about the new dual citizenship qualifications in Taiwan on such a personal level.

I have worked hard to be the sort of teacher who can bring about that kind of improvement, or at least identify where longer-term study needs to be focused. I've put myself through CELTA (not a big deal certification-wise but it was a huge commitment to leave Taiwan for a month to get it done, as no course is offered here), Delta (which is a much bigger deal and a real professional qualification), received other useful training - there is a reason why I can't be specific - and I'm about to start a Master's program in the field. After that, I might go on to a PhD, or I might get a teaching license if I want to work in an international school. I might do both. 

This is in addition to getting results in the classroom while still building rapport with students, and a decade of experience doing it.

Nobody can say that I haven't done my time professionally. I've neither over-relied on experience without a training foundation nor leaned too much on credentials. In any other field, including education focusing on any other subject, few would dare to imply that what I do is not professional.

And yet, this is exactly the message the government is sending with dual nationality regulations that seem designed to keep English teachers out, to differentiate them from everyone else as some sort of lesser labor.

I won't deny that a lot of English teaching jobs are like this. Many are just fancy daycare, where the purpose is to provide a place for kids to go after school so Mom and Dad can work insane amounts of overtime. A lot of teachers really are not qualified, either - and I don't just mean through lack of credentialing, I mean through lack of meaningful training or improvement. I would like to see this change, while still providing a place in the industry for new potential talent to find work (and I'd like to turn the majority of the industry into something worthwhile and respected enough that true talent is more likely to stick around).

The problem is that the new laws, essentially, say that we all work at fancy daycare. That none of the work many of us put into professional development - essentially what makes us real professionals - matters. That not only could we be replaced by 22-year-old Whiteguy McBackpacker, but that if we were, performance would be essentially the same. That working for a university teaching 65-person "conversational English classes" (if you're wondering how one teaches conversational English to 65 people at once, the answer is that one doesn't) is more valuable than working one-on-one or with small group classes to bring about real improvement that has real world effects. Effects like, oh, I don't know, ensuring a business presentation goes well enough that it plays a tiny part in keeping the economy humming. That one of Taiwan's potentially great future scientists gets to go to Oxford. In ensuring a speech delivered abroad makes Taiwan more visible to the world. 

They lay bare what Taiwan (the government, but also many people) think about English teachers: that we're useful but our job is not meaningful, that those of us with professional qualifications don't have serious qualifications, that it doesn't matter, any unqualified person could do our job, because all English teaching work is essentially unskilled, undifferentiated labor. That they think we don't do real work at a real professional level. They make it clear that the government, and many people, really do believe one native speaker is as good as another, and any native speaker is better than a local (this is, of course, not true).

This is why I've asked you to bear with me: most people make this argument in terms of wages or jobs. They say improving yourself through training and meaningful experience won't get you a raise, and most jobs aren't worth it. They're right that most jobs in Taiwan aren't worth the effort, but not all jobs are created equal. People saying this generally have not worked to get to a higher level themselves, and are thus not aware that there is a whole level of better jobs available if you just make an effort to be a professional. My argument is different: I might complain that wages are stagnant and there are deep issues in TEFL in Taiwan that need to be addressed, but I do essentially believe that if you work towards professionalism in ELT, the industry will reward you somewhat. You will find better-paid jobs with better employers. To some extent, ELT takes seriously those who take it seriously. My issue is with the government essentially turning a blind eye to this, paving the way for so many everyday citizens to do so, as well.

I find intrinsic meaning and professionalism in my work and don't need the Taiwanese government or people to take it seriously for me to do so. That's important; I need that if I'm even going to carry on. I do truly believe my work is meaningful. I won't even hedge that with a sentence header expressing a personal opinion. My work is meaningful.

It seems clear to me that Taiwan would be a stronger country if everyone who was committed to this nation - from blue-collar workers to the folks mopping up kids' pee at Hess to me to a tech worker somewhere - had a path to citizenship. I do not mean to imply that I deserve one but others don't. The purpose here is to point out a problematic attitude held by the government and many people here.

Of course, this issue is not limited to Taiwan, and finding intrinsic meaning in what I do is important.

But it still stings, y'know?

Monday, March 6, 2017

Those "letters of agreement" Taiwanese universities signed are scarier than you think

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The caption reads "Chinese hearts are easily broken" - it can also be read as "Handle Fragile Chinese Hearts With Care"

Update: apparently the number of schools who signed these letters is "at least half" of the originally reported 157. Here's a link to an updated article. 

I just want to make a quick comment on the story that at least 80 or so universities in Taiwan have signed "letters of agreement" that students from China would not be exposed in class to certain areas of political discussion (namely, Taiwanese independence or sovereignty, or anything that might challenge the idea of "One China").

The agreements don't seem to have had any impact on what is actually taught in classes (from at least one account, orders are not handed down to the actual educators regarding what they may and may not cover in class and these issues are discussed), and seem at this point to be mainly intended to smooth the process for Chinese students coming to Taiwan.

I'd argue, though, that this doesn't mean they are a non-issue.

Chinese universities are hardly independent academic entities with the full range of academic freedoms one can reasonably expect in free societies. I am not an expert, and so do not know the exact extent to which individual universities are beholden to, or take orders from, the Chinese government, but I believe I can safely assume that they are all beholden to some extent, and take orders to some extent - more likely than not, to a great extent.

If, then, the letters are indeed 'pro forma', it is because nobody in China is insisting they be enforced. I don't see it as being a strategy far removed from "we'll send Chinese tourists": sure, they'll send Chinese tourists, until it is strategically convenient for them not to do so anymore. That move backfired (ha ha) but we all know it was the intended strategy. Those who relied on Chinese tourism complained as predicted, and "Taiwan's economy hit hard! Cross-strait tensions!!!!" became a bigger issue than it ever ought to have been, had the whole truth been reported rather than simply the loudest voices.

In this case, is it too hard to imagine that these letters are being asked for, and yet compliance not insisted on, for now - but that once it is strategically convenient to do so, that could easily change?

What happens when there are enough Chinese students in Taiwan, or at any given university that can be reliably expected to complain, that immediately cutting off new enrollments could serve as a threat, or be otherwise beneficial to China, the next time the people of Taiwan vote in a way China doesn't like, or the government they've elected doesn't adopt the supplicant position China demands? It seems clear to me the government could do that, and their own universities would comply.

Then it turns into headlines around the world: "Taiwanese universities suffering as China cuts off student programs", which lead to articles about how this is hurting Taiwan, which lead to piss-poor punditry about how Taiwan, by being a 'troublemaker' rather than taking the most conciliatory stance possible, is causing its own problems and creating 'tensions' across the strait. It never seems to matter that China is usually the one taking the actions and making the threats.

Indeed, bent-over, cheeks agape appears to be the only position many around the world feel Taiwan is allowed to reasonably take vis-a-vis China - often from people who in any other context talk real big about freedom, democracy and respect for sovereignty.

This would be worse than the tourism strategy, however, because Taiwan does have too many universities and, rather than allowing them to close without complaint, they actually will suffer when Chinese students are recalled or new enrollments ceased because China has found it strategically convenient to suddenly insist on the enforcement of these agreements. And they will complain, and it will make the news, and people will call Taiwan the 'troublemaker', wash, rinse, repeat.

Meanwhile every other country gets to more reasonably debate what growing Chinese influence means for academic freedom in their country. Everyone else gets to talk about how China's actions globally - most clearly revealed by the actions of Confucius Institutes worldwide - are part of a strategy to dominate the narrative about China, and truth in general.

Some universities may feel the pressure to comply, and, if this practice continues now that it's been brought into the public eye, we will have no idea which ones they will be. Academic freedom will be threatened, and students from Taiwan (as far as I am aware no class is made up entirely of students from China - even if one is, China has no right to insist that a university abroad educate them in a certain way) will also be shorted. China wins either way: the universities comply and education in Taiwan becomes influenced by Chinese censorship, or they don't and a bunch of bullshit articles are spawned that make it look as though Taiwan is the problem.

This is one reason why I get so annoyed with the "but any warming relations with China are good! It's always great for us to have good relations with China!" crowd. No, it's not, because every single thing the Chinese government does towards Taiwan that appears conciliatory is meant to advance their end goal of annexing Taiwan. No exceptions. The tourists, the students, the trade deals, the investment, all of it - is aimed directly at eating away at Taiwanese sovereignty and creating a vortex of integration that they hope will eventually push Taiwan over a critical event horizon.

In truth, this is their strategy around the world - it's not even that subtle! - but with the less critical aim of controlling the world narrative. With Taiwan they want both to control the narrative and to succeed in their goal of territorial expansion. In other countries it's a problem to be discussed, a peripheral concern to be addressed. In Taiwan it's critical to address for the very survival of the nation. Many countries do this - the US tries to promote its own narrative as well - but again, in the case of Taiwan, its own continued existence is at stake.

So, perhaps this sounds like a crazy-ass conspiracy theory - the Chinese are always out to get us. But it's quite plausible, it's in line with their actions toward Taiwan in the past, it's in line with their actual stated goal (it's not like they hide it!) of annexing Taiwan, and it makes perfect sense in the context of how universities and academic freedom operate in China.

These letters may seem like pro-forma non-issues now, but, even if you call me crazy, I truly do not believe that if they continue to be signed that they will remain a non-issue. This does not mean that I have a problem with Chinese students in Taiwan - I would like to see them here, and be exposed to Taiwan, the successes of Taiwanese freedom and democracy, and what true academic freedom means. I have no problem with them, and in at least one of my work capacities I engage with them frequently. With very few exceptions, I have never had a problem or complaint. This is not about the students.

However, I cannot stress enough that agreements like this are not an acceptable pre-condition for those exchanges to happen, and that the Chinese government will certainly attempt to use its flow of students abroad to further their political agenda.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Fighting Native Speakerism in Taiwan

I don't blog much here about English teaching, because to be honest, it's my job. I happen to love it, and I happen to be a professional, and I want to talk about it, but...it's my job. I may start a specifically ELT-related blog someday, but otherwise I generally tend to keep my hobbies (like snarking on Taiwanese politics, activism - to the degree I am able - writing and travel/exploration) separate from my profession. It's funny, though, because I'm actually qualified to comment on ELT matters, whereas despite my related degree (International Affairs), I'm basically a hobbyist with a snarky streak when it comes to politics.

However, something about this really ought to be said. First, a primer in what 'native speakerism' is.

None of this is new - there is a whole organization dedicated to fighting native speakerism. But, to get into why it's difficult to fight in Taiwan, I feel the groundwork needs to be laid.

Native speakerism is a global issue - preconceived notions about what makes a 'teacher' due to a lack of general training in ELT issues (which is fair - not everyone is going to have a basic knowledge of education theory) causes learners to believe that native speaker teachers are superior and schools advertising the usually (but not always) white, Western faces of the teachers with correspondingly high tuition preys on notions of 'prestige' in teaching. Learners then request native speaker teachers, leading schools to then discriminate against non-native speaker teachers in hiring, and blame it on "the market" - a market which they helped create. It doesn't help that a horrifying lack of professional standards makes it possible to get a teaching job with no qualifications or experience to speak of other than being a native speaker, and that the owners of language schools are often local businesspeople, not educators, and do not know themselves what to look for in a quality teacher - they too boil it down to "native speaker, looks the part, cheaper than a trained teacher, you're hired."

One can add to that a big fat dollop of outdated assumptions of what it means to be a "non-native speaker". People who don't know better will insist that "non-native speakers can't possibly know all of the idiomatic language, rare collocations and modern usages of English, they'll teach a more textbook English", but that assumes quite a bit about a native speaker. An Egyptian woman who spent the first ten years of her life in Cairo, but then moved to England and had lived there ever since, for example, would speak at a level so close to native that you would not know she wasn't a native speaker, and would have more knowledge of British idiomatic language than I do. How is she less of a 'native speaker' than I am? A Taiwanese student who went through an entire school curriculum at TES or TAS, who might speak flawlessly - you might mistake her for an Asian woman from the West - is she a native speaker? My own grandfather grew up in Greece and moved to the US in elementary school. His native languages were Western Armenian - there are a genocide and two escapes in that story - and Greek. To hear him talk now you would never think of him as anything other than a native speaker of English. Is he? Why do you assume all native speakers speak an imperfect, textbook-y or even 'foreign accented' (again, whatever that means) English?

And that's not even getting into issues of cultural or linguistic imperialism and the notion that only "native speaker English" (whatever that means) is "good enough", or that there is something wrong with local varieties of English!

What really goes into teaching well is, of course, a high level or native-like level of English: something many non-native speakers attain, as well as sound training (whether it confers a credential or not - the piece of paper is not the point, though it's hard to gauge the quality of non-credentialed training) and increasing levels of responsibility through experience. Some level of basic talent or affinity for teaching helps. Research agrees: if the level of English is sufficient and the teaching is pedagogically sound, the first language of the teacher makes no difference.

I find this a very convincing set of arguments for doing away with discrimination based on first language in language teaching, and yet the problem persists in Taiwan. Why?

The law is outdated 

There are conflicting accounts of what the laws actually say. Most non-native speaker teachers in Taiwan are Taiwanese themselves, students on a student visa that allows work, or other foreign residents married to locals. A few have Master's degrees and therefore can be hired for any job. It is unclear whether, legally, visas for non-native speaker teachers who come to Taiwan simply to teach can be procured by schools however. I have been told "no", I have been sent unclear links with confusing language, I have been told such visas have been successfully issued, although every example seems to be of a white European. I have been told English must be the 'official language' of the country of origin, but the US has no official language, and plenty of countries people don't think of as English-speaking, such as Nigeria and India, do have English as an 'official language'.

However, I have also heard firsthand accounts of non-native speaker, non-Taiwanese foreigners trying and failing to get a visa to teach English because they held the "wrong" passport (not from Canada, the US, Ireland, the UK, South Africa, Australia or New Zealand). So, let's just say that the law is unclear but if you are not a native speaker, and do not have another pathway to a job that doesn't require a school-sponsored visa, and lack a Master's degree, that it is likely to be difficult for you to procure a visa to work in Taiwan.

This is in direct contradiction to research on effective teaching, and yet it remains a problem. When it is difficult to get a school to even offer a job to someone they know they may not be able to get a visa for, it makes sense that schools would go for candidates for whom visas would be promptly issued.

So what can we do? 
Honestly, I have no idea. You can lobby the government - good luck with that. You can write an editorial - nobody will read it. You can try to raise awareness among locals inclined to do something about it, but so few are even if they agree with you. If you ever do find yourself with the right kind of guanxi in the government, this would be a great place to use it to bend someone's ear. For now, however, I'm at a loss.


It's hard to know which schools would not discriminate, given the choice

It's very difficult to know what a school would do if it didn't have this potential legal hurdle to hiring non-native speakers and very difficult to fight, as it requires a change in the law.

My various employers, for example, are all good people. They're sensible and they have some foundational knowledge of the qualities needed in a good teacher. I do not want to think that, given the chance to hire a non-native speaker teacher who would need a visa, that they would discriminate. However, due to the confusion and difficulty inherent in the law, it is hard to be sure. How can I talk to my employer about a problem if I don't even know if it exists, or if it only exists hypothetically?

In my school I noticed an advertising sign-listicle sort of things ("10 reasons to study with us!" but at least it didn't have something like "#8 will shock you!") where one of the items was "Canadian, British and American teachers: the world of IELTS comes to you!" - what does that mean exactly? Is that pro-native-speakerism? Would they discriminate against a talented, native-like and qualified non-native speaker if given the chance to hire one? It's hard to say. It's just an item on a list tacked to the wall, and there's no way to test the sincerity of it. How does one even bring that up?

This makes it difficult to have these conversations with employers - note conversations, not confrontations or arguments - when you can't really know where they stand. When perhaps they themselves don't know where they stand. It's hard to push the issue further or raise awareness.

So what can we do?

One of the core messages of TEFL Equality Advocates is for native speaker teachers to use their privilege to help change the system: not applying to work at schools that discriminate, withdrawing one's application from a school that indicates that it discriminates later in the process, and writing to such schools to tell them why (in gentler words, of course).

It's difficult to do that when you can't know if a school would discriminate if they didn't have to by (very confusing) law. What you can do, though, is bring it up if the opportunity arises and try to gauge your school's attitude towards native speakerism, and take it from there.


The 'native speaker' model is still seen as the best, or only, choice

This is a massive problem in a world where ELF (English as a Lingua Franca) is the English that most English speakers - most of whom are non-native - use. Native-speaker models with little attention paid to communication in the real world the learners will face is not optimal. A native-speaker model that ignores the Taiwanese businessman going to Korea, the young student planning to travel in Central Europe, the tech guy who talks to co-workers in India or young person who might not encounter native speakers often puts them at a disadvantage and is often the reason why good students in class, or even chatting with native speakers informally, hits a brick wall with other non-native speakers. This attitude, to be short, must change.

So what can we do?

Get training in how to teach ELF, and teach it if it fits your context (which it probably does). And let your students know why. Let them know that, in fact, as a native speaker you are not always an optimal model, and that learning by working with the English of non-native speakers is in many ways just as helpful or more helpful to them than only dealing with you.

School owners are often dismissive of foreign teacher concerns

This, I would like to emphasize, is not a problem with my employers. We are listened to and our opinions respected and considered and, often, acted on. I appreciate that a lot. It's why I continue to work for them. However, I can't say that's true for most, or even many, schools in Taiwan. Whether locally run or not - though most are run locally - there seems to be an unspoken but clear lack of respect for the sentiments of teachers, however correct or convincing they may be. (That's not to say such sentiments are always correct or convincing). Six-day workweeks, crazy hours and a lack of communication - or outright lying - driving high turnover, while the boss complains about high turnover? Low pay making it hard to hire good people? Textbooks that are required but not very good leading to poorer teaching?

All of these are valid concerns that are often dismissed by school administration, even at the "better" schools.

So, trying to bring up native speakerism is likely to get you about as far, if even that far, when opening such conversations. If they don't care that you're warning them that systemic problems in how they treat employees is the direct cause of high turnover, then they won't care about this.

So what can we do?

Change jobs. I feel like if the opportunity arose, I could bring this up at either of my workplaces without consequences, and be listened to. Try to find that kind of work. If your school is one where teachers and staff share resources and interesting articles, passing around an article on the issue may also have some awareness-raising effect, as well.


Other teachers will defend native speakerism

This is honestly the most aggravating to me, and I am sure that if this post makes the rounds among other expats that there will be blowback along exactly these lines. Whatever. I'll say it anyway.

I've heard it all - the same tired excuses that 'non-native speakers just don't know the language as well', 'this is the market, this is what the students want', 'you can't tell people whom they must hire, they can discriminate if they want and if someone doesn't like it they can find a different job', do you really want non-native speakers from India or the Philippines competing for your job, driving down wages?' and finally 'this is discrimination against native speakers, you think we're all know-nothings!'

Let's break all of these down:

Native speakers just don't know the language as well: covered it above

This is the market, this is what students want/employers can discriminate if they want: Due to lack of awareness and advertising for schools that preys on this. We can do better. In fact, research also shows the 'preference' among potential students is not as high as you would think. In any case, would you say "this is what the customer wants" as an excuse to discriminate based on gender, race, age or sexual orientation/gender identity? (If so, then you are pro-discrimination and I really don't know what to say except that there's a reason why such discrimination is illegal in most developed countries. It hurts members of those groups more than you realize, for very little reason. Customers, at times, have to be told when their requests are not reasonable.)

If someone doesn't like it they can find a different job: not if every single employer discriminates! Is it really okay to restrict the jobs available, or make no job at all available, to someone based on characteristics they can't change - and what your native language is happens to be such a characteristic, like age, race and orientation - for no reason other than to feed the prejudices of an uninformed clientele?

Do you really want "non-native" speakers from India or the Philippines competing for jobs and driving down wages? Well, I am a fan of government-mandated minimum wages at fair levels so the latter won't happen. As for competition, I welcome it. Competition makes for better product if it is fair. I am qualified. I have a decade of experience and a Delta, and will soon have a Master's in TESOL from a good school. The people who hire me - knowing what I cost - are not going to ditch me for someone who does not have such a background, and I would not want to work for anyone who would, or who thought that background was not necessary and just wanted to hire the cheapest taker. If those speakers - many of whom are actually native speakers or close enough to it - have similar credentials, then it is fair that we should compete. But it is fairly rare to have them at all, so I'm not that worried.

This is discrimination against native speakers, you think we're all know-nothings: This is the "what about WHITE HISTORY MONTH?!" of excuses used to defend native speakerism. I'm sorry, but it is. Many native speakers are not qualified to teach English. That does not mean those of us fighting native speakerism think none of them are. I'm a native speaker and I'm perfectly qualified to teach (but not because I'm a native speaker - in addition to it). I know that losing privilege feels like oppression, but I would beg those who think along these lines to really go back and consider what they are saying.

I have to say that I find these concerns worrying - in terms of advocating employment discrimination! - and unprofessional. If you don't have confidence in your ability to succeed in a wider employment pool, then why are you doing this job? Are you so afraid for your security that you want to shut others out to keep it? Is this even ethical? Is there not a whiff of wanting to cling to privilege about it?

So what can we do?
In terms of working on this attitude among other expats, simply making your points when the discussion comes up and sticking to them, doggedly raising awareness and not letting the privilege-clinging dominate the discussion, is all you can do until people start to listen.

I'm lucky, I can afford to have this attitude. Want to be lucky too? Upgrade yourself so you are not competing for low wages, but have the chance to work for people that recognize what you have to offer. Treat your profession like a profession, stop devaluing yourself. That's another thing you can do.

Trust me, if you actually take the time to, say, get a Delta or Master's, you won't want to work for people who would pay the lowest bidder $450/hour.


Employment laws are not enforced and there is no real union

This is tough too - in theory, Taiwan prohibits discrimination in employment based on race, gender, creed, sexual orientation etc.: basically the same way all other developed countries do. In theory, if you are fired (or not hired) for being (or not being) a certain race, you can sue, and you are supposed to win.

In practice, these laws are not enforced very well, if at all. There is no union of English teachers able to take action regarding this, and it's difficult for individuals to act without union representation. The three main issues facing unionization are that it is not popular in Taiwan (the workers' associations, which are unions in a way, don't quite act in the same way as we might imagine a union would), which also means that Taiwanese local teachers in private academies are not likely to join; it is hard to convince people scattered across many schools and employment types, many of whom are not planning to stay long-term or teach professionally to join; and that I have heard - correct me if I'm wrong - that only foreign workers with APRC or JFRV open work permits are allowed to unionize at all. If true, that means almost no English teachers in Taiwan are even eligible to legally unionize. Those that are are often so embedded in doing their own thing that it's hard to organize them (I admit to being somewhat guilty of this).

What that means is that if it's hard to get the government to act on discrimination based on race or gender, it will be even harder to get them to act based on native speakerism. Even if we get the employment laws for foreign teachers changed, there is no guarantee the new laws would be enforced.

So what can we do?

Unionize, or at least support the effort. Good luck with that. I told you this would be hard to fight. Set a precedent by fighting discrimination in other forms, such as that based on race, gender or age, so when you are ready and able to fight native speakerism, pushing back against discrimination and actually winning won't be a novel concept. Getting a more diverse teaching staff in schools will also speed up the acceptance that not all "good" English teachers look a certain way - a prejudice that is tied to native speakerism.


It's hard to advocate for "good teachers with credentials and experience regardless of native language" when credentials and experience aren't necessary in the first place, and learners are often unaware of this

This is another thing that aggravates me in Taiwan, although I do love this country with a ferocity I didn't think possible (and I am not a naturally patriotic person). There is a stunning lack of professionalism in many fields - my other bugbear is the journalistic standards of local media - English teaching not least among them.

I have said that I do think there is a place for inexperienced, even unqualified, new teachers in the industry. I can't be too hard on them, I used to be one. However, I do feel it ought to involve gradually increasing responsibility at an employer that provides good quality training along the way, with an internationally recognized certification eventually required.

That is not what happens in Taiwan, by a long shot.

If it is already considered acceptable to hire a fresh college grad with no relevant experience or credential, give him some materials (if you do even that), maybe let him observe a few classes and then have him go for it, with no attention paid to further training (or further quality training), then it will be quite difficult to convince schools, learners and teachers that in fact quality matters. It will be a battle just to dismantle the notion that teaching is an inborn talent - it is only in very rare circumstances - and to persuade people that experience without training isn't worth a fraction of what the two in tandem are worth.

So, convincing employers that, yes, a non-native speaker must have a very high level of English, but also that there are other qualities that also matter that make it possible for a non-native speaker teacher to teach just as well as a native speaker, is an uphill battle when they don't think those qualities are important even in native speakers.

So what can we do?
Raise awareness among your learners about what goes into teaching well. When they ask you for advice, tell them that they shouldn't be looking to continue their education with "a native speaker" per se, but a qualified, experienced teacher with good training. Tell them straight up that being a native speaker does not make one an automatically qualified language teacher, and advise them to aim higher.

Along with this, advocate for more training available in Taiwan. I did an entire Delta from Taiwan, but as it stands now there are no other strong, internationally-recognized pre-service or basic credentials available here. You have to leave the country for any such face-to-face credential (and, in fact, such credentials are worth little if they do not include practical experience). The more people who have training there are in the market, the more awareness about the importance of training there will be. Fun side effect: higher wages (at least one would hope) if starting a job with some training were the norm.


Foreigners don't teach "differently" and aren't "more fun" because of "culture"

This seems like an unrelated point, but bear with me.

Another excuse I often hear from learners about why they want native speakers isn't about being a native speaker at all - they think foreigners, Westerners specifically, are more "fun" and our classes are more "exciting". Often, they think that this is because our educational system and culture are "different". In some cases they mean "better", in others they mean "fine for after-school English class but in Real School Confucius-like stone-faced teachers who teach to the test as they give you more tests is still the way to go, and we are merely after-class entertainment.

Some may even think the 'fun' comes with a lack of training, as though training teaches a teacher to be boring.

Often this is pegged on the West just being fundamentally different. It is, in some ways (but hey I took boring classes and had tests too).

The truth is, though, that an untrained teacher is usually the more boring one, relying on old tropes of what a teacher does rather than more updated, modern pedagogical principles. The untrained teacher is more likely to fall back on drills, repetition, quizzes, worksheets, lecture-mode teaching, arduous and torturous (and not very useful) top-heavy presentations of grammar or other concepts, and maybe a few games here and there. When they are not boring, they rely on personality to get by (I was once guilty of this and perhaps from time to time still am when I get lazy - I do have the personality for it).

This is true no matter your cultural or national origin, let alone your native language. And yet it's used as the reason why a learner wants - or a school thinks a learner wants - a 'foreign English teacher' which really means a 'Western English teacher' which equates, generally, to a native speaker. It may be a way of asking for a native speaker without saying so directly.

So what can we do?
When you hear a learner talk about wanting a 'fun' class taught by a foreigner - or any other variation of the "foreigners are fun!" sentiment, counter it gently. A well-trained Taiwanese teacher can be just as 'fun' and an average native speaker teacher can be quite boring - it's experience and training that make a class better.

This introduces the concept of professional background, rather than national origin, being the key factor in a good teacher, which paves the way for acceptance of non-native teachers as just as able to teach a 'fun' or interesting class as native-speaking ones.


Language teacher training in Asia is not what it could be

Of course, going along with all of this is the need to better train local non-native speaker teachers in Taiwan. This is, in fact, a region-wide problem if not larger. It seems that non-native speaker local teachers are trained based on outdated or unsound principles, as friends of mine who have been through language teaching Master's programs say the pedagogical side often is neglected in favor of the Applied Linguistics side. If we want learners to accept that non-native speaker teachers can be just as qualified to lead a class as native-speaker ones, we need to do something about this, so that local non-native speaker teachers have more modern, principled teacher training.

So what can we do?

Very little, unless you yourself are a PhD, join the academic faculty at a school that offers a Master's in TESOL or other language teaching field (Applied Linguistics, Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language, Applied Foreign Languages etc.) and push the school to modernize, which in Taiwan I know often is a losing battle. We can all stand to go out and get more training to raise the overall level of quality of English teaching, and we can push for an internationally-recognized teaching certification program (I don't want to say CELTA or Trinity, but if not them, at least something like them) to be offered in Taiwan so more non-native speaker teachers have a chance to attend. You can work to become the sort of person who would be qualified to be a tutor in such a course.


Those fighting native speakerism globally often have a blind spot

The final issue isn't so much what Taiwan can do, but a criticism of a lot of the dialogue internationally on how to fight native speakerism. These articles often have massive blind spots when it comes to Asia: they assume non-native speaker teachers can get visas: this is often not the case in Asia - if not Taiwan, then China and South Korea do have these restrictions, meaning that calling out discrimination where you see it and writing to schools with discriminatory ads is not a workable strategy.

They also tend to take as the default employers that are either within the formal education system (such as working in a public school) or are under the auspices of a government (such as British Council or IELTS), which are bound by certain professional and ethical standards that you can call upon when fighting native speakerism. That doesn't work when most employers are buxibans (private language academies) run by businesspeople, not educators, who run businesses, not schools, and who aren't, honestly, beholden to any professional or ethical standards at all, if they are even aware such standards exist in English teaching.

They often cite a "four week intensive course" as "the minimum qualification" to teach (and note that it is not sufficient in the long term, which is true). In Asia, however, this is generally not the case. In fact, in Taiwan if you have taken that course - they mean CELTA by the way - you are actually ahead of the game. The minimum qualification to teach is nothing at all. So advice that takes having something like CELTA as the minimum requirement to work is not helpful.

This needs to change - I don't mean to divide teachers, but it is dishonest to pretend these differences do not exist.

I wish I had better suggestions for how to deal with the situation we have, rather than the situation most common advice addresses. Unfortunately, in the ELT industry as we experience it in Taiwan, there is little we can do except push back gently when the issue comes up, raise the issue when it is pertinent, raise awareness when the opportunity arises, and improve ourselves via quality training and experience to bring the industry overall to a higher standard, which will hopefully bring with it more up-to-date ethical standards on the non-native speaker teacher issue.