Showing posts with label language_learning. Show all posts
Showing posts with label language_learning. Show all posts

Saturday, January 9, 2021

A Bilingual By 2030 Throwdown

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

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Revisiting the "Bilingual By 2030" plan: a note of cautious optimism

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Since President Tsai’s 2nd term began, there has been renewed talk from the government and media interest in the “Bilingual by 2030” program introduced in her last term.

Some of what has been said recently is promising: 


"The younger generation of Taiwanese need to learn how to clearly explain to the international community what kind of country Taiwan is, as well as its core values and its people," the president said. 

She said one major problem of Taiwan's current English teaching is that schools focus more on teaching vocabulary and grammar. 

"We need to provide a comprehensive English learning environment so that speaking English becomes a very natural thing in the country" she said, adding that this will be a major challenge for the government over the next 10 years.


The program follows the same general principles of the “bilingual” English program created in Tainan City under then-mayor (and now Vice President) William Lai. 

I wanted to discuss the various elements of this policy, how they’re being approached on a few different levels, and what the issues are likely to be. I’ve written about this before, but that was back when the plan had just been announced, and nobody was really sure what to say about it, myself included.

Some of my concerns have since been addressed. Others remain, not all of which I'll discuss here. Generally, however, I'm more cautiously optimistic than I was before.

What is the program, exactly?

The first concern is the term “bilingual” - it’s confusing in a Taiwanese context, because Taiwan is already multilingual, so it would have been smarter on the part of the government to call it “Multilingual by 2030”. Thanks to the clunky title, there is a common belief that the goal of this program is to make every Taiwanese citizen fluent in English by 2030. That’s simply not the case. 

The endgame is better as improving the overall level of English proficiency in Taiwan (which is not the same as “making everybody fluent in English”) and making business and government affairs more internationally versatile - a Taiwanese populace that can go out into the world with the language skills they need to study, work or simply talk about Taiwan (or anything else) with foreigners, and a country that is accessible to international business. 

“Proficiency” has many levels, however. Nobody thinks every Taiwanese citizen will suddenly become fluent in English. Even in highly English-proficient societies like Hong Kong and Singapore, actual ability varies quite a bit between individuals. That’s normal. 

Another concern is that the program will simply involve more English class hours in school, which will necessitate importing large numbers of foreign teachers to teach these classes. I don’t know the exact plan for the number of dedicated English instruction hours, but I can say that one big push of the 2030 program is to increase CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning) instruction: to teach some non-language classes (such as math, science and history) in English, not necessarily increase dedicated language class hours. This is good, as one basic tenet of language acquisition is that input and interaction in a variety of authentic situations and environments brings about fluency - for example, taking classes in other subjects in that language - moreso than direct language instruction.

One issue with this plan is that there may not be a large enough pool of local teachers who are willing to teach these classes in English, and I’ve already heard of reports of pressure from school administrators on teachers who don’t necessarily want to agree to this, but are being pushed to do so anyway. 

If it actually works, however, CLIL-based instruction has the potential to accomplish what more hours of traditional language instruction could never do. It’s one reason why English proficiency remains strong in former British colonies across Asia: they tend to offer English-medium instruction.

Generally speaking, the more people are informed about the program, or the more involved they are in it, the more optimistic they are about it. That’s a good sign. A lot of ‘involved’ people I know say that it’s a solid idea without a fully-fleshed-out game plan, and how successful it will be depends on how well it’s implemented. It could end up being successful far beyond most people’s modest expectations, or yet another performative act in the country’s repeated attempts to “internationalize”.


The colonial history of English in Asia, and why Taiwan is different

Of course, Taiwan is not a former colony of any English-speaking power. That means it lacks the English “advantage”, but also that English in Taiwan is not necessarily mired in post-colonial discourse. It’s important to remember that in those former colonies, access to English was given primarily to local elites as a way of ‘bringing them into the fold’ - that is, ensuring their loyalty to and even desire to imitate their British colonial masters. For everyone else, the British actually pushed local-language instruction. They framed it as respecting local cultures and customs (at least, one person writing about Hong Kong put it that way, even invoking “Confucian values” long before that term became a drinking-game level cliche), but in another sense, it was blatantly about ensuring that non-elites would not start getting ambitions beyond what the British wanted of them: to remain manual laborers whose efforts enriched the empire.   

If all that makes you feel squicked out - it should. 

What Taiwan seems to be attempting to do is compete with these former colonial nations (yes, I treat Hong Kong as a nation) in terms of English proficiency, without the colonial baggage it came with. I honestly cannot think of another example where that has been successfully done. 

The good news is that this freedom from an English-speaking colonial history means that the English education in Taiwan can be discussed in terms of its utility for Taiwan domestically and in terms of international communication. 


The real key: local talent

This would also not necessitate the mass import of foreign teachers of dubious quality (I’ll get to the quality of instruction later). It would not even require bringing in many teacher trainers to train up locals. 

Instead, the hope is that the country will tap its domestic language teaching talent - the best and most qualified Taiwanese teachers - who can be trained up and mentored to become teacher trainers themselves. The “foreigners” - which includes foreign teacher trainers already based in Taiwan - would at that point take on more of a support and mentorship role. There could be some outside help and possibly new teachers hired from abroad, but mostly the plain is not to kick current teachers out in favor of a bunch of foreigners. Instead, it’s to create a robust CoP (community of practice, in which experienced teachers with training skills induct more junior or novice teachers into the profession) that is self-sufficient and self-renewing from within Taiwan. 

There are other initiatives - translating government documents and websites, ensuring that travel and business information and basic services are available in English - I’m less qualified to speak on those plans. I do hope the government realizes that there is already a strong base of Taiwan-based editors and translators - both local and foreign - who could potentially do a good job with this if they were properly recruited and incentivized. 


Addressing Concerns: Local and minority languages


There are concerns that focusing on English will damage the status of local and Indigenous/minority languages (some of these criticisms are clearly partisan attacks - ignore those - but not all are). This is an issue, but I don’t think it’s as dire as some are predicting. First of all, there’s a lot of intersectionality in those local languages. Taiwanese is generally considered one, but we can’t exactly call it a ‘minority language’, can we? Outside of northern Taiwan, it’s not. And Taiwanese - suppressed for so long by Mandarin - has also played an oppressor role against Hakka and all of the Indigenous languages. 

I do think if we’re going to talk about English as the potential oppressor of these languages, that we first need to grapple with the damage that was intentionally done to them by Mandarin (and perhaps less intentionally, but still just as damagingly, by Taiwanese). This is where a ‘multilingual’ rather than ‘bilingual’ perspective would be helpful. 

The thing is, these local languages tend to be community-learnt. Attempts to turn local and Indigenous languages into ‘school subjects’ have not generally been successful - if my reading is correct, that’s true around the world. They tend to flourish when their widespread daily use is promoted in communities, supported by a variety of media that users of those languages can consume.

The question is, what do these speech communities want in terms of promotion and support of their own languages in Taiwan? Has anybody asked them? (I’m guessing not.) What kind of funding might they want, and how might it be used? The government would have done well if, while turning its eye to English, it had also focused on building multilingual initiatives - asking these various communities in Taiwan what sort of support they would like, and then providing it. Not every family teaches their children the language of their ancestors, and whatever support they might want in changing that pattern, where it exists, is vital and should not be pushed aside in favor of a sole focus on English. 

English, unlike local languages in Taiwan, will probably not be learnable in a ‘community’ setting such as this for quite some time, if ever. From that perspective, the plan to increase exposure to and use of English won’t necessarily be taking much away from local languages - they would occupy two different spaces, and already do. Tsai has said that one goal of this “Bilingual by 2030” plan is to equip Taiwanese with the ability to tell Taiwan’s story to the world, which is a laudable goal. English - a second language - would be a language for looking out into the world, and welcoming the world to Taiwan. Local languages would exist for living within Taiwan, and maintaining local knowledge and heritage.

That’s not to say that local languages can never have a place in schools in Taiwan. But, it will be hard enough to get local teachers ready to teach non-language subjects in English. How difficult will it be to find teachers who can teach math, geography, health or other subjects in Taiwanese, or Hakka, or Atayal, or Rukai, or Amis? I certainly think it would be a worthwhile effort, but I would not expect immediate results. 


The dividing lines of English

As English seems to always bring class divides with it, there's a concern that middle class and wealthy urban Taiwanese will benefit more and deepen inequality. One can see signs of this already among the children of the upper middle class and wealthy, who are more likely to grow up around English, have family members who speak it fluently, often studying abroad themselves. In a sense, it echoes the way English was brought to Asia originally. Just remember that the same used to be true for Mandarin in Taiwan.

That is a real concern to be addressed if we want to break down these barriers. If a robust CoP is created that has Taiwanese teachers training their junior colleagues, rather than bringing in foreigners to train up locals, then that knowledge will be more easily disseminated to smaller communities and schools with fewer resources. I’d also suggest making education resources more equal across the country, obviously. 

It is quite unreasonable to expect a kid from a more marginalized community to grow up in Mandarin, and then pick up several second languages (English plus Taiwanese, or Hakka, or an Indigenous language). It’s more reasonable to work towards a society where both Mandarin and local languages are learned as mother tongues within various communities, with some education support available in ways requested by those communities for non-Mandarin languages (Mandarin has been so wholly foisted on Taiwan that it hardly needs any support), and English is more robustly taught as a second language. 

In fact, I’ve met more than one person in Taiwan who prefers to communicate in their local language (usually, but not always, Taiwanese), will choose English as their next preference, and will avoid Mandarin if at all possible. That means there is an opportunity for English to push back against Mandarin language imperialism in Taiwan, if people decide to use it that way.


The demand side

Some have spoken of the need to create ‘demand’ for English, not just spending money creating supply of instruction. I’m less worried about this - the demand is there, if we can connect it to learners’ actual motivations. There are teachers in Taiwan who reluctantly admit that many students see English merely as an academic subject, and study it simply to get a test score and further their education. But, leaving aside the massive amount of English-language media that many Taiwanese do consume and express a wish to better understand, there’s the fact that most regional business (not just global business - I mean across Asia) is conducted in English. As much as China might like it to be otherwise, English, not Mandarin, is the language of regional communication in Asia. 

Are Taiwanese youth interested in communicating with people from other Asian countries? Do BTS fans want to connect with each other even though they don’t all speak Korean? Are politically-minded youth interested in the meme-heavy Milk Tea Alliance or its slightly stodgier, more clearly political Network of Young Democratic Asians? Are they interested in working or studying abroad, or working in Taiwan for an international company?

Yes, many of them probably do. 

The demand is there, and it’s not always a function of linguistic imperialism, where the periphery is trying to imitate some sort of White, Western center. We just need to connect it to how we deliver the supply.


Institutional constraints: testing

That’s where my own concerns come in. The research is clear that Taiwanese teachers in general are aware of more communication-based teaching methods, and in fact there is a strong (though not universal) desire to use them. (I've read this research but need to get a dissertation draft in - I'll link it when I have time). 

Elementary school teachers report the highest feeling of freedom to teach their learners in communicative ways. At higher grades, however, the washback from the testing system causes teachers to feel they need to focus more on preparing learners for major exams.

In short, a large number of teachers in Taiwan want to do more with language education, but feel constrained by tests that simply do not reflect actual language knowledge. (I’ve seen some of the tests. In some cases the expected answers are actually inaccurate, or only one answer is accepted when more than one answer is possible.) 

If everyone wants to move away from focusing mostly on “grammar and vocabulary” and towards communication,  then the biggest obstacle holding them back is the exam framework. At least for foreign language education, it simply has to go. If there has to be an English requirement for school admission at all, require an international proficiency exam score (the cost of this should be subsidized for students from lower-income families) or simply have an oral interview. 

And yet the exam framework is the one thing nobody is discussing doing away with.


More institutional constraints: language teaching qualifications

My other concern is the language teachers that the government is hoping to bring in from other countries. As it stands now, one can get some teaching jobs in Taiwan with just a substitute teacher’s license, which can be obtained with little or no experience and minimal training in some places. However, reputable and internationally-recognized language teacher training programs - such as the CELTA, CertTESOL, CELT-P, CELT-S, TYLEC and more (there are others, including higher level training programs) - are generally not recognized. 

Part-time postgraduate programs like mine, which is face-to-face but takes place over several years, are also generally not recognized. There’s no reason at all for this, as part-time programs deliver the same content as full-time ones.

There has been talk of Taiwan creating its own language teacher training program, which feels unnecessary as there are so many good ones already available. But without recognizing the programs which already exist, there is no clear existing local framework to assess the quality of these new hires.

When assessing teacher training programs, it’s not difficult to figure out which ones deserve recognition. We don’t have to officially sanction shoddy weekend or online TEFL certifications.  Stipulate a minimum number of practicum hours that candidates must teach and pass - let’s say, 6 - and you’ll have weeded out all the scams and be left with more reputable courses. 

And yet, there is not nearly enough discussion of changing this paradigm. 

Along with that, it would be smart for the government to officially pivot away from native speakerist policies that privilege inexperienced Westerners from a handful of countries over qualified teachers from around the world, which could bring a diversity of knowledge and intercultural awareness to Taiwan. In fact, improving intercultural awareness might be the biggest benefit of Bilingual By 2030. We also need to do away with nonsensical laws:


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What’s odd about this rule is that English is not an official language of the US, UK or Australia - which have no official languages. And yet, you can get a language teaching job if you are from any one of them. Guess where English is an official language - places like Nigeria, the Philippines, India and Singapore. And yet you don’t see schools or the government rushing to hire teachers from these places, either. 

Finally, I have grave concerns about the buxiban system, which I won’t go into here - we all know what the problems are. Buxibans could be a force for good in making English more widely accessible as a tool for communication, but not as they currently exist. Parents, however, often have no clear way of assessing which buxibans attempt to provide quality language learning, and which are overpriced daycare centers. I would like to see that change. 

Cautious Optimism

I’m more optimistic than many about Bilingual by 2030. 

While not all Taiwanese will become ‘fluent’ or even highly proficient in English, nobody is expecting them to. Those who do use their English skills to go out in the world and introduce Taiwan to the international community - whether directly through activism or indirectly as simply Taiwanese citizens living abroad or working with foreigners - will be worth all of this effort. 

If implemented soundly, it has the potential to make Taiwan more interculturally aware - imagine a Taiwan where blackface videos aren’t considered comedy! - without necessarily impinging on or damaging local cultures and speech communities. If the right trainers are found to participate in a robust local community of practice in which Taiwanese teachers take the lead, more teaching qualifications are recognized, a CLIL program is successfully implemented after sufficient (and ongoing) training and support, and the English examination system is completely dismantled, Taiwan might successfully do what few countries have managed: gain the benefits of an English-proficient society without the colonial baggage. 

The fact is that Taiwan can’t isolate itself. Certainly local languages certainly matter and deserve support and attention to the same extent as English, but while Taiwan can’t only look outward, it can’t navel-gaze either. If Taiwan wants to see the world on its terms and maintain its sovereignty in the face of a screeching, frothy-mouthed, annexationist neighbor, it has to get those messages out to the world. Like it or not, as of now the way to do that is better English education which focuses on English as a communicative tool rather than a purely academic subject.

Honestly, it is possible to do both: to promote local cultures and support local speech communities, and support greater internationalization. I honestly think the two are only mutually exclusive in the minds of people with their own agendas.

Generally, I believe that the government understands this. They get the big picture. They see why it’s important and what the endgame should look like.

I do worry that some of the details are being overlooked, some of which - like the complete unsuitability of the exam system and the lackadaisical, uninformed way qualifications are often evaluated - might be exactly the details that bring the whole thing down. I worry that a focus on bilingualism rather than multilingualism will turn out to be a liability. 

But, there is still time to do this right. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Yes, it is hard to fight for Taiwan: Small Sexism Stories

Let me tell you a story. You can probably guess where it happened from my previous posts.

While discussing an issue important to domestic policy in Taiwan, a panel of highly distinguished speakers took turns making some opening remarks, starting with the two women on the panel - both elected representatives in the Legislative Yuan.

Then the men spoke. The first one pointed out Taiwan's low birthrate and made a comment along the lines of how we can't expect Karen [one of the legislators] to have "more babies" to raise the birthrate. Then, seemingly slightly embarrassed, he blundered into a repetition of the same comment that we can't rely on this same legislator to have more children. (I have to hope he was repeating his bad joke in a flustered attempt to sort of prove to himself that his slip wasn't that bad). Another speaker said he served with her on various committees, and so spent "more time with her than her husband".

A friend of mine pointed out that every man on the panel repeated some version of this joke about a comparatively young, attractive female legislator (which shouldn't matter but probably does) having more babies for the sake of Taiwan's dwindling birthrate. I missed these other comments as opening remarks tend to be repetitive and I'd kind of already gotten the point and was making notes about what topics I might bring up.

When the floor opened to the audience, I wondered whether I should say something about how inappropriate this was. Or rather, I knew I should but had no idea how to word it. I had no idea if these men and this legislator have this sort of jokey friendship, but didn't think it mattered if they did; that doesn't excuse the inappropriacy of such public remarks.

And, I will admit with some regret and self-chastisement, I weighed in my head the need to discuss issues of national import when it came to language education and teacher training, with how discussion of these blatantly sexist remarks would detract from that.

Towards the end, another woman affiliated with CG (Corporate Governance) Watch did say something: that Ms. Yu's competence at her job as a legislator "has nothing to do with her ability to have children".

Thank goodness she did say that; someone had to. The audience was supportive; there was a strong round of applause and a few standing ovations (I was one of them). Yu herself looked relieved that someone had said something, though I won't try to interpret beyond that what her private thoughts were. The good news is that the men on the panel also seemed appropriately chastened.

It reminded me that, going forward, I need to do more to be that person, especially if nobody else is standing up and saying something. I do try, but none of us are perfect.

(No, I am not interested in a discussion of whether or not such comments were in fact sexist. They treated Legislator Yu in a particular manner because she was female and able to have children. That means they were sexist, period.)

I've said it before, and I'll say it again - it's hard to support Taiwan as a woman who also values egalitarianism. It was easy to get swept away discussing other issues of importance, and basically find a reason not to discuss the very real instance of sexist language on display at the beginning of that meeting.

What do you do when the people who are your allies in one way show that they have very little regard for your sex/gender in another? Would my points about language education and teacher training have gone unheard if I had been the one to say something? Bringing that up and making an issue of it, however right, may make it more difficult to discuss other issues and may even cause one to lose allies (a lot of men who say sexist things turn hostile when it's pointed out, and may not be willing to work with someone who addresses their behavior for what it is). And it takes time away from discussion of other issues.

And it can hurt the cause. There is unlikely to be any great damage as a result of these comments, the reaction to which hopefully caused the men in question to reflect on their behavior and commit to doing better next time. That's all this relatively minor incident needs, and I must hope or even insist that that happens. But what happens when it's, say, one of the leaders of the progressive cause?

It hurts the whole cause when the incidents are more serious, both in terms of media representation and female involvement - and I personally know than one woman who has shied away from joining progressive causes in Taiwan because of the men they'd have to spend time with. What woman wants to get involved when she knows the men she'll be working with are going to say and do sexist things?

It creates an environment where women are tempted - encouraged or pushed even - to overlook minor or even major instances of sexism in their fight alongside people who are otherwise allies, for the bigger picture, the greater cause. But we can't. It could hurt the reputation of the cause itself, or result in fewer women getting involved. If fewer women get involved, issues pertaining to women within that cause are less likely to be considered. For example, who is going to consider sexism in language education, including pay gaps for English teachers, if not as many women join the initiative this meeting was about, because they felt unwelcome after the remarks of the male panelists?

This meeting should not have been clouded with the comments of the men on the panel. It simply should never have happened. I should not even have to be writing this post, but feel I must.

We all need to go forward remembering that the people who brought down that cloud, who distracted from the main point, were not the woman who spoke up and the others who applauded her, but the men who made the comments in the first place.

Now, let's take this lesson and apply it to Taiwan advocacy in general. If Taiwan supporters in the US government are also sexist sacks of crap, we need to acknowledge that and deal with it, however we can. If women in Taiwan advocacy point out that there is a problem, damn it, listen to them and take it seriously. If someone in the movement is saying or doing sexist things, stop that person. Speak out. Men, you too. All of us. Deal with the small incidents like this one in small ways (a simple call-out and request for reflection will do), and the big ones in big ways.

Don't keep forcing women like me and others who fight for Taiwan to always have to do those mental calculations. It's not right, and you know it.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Taiwanese teens know that their English classes are terrible

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As an English teacher who believes in the power of authentic communication in language learning -after all, that's how I learned Mandarin - I've been following the work of Taipei Teen Tribune with interest. It's an English-language 'new media' website with articles written by Taiwanese teenagers, with a lot of really great content (and a useful site to follow if you want to know what Taiwanese youth are thinking). And as a professional, I'm interested in how it has helped Taiwanese youth to develop their English language proficiency.

Recently, 12th grader Irene Lin wrote this insightful piece about what it's like to learn English in Taiwanese schools. It goes something like this: 



Many students, who are able to get high grades on tests, are incapable of having an actual English conversation nor write an 

essay on their own. Lessons are designed for students to be able to answer grammar questions and fill vocabulary into sentences rather than practical usage.

Treating English like a math problem is the major flaw in Taiwan’s English education. Students are taught to look at a sentence by breaking them down into pieces based on parts of speech. Overemphasizing grammar and neglecting content causes students to misuse vocabulary and leads to a lack of ability to comprehend meaning.


Lin suggests a solution that pretty much every professional educator with solid training can get behind:


The amount of reading, writing, and speaking needs to increase to solve the problem. However, we not only need to increase the amount but also its difficulty. Students learn more vocabulary through a novel compared to a five paragraph text; learning to write an essay provides the opportunity to learn critical thinking, an ability that Taiwanese education has never taught.


The analysis itself could go deeper, but what is said is spot-on. I'd bend over and do backflips to have a student like this in my classes, and I don't even teach teenagers (I work with adults). Essentially, she's spot on that macroskills work needs to be increased by a massive amount, with an eye to creating users, not learners of the language. Taiwan's secondary school language curriculum currently focuses on passing the various national exams, which in turn are focused on a grammar-structure-heavy view of language.

It's a classic example of negative washback, and the effects are already well-known: while many Taiwanese English teachers are open to more communicative-competence oriented language teaching, only elementary school Taiwanese teachers of English feel they're able to actually incorporate this into their teaching. This is true even in Tainan, where "English as a second official language" has been a policy for a few years now: elementary school teachers are overall more enthusiastic than junior high school ones, almost certainly due to the pressure of preparing learners for national exams.

At the secondary level, teachers repeatedly say that the pressure to prepare learners for exams (which do not focus on communicative competence at all) keeps them from meaningfully incorporating learning approaches that are shown to produce competent users, not just test-takers.

There is just no way to incorporate anything like communicative teaching, task-based learning, a lexical approach or the Big Mama of bilingual education - CLIL, or Content Language Integrated Learning - at a national level as long as the teachers are still pinned to the wall vis-a-vis the national exams.

The exams themselves need to either be scrapped (at least the foreign language sections, though I'm of a mind to say the whole thing should go, with more proficiency-oriented assessment methods taking their place), or revamped so completely that they look nothing like what learners do now. There is just no place in modern language learning for pages and pages of grammar analysis without any nods to practical usage or even meaning in context.

There's just no other reasonable way to teach English for proficiency - you can't expect teachers to do that and to produce test-takers who can handle a grammar-heavy sit-down exam at the same time. The tests have got to go - but good luck convincing parents, some old-school teachers, and more conservative officials in the Ministry of Education that.

Certainly, meaningful skills and systems practice should be a part of any meaningful language-learning curriculum, but it's not enough to say "increase the difficulty."  As other professional educators in Taiwan have noted when reading this, another big issue is that the ways in which language classes in Taiwanese schools are already difficult are not the ways that will produce proficient users of English.

For example, as a knowledgeable friend pointed out, there's a glut of vocabulary in the current curriculum - far too much to absorb in any real way. If the target language for each class is 4-5 new words at most - but those words are truly used in terms of collocation, colligation, common usage, presence in idiomatic speech and more, and strongly contextually presented, by the end of a typical Taiwanese student's education, they will have still learned thousands of words - more than enough to be proficient, if they can use them across several collocations and phrases.  The difference is that they'll be more likely to actually remember what they learned, rather than trying to cram five times that many lexical items into their brains, vomiting it all up on tests, and then forgetting most of it soon after.

That Lin and her peers already know they're receiving a sub-standard language education is a start. That Lin is able to say clearly that her education does not teach her to think critically is, ironically, a sign of critical thinking ability. It gives me faith in the new generation, so I'll kindly thank you to stop calling them strawberries and mindless phone drones.

All of this leads right back to issues with making English a "second official language" in Taiwan


The idea itself isn't a bad one, and the stated goals of the program are actually quite reasonable. The goal isn't to make everyone a fluent speaker, or even necessarily a fully proficient one. They're to make Taiwan a more navigable, understandable destination for foreign visitors and businesspeople - essentially, to internationalize. They're to make English less 'scary' (so, for example, maybe shop assistants won't run away when they see me because they're afraid to speak English; nevermind that I speak Mandarin), and to improve the English curriculum that Taiwan already has. The timeline is reasonable as well.

That said, the fact that Taiwanese youth already go through about a decade of English classes in school, and most who don't come out speaking English in any meaningful way (those who do have almost always taken additional after-school language classes) is a massive problem. Simply having more classes won't help if the curriculum is ineffective. But if the curriculum doesn't work because it's preparing learners for exams rather than teaching them to use a language, it can't be changed unless the exams change.

Tainan is already doing a good job with this on the tourist end, with improvements such as English audioguides now available for major temples, so that any visitor can take a self-guided English-language tour of a number of Tainan temples, and by all accounts the work is quality.

When it comes to improving actual education and proficiency, however, my big worry is that there's simply no way to know if it's working. There seems to be no assessment mechanism built into Tainan's program, which is a yellow (if not a red) flag itself. Even if there were, it's so new that we'd have no idea if it were working by how anyhow; it's too early to know. That Lai has announced the initiative at a national level now is pure politics.

These issues aside, the problem that Lin dances around in her piece is exactly the thing that I fear will torpedo the program: we have no idea whether the continued existence of the national exams in Tainan is having an effect on the "English as a second language" program there, because there's not only no data, but no mechanism that I know of to collect it. Now, imagine that problem on a national level. I just don't see how this is going to work unless we kill the test-heavy way languages are taught in Taiwan now.

That itself is hard to do unless we clean house in terms of the teachers and Ministry of Education officials who will fight such changes, and not just hire "more teachers", but implement improved training for those teachers (both foreign and local - the time is here when it comes to no longer allowing uncredentialed 'native speakers' to be hired as English teachers in Taiwan, with little or no institutional support or meaningful training once employed. Although that's how I got my start, the system simply has to change.) For foreign English teachers, insisting on an internationally-recognized certification - especially now that one will soon be available in Taiwan - and setting parameters for which certification programs are accepted is just a first step.

On top of that, an entirely new curriculum will have to be written, which challenges learners in appropriate ways. What it means to assess learning will have to be entirely re-vamped. Only through consulting with experienced, trained teachers can we ever hope to do this well. 


Until that happens, we might be told that English education in Taiwan is going to change, but teachers will continue to prepare for the ludicrous national exams, and students like Irene Lin aren't going to see their language education get any better.

I'm not holding my breath. 

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Speaking in Brutal Tongues

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A short post for a gray Sunday morning.

Yesterday, I visited the Jingmei Human Rights Museum (景美人權文化園區), which is a short taxi ride from MRT Dapinglin (大坪林) station (not Jingmei station, which is across the river near the Taipei/New Taipei border). The museum is a former detention center used to house political prisoners in the later part of the Martial Law era, along with the correctional facilities on Green Island. The original center was located in Taipei, but it was torn down and the Sheraton stands on that site today.

Alongside stories that make your skin crawl and your blood boil - that prisoners might well be executed with no trial whatsoever, that many still don't know why they were accused, how some were kept in prison long after it was known they had not committed the crimes they had been accused of (to "save face" for the officers), how they were housed thirty people to a 9 square meter cell and drink toilet water if there was no tap (and there often wasn't), and how only in recent years are some family members receiving goodbye letters, was a story that made me sit down and stare blankly into space for a time.

When inmates were allowed visitors - family only, no friends - they could meet for ten minutes at a time, and were only allowed to speak Mandarin.

Mandarin was not - and for many still is not - a native language of Taiwan. The KMT dictated that it was the official language of the ROC government they forced on Taiwan, and would become the lingua franca. This impacted education, government affairs (if you addressed the government - not that that ever did much good - it had to be in Mandarin), jobs (certain jobs were only open to Mandarin speakers, that is, members of the new regime and the diaspora that came with them) and more. At the Taiwanese who were already here when the KMT invaded - yes, invaded - generally spoke Hoklo and perhaps Japanese, Hakka, or indigenous languages. The native population of Taiwan was essentially forced to learn the language of the foreign power that came to rule them, and those who did not were punished either socially or overtly (anything from your neighbors suspecting you, to losing access to jobs and education, to actual fines and potentially arrest).

The purpose was, of course, not only for the KMT to force their language on locals (many members of the diaspora spoke Chinese languages that were not Mandarin). It was to remake Taiwan as a 'province of China', to erase its history and culture through erasing their languages. To stamp out 'Taiwaneseness', in all its varied linguistic uniqueness.


As you can imagine, some of the inmates themselves might not have spoken Mandarin well (perhaps some not at all), and it would have been fairly common that their family members didn't speak it, either.

What do you do when you are only allowed to speak a language you don't know when visiting a loved one you might not have seen in years?

"You can only look at each other, and speak through tears," said the tour guide.

A former victim imprisoned for a crime he hadn't committed joined us on the tour, and told his story as well: it included just such a scene, and he and his mother were not even allowed to hug. I won't narrate the entire tale here - that's his story to tell, not mine. (If you read Mandarin, you can buy his book here).

Whether such a cruel, inhumane policy was perpetrated out of a sense of 'practicality' - as a friend pointed out, the regime likely lacked the imagination to have Hoklo, Hakka and indigenous eavesdroppers ensuring their surveillance of prisoners was complete, or if they had thought of that, might not have trusted anyone to relay the truth. These are people who murdered without trial, who kept people they knew were innocent in prison to protect themselves - they placed their faith in no-one but their own (and often, not even then - many who came to Taiwan with the KMT ended up in prison as suspected Communists, as well).

Or it could have been simply because they were evil and cruel. Some of the former guards who are known to have tortured White Terror victims are alive today, living normal lives, facing no legal repercussions, seemingly at peace with themselves and their actions (though who knows).

I suspect it was a combination of both.

Fast forward to 2018: foreigners come to Taiwan to study Mandarin (though I haven't been particularly impressed with teaching methods here). I learned it so I could live here as normally as possible. It's seen as a practical language to know, something you might study out of interest, but is also internationally useful.

This history, however, and hearing it put so plainly, has made feel slightly ill about continuing to speak it in Taiwan. I'm not speaking a native language of Taiwan, not really - I'm speaking a colonial language. I don't feel good about that at all. I'd always felt a little unsettled about it, in fact, but that story pulled all of that nebulous uneasiness into sharp focus.

How can I speak Mandarin as though it is normal in a country where it was once used to keep parents from speaking to their children?

I'm aware of how odd that sounds - it is a lingua franca. Most Taiwanese, even those who are fully aware of this history, likely were impacted by the White Terror (or have families who were) and are otherwise horrified at the truth of this history, speak it - often without a second thought. Who am I,

Stripped of its dark history in Taiwan, Mandarin is merely a language. A beautiful language, even. One steeped in history that is otherwise no crueler than any history (though all history is cruel). And yet, it was used to brutalize Taiwanese - even now, those who do not or prefer not to speak it face discrimination and stereotyping, either as 'crazy political types' or as 'uneducated hicks', both deeply unfair labels that perpetuate a colonial system that dictates who gets to be born on top, and who has to fight their way up from the bottom.

Mandarin is only a native language and lingua franca in Taiwan because of this linguistic brutality. Foreign students only come here to learn it for this reason, as well. That most Taiwanese speak it natively speaks to the success of the KMT's cruelty. That not everyone does, and many who do still prefer native Taiwanese languages shows the strength of the Taiwanese spirit, and the KMT's ultimate failure as a cruel, petty, corrupt, dictatorial and foreign regime.

I can respect the idea that Taiwan has begun - and will likely to continue - to use Mandarin appropriatively rather than accepting it merely as the language of those who would continue to be overlords if they had their way. To take Mandarin and use it for their own purposes, to their own ends (this paper is about English being used in this way, but the main ideas are for Mandarin as well).

But - we're not there yet. There is still an imperialist element to Mandarin in Taiwan that makes me deeply uncomfortable. That structure still hasn't quite been broken down.


I know, especially as a resident of Taipei, that I can't just say "screw it!", refuse to use Mandarin unless absolutely necessary, and start learning Hoklo in earnest - preferring only to use that or English. Many former victims and Taiwanese deeply affected by this history do so, and I admire that, but I'm not Taiwanese.

I want to be a part, if only a very small part, of a better Taiwan, to contribute to building a truly free, decolonialized nation. But again, I am not Taiwanese. There are people who would think I was just putting on a show, and while I don't believe that, it would be hard to make the case that they are wrong.


And yet, the main reasons for not giving up Mandarin - that I would be giving up on something so 'practical', and that I'd be labeled another 'crazy political type' (perhaps more so because I'm not even from here, and this history is not my history), feel like giving the colonial ROC regime yet another brutal victory.

For now, I suppose I will keep speaking Mandarin; I kind of have to. In any case, is Hoklo not the language of oppression for Hakka and indigenous people? And yet, I don't see any sort of real world in which I can walk around Taipei speaking only Amis and a.) not look like an idiotic - if not crazy - white lady; and b.) actually communicate with the vast majority of people. As a language learner and foreign resident, where do I draw that line?

I don't feel good about it at all, however, and perhaps the first step is, without giving up Mandarin per se, to start seriously learning Hoklo.