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Tainan blazes trail in making English Taiwan's 2nd official language

2018/01/29 16:03:45

[Editor's note: This is part three of a five-part series that takes a look at the Taiwan government's proposed plan to introduce English as a second official language in Taiwan. The rest of the series will be published in the coming two days.]

By Lee Hsin-Yin and Yang Sz-ruei, CNA staff reporters

The southern city of Tainan has taken the lead in efforts to make English Taiwan's second official language, introducing various campaigns aimed at both improving citizens' English proficiency and creating an English-friendly environment.

Operating the country's one and only Office of English as the Second Official Language since 2015 when then-Tainan Mayor Lai Ching-te (賴清德) launched the project, the city has been put under the spotlight after now Premier Lai recently directed Taiwan's Ministry of Education in October to examine the feasibility of expanding the city's policy nationwide.

Liu Shih-chung (劉世忠), who until September was director of the office, told CNA that the greatest contribution of the "Tainan experience" is the joint participation of the private and public sectors.

"We started from scratch, and it's an approach of trial and error," Liu said, adding that while there is a limited city budget of around NT$50 million (US$1.6 million) per year, the initiative has won recognition from local businesses and civic groups, some of which have pledged financial sponsorship of the program.

Target: Fully bilingual by 2025

The Tainan program is designed to lay a foundation of English proficiency by 2018, with the city aiming to become fully bilingual by 2025.

It's not meant to turn everyone into English speakers, but rather build a bottom-up consensus that the language is important, useful, and easy to practice in daily conversation, said Sabrina Tien (田玲瑚), deputy director of the office.

"Our goal is to help the general public to be willing to take English as part of their lives instead of having people master it," she told CNA.

A major part of the program involves teaching school children English at an earlier age and conducting lessons on even non-English subjects in English.

While children in Taiwan start learning English in public schools from Grade 3, or 9 years old, students in Tainan are required to start at Grade 2.

The city has established bilingual curriculum in eight of its elementary schools as trials, where English is used to deliver non-language subjects like art, physical education and science.

Such teaching techniques could turn English into a tool connecting students to their daily lives, Tien said, adding that they could also learn English in a "more intuitive" manner.

The program seems well-received by students and teachers at the Tainan Municipal Simen Experimental Elementary School (TMSEES).

During a visit to the school, a CNA reporter observed students in a natural science class and a general activity class using single English words or short phrases to interact with their foreign teacher. The teachers taught the lessons in English, with the help of a Taiwanese teacher who translated for students who did not know how to ask their questions in English.


(Students have natural interaction with their foreign teacher at the Tainan Municipal Simen Experimental Elementary School)

Students in the bilingual science class said they no longer felt intimidated about communicating with foreign teachers.

"We used to feel uneasy when we saw foreign teachers because we didn't know how to get along with them, but we no longer feel that way since we see them a lot on campus and found out that they are really not different from other teachers," they told CNA.

The students had a natural interaction with both teachers using English, and said they have learned along the course that it is okay to make mistakes in English, and although there are times they do not understand what the teacher is saying, they eventually figure it out with the help of body language.

Seemingly able to digest scientific principles and use terms such as "dissolution" in English, the sixth graders said they felt more at ease speaking English now and even teach their parents the language from time to time.

"We will test our parents on purpose to know how good they are in English, and we can teach them things they don't know. It's kind of fun," according to one of the students.

Tainan approach 'refreshing'

Nathan Kickham, one of the English teachers in those classes, said he has lived in Taiwan for 10 years, and finds the Tainan approach integrating English with other courses and even students' lives to be refreshing.

"I am very impressed with the progress made by students over time," Kickham said in Chinese.

Schools that are involved in the push, however, said it was challenging at the beginning to prepare students, parents and teachers to be ready for the big change.

Currently, there is no well-established evaluation method to determine which teacher in a school is capable of teaching in English, and subsequent reforms could put teachers under pressure due to the lack of training, the schools said.

Different schools also have their own agenda in implementing the policies, said TMSEES Principle Lu Tsui-ling (呂翠鈴).

Her school hires foreign teachers holding teaching certificates from their home countries to work with local teachers in designing the curriculum, Lu said.

She stressed that she is confident the students are really learning the lessons as well as they would in Chinese.

Students do well in tests, which are designed and answered in Chinese, even though the subjects are delivered in English, she said.

"Of course it requires a lot of communication with the parents in advance," Lu told CNA. "Besides teaching, we try to create more hands-on activities and opportunities for peer interaction to make the lessons (in English) easier to digest."

Temples, night markets going bilingual

Other than schools, even night markets and temples in Tainan are adopting a bilingual approach to create an English-friendly environment in the city, Tien said.

Earlier this year, vendors at Wusheng, Huayuan and Yenhang night markets in Tainan began to offer bilingual menus, which were translated with the help of the office.

That has generated a good response from the international community.


(Foreign students find bilingual services at night market helpful; photo courtesy of Tainan City Office of English as the Second Official Language)

Soeren Kuellmer, a German exchange student, said the service helps him avoid mistakenly ordering food he doesn't want.

"Now with the bilingual menus I can feel at ease when I'm ordering," Kuellmer said.

Currently, 450 restaurants and night market stalls offer bilingual menus. Tien said her office is still working to generate more such menus to increase convenience for foreign visitors.

The city also collects and translates tourists pamphlets explaining temples' history, floor plans, worship routes and basic ritualistic protocols in order to help foreigners who have never been exposed to traditional Taiwanese religious practices understand them.

There are even detailed instructions on how to throw wooden divinity blocks (bwabwe) in order to find out one's fortune. Tiangong Temple has gone so far as to translate a complete set of fortunes into English and Japanese.

Making English the norm

Besides classroom instruction and English menus, Tainan hopes to also expose its citizens to a bilingual environment by letting them see and hear English every day and making that the new norm.

One way it's doing this is enhancing the English language skills of local business operators by offering different training programs tailored to helping them meet the needs of their foreign customers.

For instance, a five-class program has been provided to taxi drivers since June, which included multi-media materials such as recordings of welcome phrases, an English tour guide book, as well as a list of common English expressions such as "Do you need a ride?" and "Here we are."

A total of 75 drivers passed the post-class examination and were promoted as English-friendly drivers by the government.

To encourage taxi drivers to learn English, the government distributes the contact information of those who take the class and pass the test, in its tourism pamphlets, to help them generate more business from foreign visitors.

Peter Yang (楊漢寶), one of the English-friendly drivers, told CNA that the classes have helped him better communicate with foreign passengers at a basic level.


(Tainan distributes the contact information of taxi drivers who take its English class and pass the test, in its tourism pamphlets; photo courtesy of Tainan City Office of English as the Second Official Language)

However, the program has not yet contributed to any increase in foreign ridership, Yang said, adding that while there is certainly a good cause for having the policy, it is difficult for him to feel the real benefits it promises.

"I can see the promotions there, but they are just not fully integrated with the local tourism or traffic sector, which makes the campaign less practical," he said.

But is it really working?

Despite the program's popularity with some people, some people like Yang question whether it is feasible and whether it will bring real results.

The policy fails to put reality into serious consideration, said Hugo Tseng (曾泰元), associate professor of the English Department at Soochow University.

He pointed out that Tainan is not like Singapore or Hong Kong, where their colonization by the British has laid a foundation for English learning and its daily use.

"(The push) is like New Year's Eve fireworks, which are beautiful, but illusory," he said.

Also worrying is that the program has not yet been able to generate a performance evaluation, which only leads to more doubts about its effects.

There are no formal surveys or polls available to gauge how Tainan residents feel about the project and whether they are benefiting from it. The only formal evaluation, which is about the English curriculum in schools, is still being conducted by National Cheng Kung University.

In response to such concerns, organizers of the Tainan campaign said the value of the program is to exploit all kinds of opportunities, and over time, they will adjust the approaches and find a better formula.

"We are creating dots now, and in the future they will be connected into lines, and then planes that address our needs in a more comprehensive way," Liu said.

Premier Lai also seems undaunted by the nonchalant reviews.

Lai is firm in his belief that regardless of time and uncertainty, the city is striving toward its goal.

"The policy is like penetrating a rock with dripping water: progress will be slow and painstaking without readily evident results for some time," he said.

Enditem/sc/cs

Part 1:
Taiwan mulling English as an official language, but is it ready?
Part 2:
'English proficiency opens up opportunities for young people': Pan
Part 4:
Scholars doubtful about proposal to list English as second language
Part 5:
Government offers vision of English as official language in Taiwan

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