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Taiwan mulling English as an official language, but is it ready?

2018/01/27 16:57:23

Photo courtesy of Tainan City Office of English as the Second Official Language

[Editor's note: This is part one 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 four days.]

By Shih Hsiu-chuan, CNA staff reporter

Most countries with English as an official language were once ruled by the United States or United Kingdom, so it might seem far-fetched for Taiwan to even consider the idea, but the government is now thinking of making it a reality.

Premier Lai Ching-te (賴清德) has asked Education Minister Pan Wen-chung (潘文忠) to lead a feasibility study on the issue and submit a report, though the way Lai and Pan have talked about the plan suggests they believe it has a future.

In launching the study, Lai directed the ministry to break down what he said was a "major policy goal" into steps and outline how each step can be achieved within a given time frame.

Pan would not say in an interview with CNA on Jan. 8 if the government has already made up its mind to go ahead with the plan, but he seemed to be behind it.

Declaring "English as a second official language" as a policy goal, he said, would "help us focus our efforts" on elevating English standards in Taiwan, which is important considering the widespread use of English in international transactions and communications.

"If that objective is set, everyone will know where we are heading. We must set our own pace and work to attain the objective a certain number of years from now," Pan said.


(Pan Wen-chung speaks to CNA; photo courtesy of the Ministry of Education)

Though Mandarin Chinese is Taiwan's most mainstream language, Taiwan does not have any legally established official languages, so it is rather unclear what having English as an official language would mean in practical terms.

Pan said an official language is generally understood as a language "commonly used in society and within government in our daily life," just like "how we use Mandarin Chinese."

Beyond that, however, Pan was not ready to define what such a policy might entail, other than to dismiss concerns that it would mean the government operating in two languages right away or establishing certain measures that would be hard for people to fulfill.

"The point is not to define what an official language is but to create a rich English language environment," he said.

If Taiwan goes ahead with the initiative, it could adopt Tainan as a model. When Lai was mayor of Tainan, he launched a 10-year project in 2015 to make English the city's second official language, and Pan said a national program would take even longer.



(The Tainan project assisted night markets and shops in providing English menus for foreign customers; photo courtesy of Taipei City Office of English as the Second Official Language)



Studying the idea for the first time

The idea of making English an official language was first proposed in 2002 by then president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) on the heels of Taiwan's admission to the World Trade Organization, but this is the first time an evaluation of the concept is being done.

The committee led by Pan to conduct the study is composed of 20 or so people who are professors of English, experts with international experience, and government officials and has already met twice.

At the first meeting of the committee on Nov. 14, such issues as the desirability and implications of English being made a second official language, whether it is necessary to stipulate an official language, how to put it into practice, and problems with English instruction in Taiwan were on the agenda, Pan said.

The group reached a high degree of consensus at the second encounter on Jan. 17 that Taiwan needed to improve its linguistic environment because it is a key factor in language acquisition whether or not English becomes an official language or not, Pan said.

They also suggested that if English is to be made an official language, the government needs to map out steps and complementary measures to be taken down the road toward attaining the goal, he said.

Those and other questions will be further discussed in the next few months before the feasibility report is concluded in May, he said.



(Committee members visited Tainan's Chongming Elementary School last December to see the bilingual program there; photo courtesy of the Ministry of Education)




(Committee members visited Tainan's Grand Matsu Temple last December to see the bilingual program there; photo courtesy of the Ministry of Education)


Hot debate

Whatever the committee's conclusion, it will likely spark debate, as Democratic Progressive Party Legislator Rosalia Wu (吳思瑤) found after rekindling the goal of making English an official language at a legislative hearing in October 2017, when she urged Lai to list it as one of the nation's "strategic goals."

She also suggested that an office be set up under the Executive Yuan to direct efforts toward achieving the objective by 2050.


(Premier Lai Ching-te (left) instructs the Education Ministry to study the feasibility of listing English as a second official language when fielding questions from Rosalia Wu (right) on the legislative floor last year)

According to Wu, her vision has received encouragement from Taiwan-based globetrotters whom she says have seen firsthand how Taiwan's lagging language skills have adversely affected Taiwan's global standing.

Criticism has come, she said, from pro-independence activists who argue that Taiwanese, also known as Hokkien, is less spoken today by the younger generations and should be given priority.

Wu said she was also attacked by Chinese media, which labeled her idea as an attempt at "de-sinicization" with the goal to sever Taiwan's links to Chinese culture.

The arguments made by the critics suggest they consider languages to be political tools, "but for me, they are not," she said.

'We don't just want to talk to people in Taiwan'

"Languages are existential skills and help us see the world through the eyes of another," Wu said. "I also support promoting Hokkien, but we don't just want to talk to people in Taiwan, do we?

"English proficiency is vital to promoting Taiwan's internationalization," she said, arguing, for example, that language deficiencies have made it hard for Taiwan to participate effectively in international conferences, diminishing Taiwan's opportunities to gain a foothold in the world.

But is making English an official language really the appropriate remedy?

Michael Kau (高英茂), a member of the "feasibility study" committee, admits to being hesitant about the idea because it would incur "overwhelming translation costs" as government documents would have to be translated into English.

English is of critical importance in making Taiwan more competitive in today's global economy, Kau said, but considering the complexity and potentially high costs of making it an official language, he suggested it be listed as a "working language" with the aim of developing it into a "primary" language.

An official with the National Development Council (NDC), which would likely have a role in promoting the policy, said determining whether and how the idea fits the needs of the nation's development has to be clarified first.

"What would we need English government texts for? Would that help attract tourists or investment? Would requiring public servants to become proficient in English distract them from work? Could resources needed to make this happen be put to better use or help preserve native tongues at risk of extinction?" she asked.

But Juang Li-lan, responsible for projects to build an English-friendly environment from 2002 to 2012 as part of a Cabinet-level task force, said she hoped the government would take concerted action to enhance efforts in this area.

Bilingual road signs and government websites, the use of immersion teaching at school, and English hotline services for foreign nationals in Taiwan would not have been possible had the projects not been implemented over the 10-year period, Juang said.

Whatever the study's outcome, Pan said English, which is spoken by nearly half of the world's population, is essential to communicating in this day and age.

"English proficiency opens up opportunities for young people. We must do this for the next generation," he said.

Enditem/ls
Part 2:
'English proficiency opens up opportunities for young people': Pan
Part 3:
Tainan blazes trail in making English Taiwan's 2nd official language
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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