'English proficiency opens up opportunities for young people': Pan

01/28/2018 03:58 PM
Photo courtesy of the Ministry of Education
Photo courtesy of the Ministry of Education

[Editor's note: This is part two 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 three days.]

By Shih Hsiu-chuan, CNA staff reporter

Education Minister Pan Wen-chung (潘文忠), who is heading a committee studying the feasibility of making English Taiwan's second official language, is scheduled to present a report to Premier Lai Ching-te (賴清德) in May.

He sat down with CNA on Jan. 8 to share his views on why the government is advocating this idea and his vision for building an environment in Taiwan in which people use languages other than Mandarin Chinese in daily life.

The following are excerpts of the interview.

CNA: Taiwan does not have a legally defined official language. How do you define an official language?

Pan Wen-chung: There is indeed no legal definition of an official language. It's all based on our general understanding of what it means. In practice, the language used in workplaces and in government offices is Mandarin Chinese.

CNA: So given the lack of a definite definition, what specifically would making English an official language mean?

Pan: The point of the idea is not to define what an official language is, but to create a rich English environment in both the public and private sectors, for foreign nationals living in Taiwan and for Taiwanese to pick up the language.

With the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) listing English as a common language, there will be more than half of the world's population speaking English. It's an inevitable trend that English will become the world's most important lingua franca. As the world becomes more integrated, English is a tool for Taiwan to better communicate, interact and connect with the world.

Will take concrete steps to achieve the goal

CNA: Will the committee decide whether or not to make English an official language in the report?

Pan: Yes, we definitely will have an answer by then (May) because that's what Legislator Rosalia Wu proposed and what Premier Lai asked us to do.

If we suggest that Taiwan declare English as a second official language or adopt wider use of the language, we will put forth concrete steps and complementary measures that we need to take to achieve that goal.

CNA: You seem to suggest that making English an official language is the direction the committee is moving toward. If it is a policy, does it mean that government documents will be kept in English as well?

Pan: We only put together the committee one or two months ago, and committee members have given us many suggestions.

I would not say what would immediately entail if we are to put the idea into practice. Questions such as making English the language of use for government texts or the like depend on whether we are ready for it.

CNA: Are you saying that even if the government lists English as an official language, it will not seek a stipulation of that status? Or will it be similar to Singapore where English is its official language by law?

Pan: The question is to be further discussed. Some committee members argue that what is more important for Taiwan is to create a rich English environment, while some suggest that it should start with making English the language of government operations.

We have traveled to Tainan to learn about its experiences in making English a second official language in practice under the 10-year project launched in 2015 by Premier Lai when he was Tainan mayor. (Those efforts) still have a long way to go, but the atmosphere and environment in Tainan is taking shape.

Our hope is that people in Taiwan will not be reluctant or fear to speak or use English.

English makes it easier to connect with the world

CNA: Japan is not considered a place where people speak English well, but Japan is more competitive than the Philippines, where English is an official language and where people are fluent English speakers. Can you explain why the level of English proficiency or an English environment is relevant to competitiveness?

Pan: As the world changes, there are far more opportunities for communications between people all over the world than in the past. If young people have a good command of English, they have more opportunities to explore and connect with the world.

English competence does not equate to competitiveness, but it lays the foundation on which people can collect accurate information in a timely way, showcase professional expertise or express ideas without language barriers in the international arena, giving them a competitive edge. English proficiency opens up opportunities for young people. We must do this for the next generation.

Not meant to drop Mandarin

CNA: There is also a concern that making English an official language will draw attention and resources from native languages.

Pan: Currently at elementary school, native languages instruction is available in first grade and English instruction in third grade. It's a set policy and has been in place. Making English a second official language isn't intended to have the courses in native languages replaced by English classes. It's certainly not intended to drop Mandarin Chinese as the de facto official language of Taiwan.

If students have only a class or so a week to learn English or native languages, they will never be able to use the languages well.

What we have been thinking is to use English or other native languages as the medium of instruction in non-language courses. We have been encouraging kindergarten school teachers to speak native languages with kids. In elementary school, the teaching of classes such as arts, humanities subjects and phys ed in native languages or English is also available.

Goal -- make Taiwan a multi-lingual country

CNA: How do you respond to the criticism that the idea is a "de-sinicization" attempt to sever Taiwan's links to Chinese culture?

Pan: It's really unnecessary to interpret things that way. English is the most common tool of communication in the world. Is it possible to sever ties with China just because of the use of a language?

This is how we should look at this issue: It is a policy goal. We have to devote resources to gradually achieving it in stages. For Tainan City alone, it sets a ten-year time frame. If we are to pursue it on a national scale, it would take longer because there are counties with lower proficiency in English compared with cities. We will make a down-to-earth plan for the objective.

People are often impressed with European junior high students who speak several languages. That's because there is a huge demand of proficiency in foreign languages in the continent where countries are near each other.

That shows that it's possible to learn multiple languages simultaneously if we can create a good learning environment.

Taiwan is an island country and our students don't have the same geographical advantage as European students. But if we go in the right direction and create a better environment for the use of languages, we will be able to have children grow up in a multilingual environment like children in Europe.

Enditem/sc/lsPart 1:Taiwan mulling English as an official language, but is it ready?Part 3:Tainan blazes trail in making English Taiwan's 2nd official languagePart 4:Scholars doubtful about proposal to list English as second languagePart 5:Government offers vision of English as official language in Taiwan

Related news:English learning in Hong Kong could be model for Taiwan

    We value your privacy.
    Focus Taiwan (CNA) uses tracking technologies to provide better reading experiences, but it also respects readers' privacy. Click here to find out more about Focus Taiwan's privacy policy. When you close this window, it means you agree with this policy.