Language Policy in Taiwan

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Apr 1 18:05:27 UTC 2002

Choosing English over Hokkein

By Wang Wei-ming
Taipei Times Online, March 30, 2002

TSU legislators have proposed making Hokkien the second official language
of Taiwan. However, 60 percent of respondents to a TVBS opinion poll were
in favor of making English the second official language, alongside

In response to the poll result, the TSU legislative caucus immediately
declared that a nation's official languages and national identity are
closely interwoven, and the two can never be separated. This is clearly
the party's strategy to gain power. Since the issue of language can
influence the growth and decline of ethnic groups -- not to mention that
speaking English has usually been taken as a symbol of elitism in southern
Taiwan -- the issue may easily become a fight over ideologies that divides
our ethnic groups. The more populist the issue, the more blurred the focus
on the issue becomes. An all-round perspective of global arrangements is
absent in this controversy.

Not only has the issue not been thoroughly discussed, but concerns about
the issue are slowly drowning in the gossip that permeates the news. To be
direct, the public does not have a clear understanding of globalization --
not to mention the crucial role English plays in globalization. Although I
often criticize globalization, I believe that Taiwan is incapable of
resisting the globalization trend because the nation has been severely
damaged by the economic downturn over the past two years. Its future role
on the world stage will depend on its degree of globalization. Mean-while,
under the framework of globalization, a shared language for exchanging
information is necessary for us to break national boundaries, both
cultural and economic. This language is not

Mandarin and certainly not Hokkien, but English. Is Taiwan ready for this?
In recent years, the average TOEFL scores in Taiwan have failed to get on
the top 10 list in Asia. The proportion of college and university students
passing the intermediate level General English Proficiency Test (GEPT) is
even lower than that of high-school students.

There are a lot of colleges and universities in Taiwan and the total
number of graduate schools has sharply increased. Since the threshold for
admission to the schools is low, the quality of students has rapidly
declined. More-over, the US education sector has long been flooded with
brilliant students from China. For students in Taiwan, it has become
harder and harder to get into leading US schools. The proportion of
students staying in the US to continue their research is also low. As a
result, our academic competitiveness in the international community has
gone from bad to worse.

To graduate, many college and university students whose English skills are
weak have turned other languages, such as Japanese. The Ministry of
Education actually reduced the number of required credits for language
courses in our higher education system a few years ago. Most of the
graduates of some 150 colleges and universities in Taiwan are incapable of
using English or other foreign languages fluently. As a result of this
vicious cycle, students can't expect to be granted scholarships from
overseas schools. Also, their English proficiency has further declined,
since the factor luring them to study abroad has gone. Fortunately, a few
schools, such as National Taiwan University, have realized that English
serves as an index of competitiveness and have planned to launch
proficiency tests similar to the higher- intermediate level GEPT,
requiring their students to pass the tests before graduation.

In the first half of the 1990s in the US, the Democratic Party managed to
reverse the huge budget deficits and turn the nation into a superpower in
the world economy, thanks to the promotion of a "knowledge-based economy."
Although the US-led global economy has slowed since the Republican Party
took office, it is impossible to reverse such an epochal change.

For example, after Mexico's financial crisis in 1994, the head of the IMF
commented that the crisis marked the beginning of a new era. Three years
later, similar crises decimated Thailand's economy and those of several
other nations. These countries, how-ever, seldom examine their own faults
and condemn foreign companies for promoting "new economic colonialism."
They also use populism and nationalism to confront globalization.
Argentina serves as an example.

At the beginning of the 1990s, Japan used to be unconcerned with
globalization. But the whole world has become anxious about Japan's
financial crisis. But Japan has looked outward to solve its problems. The
late prime minister Keizo Obuchi recommended that Japan take English as
its second official language to promote the English ability of people.
Japanese companies are increasingly limiting the promotion chances of
employees with poor English skills. Some foreign-funded companies even use
English as the official language in the workplace and use TOEIC (Test of
English for International Communication) scores as one criterion for
promotion. Although the Japanese have poor English speaking skills, the
nation's translation industry is highly developed.

In Singapore, the government even launched a "Speak Good English" campaign
last year to improve the grammatically imperfect "Singlish" -- despite
the fact that English is already an official language.

Taiwan barely escaped from the financial crisis of 1997, but what does it
have going for it to face increasing global competition today? Does the
nation's fate lie solely in the sunset industry of manufacturing
eight-inch semiconductor chips? It is already a fact that Taiwan's higher
education exists in name only. Those who worry that local businesses may
"go west" to China do not understand that since Taiwanese and Chinese are
of the same race and share the same language, the Chinese market is
particularly good for people in Taiwan whose English is poor.

Globalization involves a change in thinking and habits. English is the
language of such thinking. If we turn the issue of language into a fight
over reunification and independence -- disregarding the nation's economic
predicament and the functions of an official language -- Taiwan may
regress to the status it had during World War II.

Wang Wei-ming is an assistant professor at Nan-Jeon Institute of

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