Talking Taiwanese: Flemish reflections on Taiwanese language education
hfsclpp at gmail.com
Sun Oct 7 13:06:10 UTC 2007
Flemish reflections on Taiwanese language education
A message from the future
Taiwan's educational innovations have recently been the envy of other
Southeast Asian countries. What in 2008 started off as experiments in
various language programs island-wide has now captured media attention
worldwide, in particular the United States, from which Taiwan largely
copied previous language pedagogics. Since the passing of the revamped
2010 language legislation establishing the use of the Taiwanese
language at pre-university levels in Taiwan, and due to the existence
of different social attitudes towards Mandarin/Taiwanese bilingualism,
Taiwan's education system currently offers three linguistic models in
which children can complete their studies:
This is a regular program in which Mandarin is the vehicle language
and Taiwanese is taught only as a subject - four to five hours per
week. The first language of the students is Mandarin. Unlike the
Canadian late partial immersion model, Taiwan's model A-program does
not include subjects taught in (through) Taiwanese, only Taiwanese as
a language course.
The language objectives in this model are:
1. to understand Taiwanese well
2. to be able to give basic explanations in Taiwanese on everyday matters
3. to be able to read and write basic Romanized Taiwanese
4. to prepare the student for participation in Taiwanese environments
5. to strengthen positive attitudes towards Taiwanese
Even so, as in other countries implementing this model (e.g. Spain,
Canada), model A students still exhibit more negative attitudes
towards the Taiwanese language than their bilingual counterparts, a
situation similar to that before 2010.
This is an early partial immersion program in which both Taiwanese and
Mandarin are used as means of instruction. These students' first
language is usually Mandarin, although there may be some rare
exceptions with Taiwanese as their mother tongue. In this model the
first three schooling years (kindergarten) are generally taught
through Taiwanese. In the first year of primary education, they start
to learn the reading writing process and mathematics in Mandarin.
Some schools in and around Tainan and Kaohsiung, two major urban
centers in the south of Taiwan, are evolving towards a more intensive
model B, in which the reading–writing process and part or the whole
subject of Mathematics is performed in Taiwanese.
This is Taiwan's most heterogeneous model and, depending on different
factors – such as the sociolinguistic setting in which the school is
located or the availability of Taiwanese teaching staff – the time
allotted to Taiwanese and Mandarin varies considerably between the
northern and southern urban centers.
The Taiwanese language objectives in this model are:
1. to acquire suitable competence to perform in Taiwanese as well as securing a
high level of comprehension
2. to prepare students to carry out further studies in Taiwanese
This is a total immersion program for those students whose first
language is Mandarin and a maintenance program for those with
Taiwanese as mother tongue (like in Spain but unlike Finland or
Canada, where total immersion programs are only used with students who
have no knowledge of the vehicle language). Mandarin is taught as a
subject for only four to five hours per week.
Although some schools tend to keep native and non-native speakers of
Taiwanese separate, in this model students with a different native
language are sharing the same classroom.
The Taiwanese language objectives in this model are:
1. to strengthen competence in Taiwanese, enriching language skills
and converting Taiwanese into an instrument of communication for
conversation and teaching
2. to strengthen the community of Taiwanese-speaking students to stand
up to the pressures of the greater Mandarin-speaking environment and
to make it a driving force in forging a cultural identity of Taiwan's
This is an early partial immersion program in which Hakka and Mandarin
are used as means of instruction. These students' first language is
usually Mandarin, although there may be some rare exceptions with
Hakka as their mother tongue. The first three schooling years
(kindergarten) are generally taught through Hakka. During the first
year of primary education, children start to learn the reading-writing
process and mathematics in Mandarin.
The Hakka language objectives in this model are:
1. to acquire suitable competence to perform in Hakka as well as
securing a high level of comprehension
2. to prepare students to carry out further studies in Hakka
This is a program in which Mandarin is the vehicle language and the
child's aboriginal mother tongue is taught only as a subject (three to
four hours per week). The first language of the students is Mandarin.
This model does not include subjects taught through the mother tongue,
but includes the mother tongue as a language course.
The language objectives in this model are:
1. to understand the aboriginal language well
2. to be able to give basic explanations in the aboriginal language on
3. to prepare the student for participation in aboriginal environments
4. to strengthen positive attitudes towards the aboriginal mother tongue
Public support in Taiwan for models B to E has been relatively low,
much like initial reactions to mother tongue education in Canada and
the EU some twenty-five years ago.
Mother tongue education in Spain's autonomous regions also started off
with very limited public support for education in and through Basque
and Catalan (1983). In 2007, however, pupils following models similar
to B and C outperformed those in the A-model to such a degree that the
Basque and Catalan local authorities started a new model, offering all
courses through the medium of the students' mother tongue.
Full Bilingualism + English as foreign language = Trilingual education
In all these models, the teaching of English, after an experimental
period in several schools, has started at the age of 4. In primary
education the time allotted to the English lessons is about three
hours per week.
The gradual lowering of the student age for the introduction of
English in Taiwan's kindergarten and school has been an important and
at times controversial issue. Up to 2008, there were no specific
guidelines or clear recommendations on how early to start, how many
languages to introduce and what language didactics to implement in
language programs, this despite a significant public interest in and
need for bringing on multicultural and multilingual students. Before
that time, English used to be first taught in Grade 3 of primary
schools, with some (urban) schools starting English in Grade 1 and
others (mainly rural) only in Grade 5 – due to a lack of qualified
Trilingualism (native language – Mandarin – English) in the school
curriculum is becoming more and more widespread and is something that
cannot be ignored – with Canada and the European Union leading the
In trilingual education, because of the coexistence of several
languages, the attitudes of parents in Taiwan towards school
multilingualism can be divided into two main groups:
1. The first group consists of those parents who believe that the
learning of three (or more) languages at school will foster their
children's cognitive development, instead of holding it back. They
consider that all the languages will be mastered without affecting
each other's development negatively.
2. The second group is made up of those parents who maintain that the
presence and use of the Taiwanese (or other native) language can
become a stumbling block in the acquisition of the majority language
or an additional one.
Many immigrant parents in Canada, for example, believed that by
speaking or reading to their children in their own language, parents
would seriously slow down their child's acquisition of English.
Canada's educational authorities, however, still went ahead with
bilingual additive immersion programs after having had proof (over 25
years of children's test results) of the effectiveness of mother
As was the case with the Canadian public in the 80's, Taiwan's
Ministry of Education acknowledges that parents here are still in need
of access to more evidence and research studies on which to base their
opinions when it comes to making a decision on the language model best
suited for their child's overall education.
Teachers and teacher training
The shortage of qualified teachers was the first and the biggest
hurdle that Taiwanese-medium education had to overcome. Consider the
following statement: in 2008, less than 10% of primary school teachers
could read the official Taiwanese script. Taiwanese was not even heard
in teacher training colleges, so there was little chance of training
teachers able to teach in and through Taiwanese.
This was the reason why the training question had to handled by the
Taiwanese Government. The so-called TAIRALE, an in-service retraining
program at Taiwan's major universities, was established in order to
provide practicing teachers with opportunities to acquire the required
level of Taiwanese (or other native language). Two linguistic profiles
were established: (1) PL1: elementary knowledge of Taiwanese: (2) PL2:
qualification to teach in Taiwanese.
In order to meet the challenges of Taiwanese education, all new
teaching staff should be Taiwanese/Mandarin bilingual, including
proficiency in written (Romanized) Taiwanese. Those teachers who are
interested in taking part in one of the TAIRALE courses need to
demonstrate interest and willingness by achieving a minimum level of
competence in Taiwanese beforehand; that is to say, participation is
not allowed for those who have to learn Taiwanese from scratch.
To take part in TAIRALE, teachers are offered part or full-time
release from teaching duties on full salary for a period up to two
school years (1500, many of them freshly graduated students, took
advantage of these facilities during the 2008-2009 school year). In
doing so, the Taiwan government followed similar practices by the
Spanish and Welsh authorities some twenty-five years earlier.
The Taiwan government pays for both the learner's tuition and the
corresponding supply teacher. Although the opportunity to take part is
offered irrespective of the mother tongue of the teacher, the release
period for native speakers of Taiwanese has turned out to be shorter
than that for non-natives. As the teacher shortage will gradually
decreased, the level of competence demanded to achieve the necessary
linguistic profile will probably increase.
After years of educational idling, Taiwan's Education Ministry ought
to be lauded to finally having embarked upon a language policy in
accordance with proven linguistic and pedagogic principles. The
current five-model trilingual system is in line with the world's most
advanced multilingual educational systems.
Through a long and at times arduous information campaign in Taiwan's
media, the Ministry of Education has convinced many parents of the
outdated nature of previous "subtractive" Mandarin/English education
models. The model implemented in 2010 is soon expected to improve
Taiwan's competitiveness, as experienced by the outflow of students
from similar systems in the EU and Canada.
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