[lg policy] Taiwan mulling English as an official language, but is it ready?

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Sat Jan 27 10:40:03 EST 2018

 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

*[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

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

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

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

*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 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 (莊麗蘭), 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.


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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