Life & Art
Is "Bilingual 2030" feasible?
The Taiwan National Development Council’s (NDC’s) Bilingual 2030 strategy paper has plentiful targets and plans for how to meet them. But it’s missed out whole swathes of the population and is much too reliant on a diminishing resource - young people.
By Lee Faulkner
There seems to be widespread scepticism in Taiwan about the feasibility of “Bilingual 2030” and its chances of success. The NDC’s strategy paper is very detailed, with an overwhelming emphasis on the young; but there is limited focus on improving the English language skills of civil servants, and the rest of the population barely gets a look in. As the NDC itself pointed out last year, Taiwan is set to be a “super-aged” society very soon, making such heavy reliance on young people highly questionable.
The strategy also mostly resorts to the traditional, formal, academic ways of learning and testing, albeit digital now as well as face-to-face, but with very few innovative ideas for popularising the use of English in everyday settings and getting the general population on board.
Why do we need Bilingual 2030?
The Bilingual 2030 vision has two main parts: “Helping Taiwan’s workforce connect with the world” and “Attracting international enterprises to Taiwan; enabling Taiwanese industries to connect to global markets and create high-quality jobs”. The paper notes that as a major trading nation with a key role in global supply chains, the demand in Taiwan for bilingual proficiency has greatly increased.
The government hopes that the strategy will boost the competitiveness of Taiwan’s young people to enable the next generation to enjoy better job and salary opportunities and bolster their global competitiveness.
I don’t think anyone would have any problem with this vision, nor with many of the steps outlined in the paper to achieve it. Other aims of the policy are mentioned explicitly or hinted at in the paper, for example making public administration easier for foreigners to deal with, but some seem to have been forgotten altogether, such as boosting tourism.
What is the ultimate model for Taiwan?
The vision and steps set out in the strategy paper are all very sensible and practical, but what is not clear to me is the ultimate aim of all of this - do we or don’t we want to be more like Singapore and Hong Kong? Do we aspire to compete with them or be alternatives to them? Do our ambitions go as far as wanting to replace them entirely, something that, for Hong Kong at least, is an opportunity staring Taiwan in the face?
Will Bilingual 2030 mean that all public administration should be doable in English (as it is in Singapore and Hong Kong) from 2030? Taking that to its logical conclusion, what would that mean for the judiciary and, now, lay juries? I’m sure that many reading this article will testify from their personal experience that Taiwan’s bureaucracy can be tedious and exasperating - will Bilingual 2030 make it less so?
My Chinese teacher - always a good bellwether of local opinion - believes many people are concerned that making English official, or de facto official, will damage Taiwan’s culture and languages. I share her concerns, and this is where comparison with Hong Kong and Singapore is important. In Singapore, English is the lingua franca both to boost its international business credentials but also as a means of containing ethnic tensions. In Hong Kong, English is one of three official languages, mostly because of its British colonial past, but also because it wants to continue to be an international business hub (despite the best efforts of its government to prove otherwise). So what are Taiwan’s reasons and ultimate aims?
The details of the strategy
The strategy paper is very heavily skewed towards younger people in full-time education; that is understandable given that the investment will pay off over a larger number of years simply because the working lifetime of youngsters is longer than for anyone else. It will also pay off faster as younger brains assimilate more quickly than older brains. The problem with that focus, though, is that there aren’t enough young people in Taiwan, and the proportion of young people as a percentage of the whole population is declining very rapidly.
There is little to no attention in the paper to the needs of people who have already left full-time education, many of whom are still very much “young”, nor for those who would not classify as “young” but are nevertheless economically active. The need for some kind of “Continual Professional Development” in the future for those who were lucky enough to get the enhanced English language learning opportunities when they were young, also seems to be missing.
As I’ve said, the focus is very much on formal education, for example the provision of native English teachers to schools, and boosting English medium of instruction courses in universities. Formal education is necessary, but it would be far more effective if it were accompanied by a large increase in less formal and less structured exposure to and usage of English. If language learning is confined to the classroom then it becomes a chore - if it’s allowed to escape into real life it becomes an exciting challenge, a joy and something “cool”. Ask any youngster who speaks good English where they learned most of it from - the chances are it was from YouTube or Netflix rather than school.
Striving to create a bilingual environment and enhanced English language services for foreign nationals in Taiwan requires much better English proficiency in the civil service, yet the paper is very vague about how this is to be achieved. It states that the policy is to “enhance” English proficiency for all personnel, with priority for those who handle international affairs, but there are few details about what the target for those standards is and how they could be met. A cynic could envisage an initial burst of enthusiasm to attend English courses provided to civil servants, which then wanes as it becomes more difficult and requires sustained effort.
Hospitality - the key to popularising English
One of the main industries that seems to have been overlooked in Bilingual 2030 is hospitality. There is no better way to engage huge numbers of people and popularise the use of English than via the people who work in this sector - restaurants, bars, cafes and hotels.
As any non-Chinese speaker will testify, the availability of English menus in bars and restaurants, particularly outside the main cities, is patchy to non-existent; where they do exist, the quality is often poor. The standard of workers’ English language competence, again outside the main chain hotels and cities, is not good. What better way of immediately improving standards, and massively increasing the number of people who use English regularly and frequently, than by setting competence standards in a voluntary code, and then measuring the actual level of English against those standards? We have a star-rating system for hotels, and endless review site for restaurants, so why can’t the tourism and hospitality industries do the same for “English competence”?
It would be easy to replicate the stars system by having some kind of dual “Chartermarks”, one for the quality of English in menus and guides, the other for the language skills of the staff. These could be tested anonymously by mystery shoppers, with the Chartermarks placed in the windows of their premises and on their websites and social media pages. If you could see a “Grade 4 out of 5 for clarity of menu” and “Grade 3 out of 5 for service” you would instantly know what to expect. And the owners and employees would ALL be engaged in learning and using English for the good of their businesses and for the good of Taiwan as a whole.
The role of local media
Taiwan has good English language press, but the locally-produced English-language TV offering is limited. TaiwanPlus is government funded and was started up very recently to fill that gap and to project Taiwan’s “soft power” to the world. From personal experience it is easier to learn another language if you know what the news item or programme is about beforehand, so TaiwanPlus is a great way for locals who want to learn English to be exposed to it on everyday matters. Ask any Taiwanese, though, and they are unlikely to know about TaiwanPlus - why is that? Why are we wasting this very obvious resource?
I have just spent the last few months staying in a variety of hotels all over Taiwan and yet none of them had TaiwanPlus on their TV listings - why not? Foreigners who want to “buy Taiwan” will usually stay in hotels, so what better way of plugging Taiwan’s soft power than by hotel TV channels? Another wasted opportunity that needs fixing.
Bilingual 2030 is definitely a challenge, but it’s not impossible. We need to get moving quickly, though, as we only have seven years left till 2030. Formal learning, standard-setting and testing are important, but we need to take another look at the ways we can popularise the use of English in Taiwan. There are plenty of things that could be done on a voluntary basis - someone just needs to make it happen. And we have to stop wasting what we already have.
Taiwan needs a national celebration of the joys of learning English, and how that can benefit every individual and the country as a whole, not just something the younger generation needs to do and is responsible for. Young people are vital, but they are a diminishing resource, and we cannot build an entire strategy on them almost alone.
If we can make learning English fun, rather than a grunt chore, and if we can make it cool then the strategy might well work.
Lee Faulkner is a Fellow of the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries, the UK’s actuarial body, and has more than 30 years’ experience in the world of financial services in Asia, Europe and Latin America. He is a Taiwan Gold Card holder and now lives in Taipei.