Life & Art

Taiwan's bilingual 2030 policy

15 May, 2024

Although the goals of the policy are laudable, success will depend on overcoming local opposition, revising educational policies and providing sufficient support 


By Paul Shelton

Taiwan in 2024 is a major trading nation and plays a key role in global supply chains. As more and more multinational corporations have invested in Taiwan in recent years, demand for local talent with bilingual proficiency has greatly increased. At the same time, to adjust to global supply chain deployments, Taiwanese enterprises also require large numbers of professionals who possess a wide range of expertise and skills, including English proficiency and international mobility. 


The Taiwan government launched the Bilingual 2030 policy to boost the competitiveness of Taiwan’s young generation to enable the next generation to enjoy better job and salary opportunities. Building on what is seen as an advantage as a Mandarin-speaking nation and on top of professional knowledge, the Bilingual 2030 policy aims to further strengthen the English communication skills of citizens, especially among young people, and to help bolster their global competitiveness.


The government maintains that the Bilingual 2030 policy is guided by a twofold vision, namely, “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”.


Although the formal policy document was published in September 2021, Taiwan’s Bilingual 2030 policy can be traced back to outgoing President Tsai Ing-wen’s inauguration speech in 2020, where she repeatedly mentioned the goal of making Taiwan a bilingual nation by 2030.


To achieve this overarching policy goal, the National Development Council (NDC) and the Ministry of Education (MOE) have been working to coordinate available resources and related ministries/commissions (including the Directorate-General of Personnel Administration, the Ministry of Examination and Civil Service Protection and Training Commission) to actively implement the Bilingual 2030 policy.


The policy lists six goals as the main focuses:

  • Accelerating the development of bilingual higher education
  • Balancing and optimising bilingual conditions for schools at the senior high school level and below
  • Developing digital learning
  • Expanding the provision of affordable English proficiency tests
  • Raising civil servants’ English proficiency
  • Establishing an administrative body dedicated to policy promotion and implementation.


These six goals will, it is hoped, elevate the overall efficacy of the Bilingual 2030 policy so that Taiwan’s next generation will be equipped with better international competitiveness by adding bilingual capabilities to their professional expertise.


That is a lot of hope and ambition in the above statement and areas of focus. But here we are in the middle of 2024, with a new ostensibly bilingual president and vice president, but is the Bilingual 2030 policy on the way to meeting its goals?


When the Bilingual 2030 policy was first introduced it immediately faced backlash and controversy. Politicians, teachers, students and scholars expressed concerns about the practicality of the policy. The opposition and controversy extended to the National Federation of Teachers’ Unions (NFTU) uniting with legislators to oppose the draft “Act for the Establishment of a Bilingual Nation Development Center” and called for the suspension of the policy by the government.


A petition titled “Stop the Bilingual Policy” even reached the required number of signatures, claiming that the Bilingual 2030 policy contradicts the spirit of the “National Languages Development Act” and severely impacts the normal development of education in the country. The petition advocated for the implementation of a “Multilingual Taiwan, English-Friendly” approach instead.

At the initial implementation stage, the Taiwan government collaborated with the British Council to conduct an international assessment survey. This survey revealed that approximately only one-fifth of high school seniors achieved a Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) of B2 (the fourth) or higher level in overall English proficiency.


The survey also noted that skills in listening, speaking, reading, and writing were unevenly distributed. Students’ writing and speaking abilities required significant improvement, especially as these are essential skills for participating in fully English-taught courses, indicating the extent of the challenges to achieving success of the policy.


The Bilingual 2030 policy has continued to face challenges, such as:

  • Time: When first officially announced, the policy called for goals to be achieved in 10 short years. Other countries, such as Singapore, took some 29 years to reach its current bilingual status but Taiwan has just over five and a half years left to reach the stated goal.
  • Local teachers feel a lack of adequate incentives to engage in bilingual teaching and local bilingual teachers must possess a teaching certificate qualification and attain at least the CEFR B2 proficiency level (noted above in the British Council survey).
  • There is a lack of standardized bilingual curricula and teaching materials.
  • The bilingual policy requires non-English major teachers to conduct classes in English, which poses significant challenges for both teachers and students.
  • A scarcity of bilingual teachers results in unequal educational resources and this has resulted in widening urban versus rural disparities.
  • Taiwan links the Bilingual 2030 policy with enhancing competitiveness and yet this seems out of step with countries such as Japan and the Philippines. Competitiveness, in fact, relies on multiple factors including innovation capacity, industrial restructuring and not simply on a bilingual status. Being bilingual is not a substitute for a lack of innovation, entrepreneurship or industrial output.
  • Controversy raged even over how to define “bilingual”. The National Language Development Act defines over 20 “national languages”. Taiwan’s lawmakers spent inordinate amounts of time and effort in trying to ensure the Bilingual 2030 policy did not conflict with the National Language Development Act, instead of focusing on adequately resourcing teachers and schools and addressing the urban and rural disparities.
  • Taiwanese scholars expressed the opinion that the bilingual policy may stifle students’ creativity and even impede higher-level thinking, although exactly how and why this may occur is unclear. However, these same scholars did not express any concerns about the prevailing rote method learning requirements that Taiwanese students subjected to in order to pass exams, which is arguably much more stifling of creativity.


Despite the controversies and opposition, it does seem that many Taiwanese parents place significant emphasis on their children’s English education, even from a young age. However, in this regard the MOE and Taiwanese parents seem completely out-of-step with each other. Whilst the Bilingual 2030 policy is intended to boost the competitiveness of Taiwan’s young generation to enable the next generation to enjoy better job and salary opportunities, it seems that “young” focusses on older children and the implication is that the policy should really only apply to high school students and above. In this regard, the government’s policy, it seems, has neglected truly young children, especially those at kindergarten age, who are like sponges when it comes to absorbing knowledge and language ability.


Even in 2024, regulations such as the Early Childhood and Care Act (2013), and the Supplementary Education Act (2013) create circumstances in which English cannot be legally taught in either private or public schools at the kindergarten and preschool level and yet the MOE still refers to this demographic as “young children”. There is a major disconnect here. Why exclude young children, especially when Taiwanese parents want these opportunities for their young children. Why does the MOE remain so out of step? The reality is that many kindergartens provide immersive English language courses to kindergarten children, especially in the mornings, thereby creating potential illegal teaching situations. However, these same children then move on to more traditional subjects, including Mandarin in the afternoons and English teachers move on to afternoon cram school rotations.


Parents of these children then report a noticeable drop in their children’s English language abilities when they move into the government elementary school system, even those that are meant to have a bilingual emphasis, no doubt due to the problems noted above.


Admittedly there is an active after cram school industry that caters to ongoing English language teaching and it has provided multiple generations of usually young foreigners to teach English and experience life in Taiwan in what is often a mutually beneficial situation. Yet, the official prohibition on teaching English in Taiwan at the kindergarten level means that the Bilingual 2030 policy faces an unwarranted uphill battle.


There is also a new phenomenon facing the teaching of English in Taiwan by foreign English teachers. Whether it is an unintended result of Covid-19 and the rise of online teaching or simply a case of cram schools trying to extract the last drop of profit from a diminishing student pool, many long term and highly educated and experienced foreign teachers are now finding themselves priced out of the market.


Teachers who are not native English speakers are entering the market and accepting pay rates that harken back to rates some 30 years ago. Rates as low as NT$400 to NT$500 per hour are being accepted by these teachers. Experienced foreign educators are lucky to earn NT$750 or NT$800 per hour, despite advertisements from foreign language cram schools which say they pay “based on experience”. Market forces are legitimate but they should not be allowed to impair the quality of English education in Taiwan.


How this situation plays out in the future remains to be seen. Arguably the quality of English language teaching is at risk, which puts in jeopardy the goals of the Bilingual 2030 policy to enhance the overall competitiveness of Taiwan, improve English proficiency and promote an English learning culture for the entire population.


The Bilingual 2030 policy has laudable ambitions but the challenges outlined above will need to be overcome if the policy is to achieve its ultimate goals. The new government will need to effectively address the controversies and challenges if the Bilingual 2030 policy is to have a positive and lasting impact on Taiwan’s educational system and national competitiveness.


Paul Shelton is a consultant with 30 years of experience in the international financial services and related industries with skills in all aspects of legal and financial crime compliance and regulatory relationship advisory and management.

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