Aboriginal Drop-out Rates and Mother Tongue Language Education

You may have seen in today’s Taipei Times statements from Vice Minister of Education Chou Tsan-der (周燦德) concerning the success of schools that educate aborigines. The vice-minister was involved in a dispute with opposition members concerning the drop-out rates and the numbers of aborigines who attend university and college in Taiwan. In the course of this dispute, he stated 171 Aboriginal students attended colleges and universities in 2002, and that the number nearly doubled to 332 in 2003 and jumped to 714 last year. This is entirely misleading.

Last week, I attended the 5th Annual Conference of the European Association of Taiwan Studies. I was fortunate enough to meet Scott Simon who is one of the leading scholars on Taiwan aborigines (although Scott is currently teaching at the Institut d’Asie Orientale de l’Ecole Normale Supérieure). I had the chance to talk with Scott about the examination for aboriginal language proficiency that I spoke about in this post. The significance of this test is that on top of the points they already receive for being aboriginal, students who pass it receive extra points – a lot of extra points – when applying to university. I have not been able to see any of these exams, but Scott has and described them to me.

His description was quite surprising, given my understanding that these tests are meant to promote the use of aboriginal languages in danger of disappearing. He told me that actual test questions themselves are incredibly simple. Typically students are asked to translate single words, like ‘bird’ or ‘mother’. He also said that students have learned if they are asked a question that’s more complex the best way to get points is to reply with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

The issue is not the questions themselves. Rather, it is the study material prepared for these ridiculously simple tests. Apparently, production of the books that contain translations of various words and the money that’s paid out for making these books, is more significant. The ability to get paid for this work is associated with power struggles between different clientelistic groups in the Taiwan aboriginal communities.

Returning to the my original point concerning the drop-out rate and university attendance of aboriginal students. It would certainly surprise me if the rate of university attendance among aborigines had not increased. After all, with virtually no effort on anyone’s part, aboriginal students have been given a huge boost in the ability to get accepted by a university. And with this interpretation of the minister’s words in mind, I am not sure how to read his final words that, “…the average Aboriginal student is unlikely to flunk because most colleges and universities operate resource-grouping classes to help them adapt academically.”

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