English Textbooks

One of the most controversial topics among university instructors in Taiwan is the utility of the large English textbooks that students pack around with them. A former instructor at my school once described them as ‘trophies’. Last week, I decided to ask my students what they think about using them.

I teach in the program for undergraduate non-English majors. My classes come from a variety of majors that generally differ from year-to-year. This year, I am teaching 7 classes of about 60 students each that represent the departments of Electrical Engineering, Business, Insurance, Commercial Design, Telecommunication Engineering, Biotechnology, and Applied Japanese. The students I teach are all sophomores or juniors.

I should clarify exactly who my students are. Most of them come from the departments I stated above. But some are repeating a course that they previously failed and have signed up for my section because of its time. In addition, there is a large group of students from Applied Statistics in my Commercial Design class who have not failed but chose my section because they liked the time better.

The numbers I am going to report here were obtained during a class in which I was teaching paragraph writing. To make sure the students knew the form of paragraph, I asked them to write a paragraph answering this question.

Would you rather use Chinese or English-language textbooks in your ______ courses?

filling in the blank with the major of the students. This study was only loosely scientific. Even though my students were captive subjects, I had trouble getting countable responses. After the exercise I collected student samples and counted them, but I had not previously told the students I would be doing this. Many of them had written their answers in their textbooks or other large books. Some students did not understand my question or wrote something unrelated to my question. Since the purpose of the exercise was to assure that students know proper paragraph structure, I didn’t stop these students. Only about 50% of students gave me a response that I could count. For example, my Commercial design class has 69 students registered; I only got 38 countable responses from them.

Despite this, the results were quite surprising. In every class, there was a large number of students who said they wanted to use English-language textbooks. Of course this varied considerably from department to department. For example in EE, of the 22 countable response 13 stated they preferred English textbooks. In Commercial Design however, it was only 14 out of 38.

The reasons students gave were stereotypical. For example, by far the most commonly given reason for preferring English-language texts was that it provided the opportunity to study English which is a global language. The most common reason for preferring a Chinese-language book was the difficulty of using English books. A considerable number of students wrote that they wanted to use both English and Chinese books depending on the subject. This group was largest in Business where 7 wrote this. In fact in our Business Department, they actually do use bilingual textbooks.

There were quite a few other interesting reasons given for student preference. Most of these had to do with quality. The following excerpts reflect this sentiment.

If we used the chinese language textbooks. We risk to lose something on translated. – Insurance student

…direct language to understand is more important. However in some rare cases, chinese or maybe japanese would be better – biotechnology student

I want to use English-language textbooks, because chinese language is not good to understand in many words. – biotechnology student

The only reason is that the meaning of these words in English are better than Chinese. It’s not only catching the point but also easier to understand. – telecommunication engineering student

I think English-language book is better than Chinese, because it’s layout are more special and interesting. – commercial design student

Some students agreed with this last statement, but still preferred Chinese textbooks.

Even though English design book have many interesting picture and design works, but introduction is not very clearer and easy to understand. – commercial design student

I would like to use Chinesse textbooks but the English textbooks are more useful than chinese textbooks. – biotechnology student

One business student mentioned price as a deciding factor.

If English textbook’s price is cheaper than Chinese textbooks, I would choose English-language.

Overall, I was a little surprised at the lack of strong opposition to English-language texts. My students would be no where near the top students in Taiwan. Using these books would be a great struggle for them. Still, many, if not most, actually want to use them and few express strong opposition.


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