The National Importance of English Teaching in the ROC

There are those who believe English plays a crucial role in the future of Taiwan. Without a high enough standard of English, it is said, Taiwanese workers will not be able to compete for jobs in the increasing number of foreign companies that are doing business in East Asia, and local companies will not be able to compete against them. In fact, language educator Stephen Carey of the University of British Columbia once spoke in such terms in his paper, The National importance of ESL teachers to Taiwan, at the 1998 conference of the English Teachers of the ROC.

One could even make the case that the future of Taiwan has been compromised by ineffective English education. Prior to my current job at Ming Chuan University, I taught corporate English for many years. One of the questions I routinely asked companies that did business in China was why they were there and not some equally cheap but safer, more accessible country. The answer was always – language. I once taught the vice-presidents of a publicly-listed high-tech company. They told me at one time in the company’s history, they would stop the assembly lines every Friday so that labour recruiters could translate between their Filipino workers and the line managers because their was no other way the managers could communicate with them about company issues. Reports of the obstacles reported by foreign companies doing business in Taiwan routinely list lack of English skills among their major complaints. It would not be going too far to suggest that one of the reasons for the failure of the KMT’s Go South policy was the failure of companies to successfully find or retrain the staff they needed to speak in local languages or even in English?

The ROC Solution

So what has been the solution to this crisis of English in the ROC?

The official solution is a hodge-podge of policies that from the outside seem bizarre. One of the earliest solutions was the recruitment of foreign teachers to work as assistants in public schools. But, as we all know, this program failed miserably. In an attempt to get more white faces in schools, the MOE and local governments struck a deal with the a local education foundation to recruit Christian missionaries for some of these schools.

Another major policy was the development of an MOE-sponsored English proficiency test – the GEPT. My perceptions of the GEPT are that it has been performing less that satisfactorily. I have heard reports that testing conditions are not standardized. More recently I have reports that the construction of the test does not follow standard test construction procedures.

The Taiwan system is filed with strange and unpredictable innovations whose relationship to language learning has no connection at all with anything understood in Linguistics, Education, or school administration. These marvels of the language classroom include systematic desertion of traditional motivators of English learning, like speech contest and the commercialization of aspects of academic instruction in English. So bizarre is language learning in the Taiwan context that you might even say Dr. Kao Shih-Fan (高士凡) got it backward in his article in Tuesday’s Taipei Times. It’s not the difference that a native speaker makes that powers current language markets so much as it is the complete failure of the system powered by local teachers to achieve communicative proficiency. And it is this that drives Taiwanese into an alternative system of education delivered by native English speakers.

Enter the King Car Education Foundation

Enter the King Car Education Foundation into the world of English education. I haven’t written anything about the King Car Education Foundation for a long time, but you might remember King Car as the group that promoted members of an American missionary group, including some high school graduates, to work as foreign English teachers in rural areas of Taiwan. I wrote extensively about their activities several years ago. Even though I have been in touch with missionary/teachers from this group since then, I haven’t posted anything on it since 2005.

Back in 2005, when I wrote about this issue, I was quite aggressive. My position never was related to the use of missionaries or even the use of Christian-related materials in the language classroom. Rather, my position always has been that a private foundation has no place making policy-level decisions, particularly about such sensitive issues as education in Taiwan. I believe that King Car previously erred in their use of missionary/teachers and that they did so because they lack both a proper understanding of policy goals and a professional knowledge of language education with which to implement these goals.

But King Car just can’t stay out of the business of language education policy, and their name is back in the news again. In June, I wrote about a proposed English Village planned in Taoyuan County (also see here). At the time, I didn’t know, but apparently the brains behind the project come from the King Car Education Foundation. An article in the December 31 Taipei Times by Max Hirsch describes the role of King Car in the development of the Village. The model for the Taoyuan English Village is apparently the Korean English Village that I wrote about here. Commenting on the Korean village, Stephen Krashen in an April 20, 2006 letter to the Taipei Times (also see here), notes that its origins are much more economic than pedagogical.

The Korean government enthusiastically supports English villages because they feel such sites will reduce the number of Koreans who go abroad (or who send their children abroad) to improve their English, which is a drain on the Korean economy. Such villages are also a better bargain for parents, who pay about NT$50,000 (US$1,500) for a four-week course for their children.

But none of this appears to be why Morgan Sun, executive director of the King Car Education Foundation, supports the building of an English village in Taiwan. As Max Hirsch quotes him,

We visited English Village twice in South Korea. It is basically a theme park, and we were so inspired that we had to set up our own English Village in Taiwan.

That’s great. Taiwan needs an English-based theme park. We don’t need well planned curriculum in the schools. We don’t need well-trained teachers, proper language evaluation, or scientifically designed language proficiency testing. What we need is a theme park staffed with English teachers dressed up like doctors and post office clerks.

Hirsch’s article goes on to quote a Taiwanese university graduate student on the importance of immersion education.

We know that immersion is a good way to teach [foreign languages]…The camps are an effective way to teach language and broaden kids’ global vision.

While I don’t doubt that immersion is a great way, in fact the best way, to learn language, I question the use of the term ‘immersion’ to describe these theme parks. Once again, I prefer Stephen Krashen’s description of the parks.

First, the villages are not real. The buildings are simulations of banks, post offices, airline offices and the like, and the interactions are simulations: The “residents” of the English village are actually English teachers trained to play different roles, such as policemen (an ad for English teachers for the Seoul English village mentions that the teachers will also be trained to act as doctors).

The truth is that the English Village isn’t any more an immersion experience than my classroom is on one of those days when everything goes right. The English Village, as great as it looks and as fun as it is, is nothing more than a giant role play with English teachers dressed up to look like people they are not. I like role plays. I use role plays in my class. I think role play is a great way to teach some kinds of activities. I would even go so far as to admit there’s a place for role play in a national language policy.

But for a language policy that can solve the problems of foreign investors in Taiwan or encourage Taiwan companies to invest in countries where English is a language of commerce, this is just not going to do it. Why would it? Who would even think it would? And the only answer I can come with is the same kind of amateur policy makers that brought us high school graduates teaching English.

Final Comments

At JALT 2001, Dr. Richard Smith summed up English teaching in Asia with the statement, “There has never been a greater difference between the rhetoric and the reality of English teaching in Asia.” He was referring to the incessant banter about English excellence that fills our TVs, our newspapers, our classrooms and our schools that is in fact nothing like the reality of the bad policies, the insurmountable obstacles, and the current pet projects of rich men our committed educators are forced to labour under. Instead, we have had to settle for a shadow of what is continually cited as the goals of English education. The problem is not so much that we have or have not attained the excellence of our rhetoric. After all, politicians have always done pretty much whatever they wanted to do. The real problem is that there is so much money being poured into a rhetoric that can never come true.

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Comments

Awesome post, man.

Michael

Nice summary of the Taiwan situation in English language learning. This summary, in fact, could be repeated for many countries, including Japan, Korea, and the US.

The inability of local systems to obtain meaningful progress and the gap mentioned by Dr. Smith are, however, found in my research, at least made worse by the total lack of localization of Western language learning motivation theory. In fact, I would argue that many language researchers, with very little actual on-the-ground research results, perpetuate the problem with their constant hammering on issues like learner autonomy. They accurately observe how screwed up results are but then blame the teachers, the education system, the government. It is the blame game of TESOL, and it is totally misdirected.

Suresh Canagarajah understand this and is pushing TESOL to be more localized (recently for example inviting my coauthor Judy Chen to be on the TESOL Q editorial board–the first I believe from Taiwan).

Professor Chen deserves congratulations on the success of her research. It’s encouraging to see that there are Taiwanese able to reach the top of the TESOL/TEFL profession.

Clyde, there are some differences between your interpretation of my post from what I had intended. I believe the real problem is not that basic principles of language learning have not been sufficiently localized, but rather they have been completely misapplied by bad policy. The reason why the central government and its MOE have had to turn to foreign teachers and the King Car Foundation are much more related to the fiscal limitations of what they can and can not do. These are band-aid solutions for their unwillingness to admit they can not handle the situation properly. If language teaching policy and its application was run by professionally trained teachers following what they understand to be basic principles of language acquisition, rather than politicians and wealthy philanthropists, this chaos would never have happened. Our current mess has much to do with NOT following what we language educators believe to be shared professional knowledge. Or at least that’s what I intended to say.

I think you are correct in your use of the term “localization”. Often, writers in this situation refer instead of terms that center around the idea of culture. With the demise of psycholinguistic models of language teaching, the TEFL profession has been struggling to incorporate ‘cultural’ aspects of language learning into working models. They have not really been successful. The way this idea is used in the TESOL/TEFL work I am familiar with differs considerably from the way in which the idea is used in disciplines where it is a core concept, such as anthropology, sociology, and history.

You might be interested in Richard’s work. He is also concerned about issues of localization and language teaching.

Scott, your point was clear, but I simply don’t agree that even if the so called language professionals ran things much would be better. Dr. Smith’s own work, which I am familiar with, points this out and he suggest a need to avoid the received knowledge from the West. While easy to say, we just don’t have enough localized theory.

Prof. Smith is not helpful in bringing any answers to the table either (and I’m not a big fan of action research). So where are the answers? Your post and previous posts hint that the field’s received professional knowledge simply is not applied correctly. Well, I don’t agree. It is applied all the time, at many schools, by many teachers. It simply doesn’t work. I’ve recently reviewed a paper from Korea that is very similar to many I’ve seen over the past few years. Their results, from fairly good research methodologies, show how the received approaches fail. This is then explained by the way teachers have done things wrong, how students need to change their attitudes, and how governments need to change their policies. Well, bla bla bla. Maybe, just maybe, the data is correct and it is telling us that the imported methodologies not only don’t work but are simply irrelevant to localized contexts. The very standards and measures simply are not valid. If true, then it has nothing to do with government policy. I support your main point nonetheless. It would be nice to get away from the kind of down right silly plans we’ve seen over the past ten years. Maybe you know of such stories, but I could tell you much worse about the huge amounts of money and to what types of wasteful exercises the MOE has been duped into paying for during its English push over the past five years.

In my line of work, construction, I see a lot of professionals from Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia working internationally in addition to European and American. Seldom do you see Taiwanese educated and trained locally who work internationally generally speaking. So you could conclude that English is a plus.

Japanese, on the other hand, provide an opposite example. They are notoriously poor English speaker ( in general, I know there are a lot of exceptions). Yet, their product and skill are demanded all over the world. Japanese construction professionals I met here almost speak no English, or embarrassing little. A translator always accompanies them.

So I guess I can conclude that before Taiwanese has equal technical know-how in depth and breadth, it helps to speak better English.

Hi, I caught your article while searching for more info on the GEPT test. Thanks for informing newcomers like me on how the system works, since my school forces everyone to take the GEPT test at the intermediate level.

Along with the disappointments of the GEPT test that you mentioned, I have also heard from those who have take the test that upon completion, one must retake the test every two years.

I think that is a horrible idea. The test is expensive and a hassle. In addition, it happens only once or twice every year, depending on which level one decides.

Are they suggesting that the GEPT test is like a CPR license? Will English actually be forgotten in two years? They should think about these questions before actually setting the rules.

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