Challenges and Opportunities
Preparing Tainan City to Adopt English as the Second Official Language
Mayor William Lai established the Office of English as the Second Official Language (OEASOL) in March 2015. In order to promote the new policy, he also established a promotional committee that drew concerned professional leaders from all sectors: business, medical, manufacturing, technology, etc. The goals set out for the office were twofold: to ameliorate the English language environment within the city and to increase English proficiency levels among Tainan citizens. The heart of both these goals lies in the educational system.
Adopting English as the second official language of Taiwan has lately gained traction among citizens and attracted attention from foreign media. In reference to Tainan’s latest push to incorporate bilingual teaching methods into the public school system, Singaporean newspaper The Straits Times reported on June 10th, “Under the Tainan plan, children will get more exposure to English…Other cities, such as Taoyuan, Hsinchu and even Taipei , are introducing English-medium instruction in more subjects, but on a smaller scale.” According to a recent online poll, 1,333 out of 1,794 respondents supported the adoption of English as the second official language. One poll participant commented, “It’s a necessary path to take if we want to remain internationally competitive.” Many who voted against qualified their vote expressing the sentiment that the government should adopt new measures to ensure Taiwan does not fall behind in English proficiency levels, but do not advocate for English as an official language.
OEASOL’s first course of action was to develop a ten-year timeline that included mechanisms to improve both proficiency and environment. We also drafted specific short-term, mid-term and long-term goals for various sectors, then set about putting in place the mechanisms to achieve these goals. For example, expectations were set that all civil servants would be able to pass the General English Proficiency Test (GEPT), or equivalent, within ten years. In order to achieve this goal, OEASOL coordinated with the Secretariat to post English signage and make English announcements inside government buildings, thus imbuing the environment with more English oral language and print. To raise proficiency levels, OEASOL provided English speaking classes and collaborated with the Personnel Department to bring English presentation competitions for city employees.
The focus on environment and proficiency revolves around oral language. To address the lack of English documents and other print information made available to the public by the municipality, OEASOL provided other government entities with a list of top quality translators. Government documents were divided into eight distinct categories. OEASOL then set quotas, percentages of each category that other agencies would be required to translate at each stage. OEASOL also requires that each agency have a staff member capable of reviewing translated documents in order to ensure excellence. Examples of documents requiring translation are the Municipal Administrative meeting minutes and the mayor’s policy addresses to the City Council. Informational services to be translated include the city’s LINE group, “I’m in Tainan” Facebook fan page and information concerning international events.
OEASOL then turned its attention to the linguistic environment of the city. The English Friendly Emblems program aims to make services and cultural experiences available to English speakers. Offering free translation and design services to sectors like public transportation, hospitality and retail, markets and pharmacies allow English speakers to navigate the city, participate in the economy and purchase medicines more freely; activities which formerly proved forbiddingly difficult for many who cannot read or speak Chinese. Historic sites and temples also participated; allowing OEASOL representatives to inspect and assess linguistic needs, then meet those needs with English language signs, pamphlets, websites and apps. This empowers English speakers to absorb Tainan’s rich cultural heritage on a much deeper level, bridges the culture gap and promotes mutual understanding and respect.
Building an English-friendly environment within the city has a dual purpose: it allows English speakers to navigate a foreign society, but also serves to build a sense of urgency within the native population. Tainan City Office of English as the Second Official Language Chief Consultant Chris Caputo stated, “Tainan has employed traditionalist methodologies in English instruction largely because of the system of high-stakes exams in place for English learners. Teachers dutifully prepare students for the exams by stressing grammatical constructs, spelling and other written components of the language. This is in direct contrast to the natural process of language acquisition, which starts with listening, followed by speech, leaving reading and writing skills until later.” He went on to say that English, partly because of the way it is taught and assessed, partly because of the lack of English outside school, has been reduced to “nothing beyond a school subject,” noting that many Taiwanese English learners feel English is “boring and difficult. Students struggle with endless drills, but see no opportunity for application of what they have learned outside their English classroom.” His office asserts that, with an English-friendly environment permeating their city, students will find new motivation to apply what they learn in school.
Bringing the global marketplace closer to home for Tainan residents is only part of the educational reform necessary to make English the second official language. OEASOL has also drafted Bilingual Education Frameworks that allow public elementary schools to begin delivering some lessons in English. OEASOL drafted the Frameworks carefully so as not to sacrifice Taiwanese, Hakka or other mother tongue lessons. Coupled with other reforms that include the adoption of new teaching techniques and methods, changes to teacher recruitment protocols and additional language training for both current and prospective teachers, bilingual lessons will expose students to the four linguistic skills in the proper order, broaden their exposure to subject-specific vocabulary and give context to rare grammatical forms.
Mayor Lai has stated that the EASOL policy is like penetrating a rock with dripping water: progress will be slow and painstaking without readily evident results for some time. English levels in Tainan lagged behind, drawing Taiwan down as other Asian nations surpassed us in English proficiency. Bold, decisive action was necessary to break old patterns and forge a new linguistic future for Tainan. Critics have wrongly assumed that the adoption of a second official language spoken only by a minority of the city’s population is folly, but the EASOL policy has served as the basis for aggressive reforms that will mold the school-aged citizens of Tainan into Chinese/English bilinguals, allowing them to learn from, collaborate and share with other global citizens. As the next generation’s reinvests its new bilingualism back into their community, they will lead Tainan onto the world stage.