By Jonathan Chandler
Originally published in The China Post, Sunday, Oct. 5, 2008; this is the exclusive online publication for The Wild East.
In 2007, after 23 successful years my Taipei English language school and UK Study Travel business, along with countless other Taiwanese SMEs, suddenly collapsed. Now in Shanghai having established a thriving base of high-end business clients, I still feel as though hit by a speeding truck. Reflection from a distance of time and space still begs the question what exactly caused the Maya-style apocalypse that hit Taiwan’s SMEs, in particular the English private school – fondly known as bushiban.
Back in 1985, it was a golden era for the English language trade. If you looked vaguely Caucasian, you were literally dragged off the streets, handed wads of cash and asked to sing a ditty to a bunch of bemused kiddies.
The dilemma for parents of young students was the same as it had been since the days of Confucious: the ultimate goal of high scores in the college entrance examination ten years down the line, one of which test subjects was English.
There was a snag: in those days English wasn’t taught at elementary school.
So to supply the demand, a few high quality private English language institutions such as mine were started with immediate success… along with plenty of unspeakably awful “schools” employing unqualified, inept and downright sinister instructors and methods – some of which apparently still survive to this day.
Parents reasoned that if they could get their kids proficient in English (grammar, speech and writing), by sixth grade of elementary school, that would eliminate the stress from at least one subject once inside the pressure cooker of junior high.
Adding to the incentive for parents to send their children to high-quality schools, local English teachers at junior and senior high school (in those days and to some extent still), couldn’t speak the language and the rote learning taking place in schools produced nothing but grammar-memorized, mesmerized youth who once the last final test was over promptly forgot the lot, slung their English books in the bin, retaining nothing but a loathing for the language ever since. And who could blame them? So for the time being foreign teachers were very welcome whatever their hue, so to speak.
That was when the other shoe dropped.
Parents, teachers and interested local parties realized the great cash cows these bushibans were and began to emulate them. The result was a tsunami of English language entities.
You couldn’t walk down a street in the tiniest village in Taitung County without tripping over one. With this tidal bore of bushibans came scant respect for standards and so-called English schools opened with totally unqualified teachers, no real methodology and a few textbooks. (BTW, the English publishing business on Taiwan is huge and vastly corrupt- another story).
Then along came an amiable, barefoot Australian called David McCall (Mo Da-wei) and the English language scene on Taiwan was never the same…
TO BE CONTINUED.