The Meltdown of English Teaching in Taiwan

by Trista di Genova
Exclusive to The Wild East

It’s not just the economy; Taiwanese have money. They are among the best savers in the world, and have invested, thrown money at the bushiban (cram school) system of English education in Taiwan. Mr Chandler wrote on our pages about the days when foreigners were nabbed off the streets and money was thrown at them to teach children. Would-be bushiban laobans (bosses) set up cram schools everywhere in Taiwan, cashing in.

But now they’re running into troubles. Parents suddenly realized how pricey their child’s cram school tuition is; new enrollment for them seems to be at a standstill; agents tell of a dearth of teaching openings compared to previous years, crackdowns on teaching qualifications and a spike in deportations since late 2007.

It’s not just the bubble has burst internationally, financially; or that parents are cutting back and finally realize they are financing a system that fundamentally doesn’t work. Taiwanese may excel in math and science scores (much in part due to a focus on “safe” educational areas of primarily technical training under the Japanese occupation), but their “Engrish” ability is notoriously dismal, no doubt the fault of bushibans, whereby each school develops its own curriculum.

Taiwan is under construction. Always, and in many senses of the word. And currently, its English language education is undergoing radical changes, perhaps for the better. After all, primary and secondary education should have a viable curriculum of its own. If it did, and when it does, these bushibans will be effectively put out of business. Crackdowns on those ‘teaching illegally’ such as with fake degrees could have both negative and positive effects, as foreign teachers without degrees in teaching will leave or not be able to come. Besides, it won’t be in their best interest, when they could get pensions or have a real teaching career in Western countries, such as Canada.

In Taiwan, the foreign community only numbers about 500,000, a majority are Southeast Asians working in construction and in caregiving; 40,000 were recently laid off and sent back — to mostly the Philippines and Indonesia — in a move to drive out foreign laborers and save jobs for Taiwanese. One immigration official recently told me they’ve “never seen so many” foreigners getting laid off, fired, having to leave the country. New teachers in Taiwan that I’ve interviewed are picking up usually part-time hours; “It’s the school’s market now,” said one agent with Asian Consultants International.

Meanwhile, the quality of English language teaching may improve as possibly more competent English instruction is incorporated into the school system. However, Taiwan education officials’ ability to devise such a plan is debatable, while the need for teachers is greater than ever: there is nothing like having a native English speaker teach the language.

On the upside, Taiwan’s educational system may actually make better use of their human resources. Hopefully, ABCs, CBCs and returning Taiwanese who have been discriminated against in hiring until now for being too ‘Asian-looking’ may be acknowledged for the precious resource they are, for no one can teach Chinese people better than someone who knows both languages fluently. They can aid students in understanding the complexities between these two languages, which are linguistic polar opposites. A foreigner fresh off the boat has no understanding of such cultural and linguistic nuances, yet until now the salaries of ‘white teachers’ have been twice as high as their ‘banana’ counterparts.

Taiwan is an island. Its current leader is Harvard-educated, and speaks Engrish impeccably. Yet everyone in Taiwan is in many senses of the word ISOLATED; their real contact with the West, Western languages and Westerners is minimal. They are surrounded by Mandarin, Taiwanese (spoken) and all Western words, names and concepts are garbled as they are haphazardly translated into Mandarin.

The Taiwanese still fail to realize the critical nature of either opening to the West and mastering the lingua franca of English as a necessity — or sinking as it is sucked into a whirlpool of communist totalitarianism that is the well-installed political establishment of modern-day China… a system so insidious nobody knows whether to call it ‘unification’ or ‘reunification’ with The Mainland (Perhaps they can ask the pandas ‘yuan yuan’ and ‘tuan-tuan.’). Their links to the West may save the Taiwanese — or at least strengthen their international position — from allowing their ‘country’ to be forced into being ‘just a province of China.’

Until now, they’ve missed the boat.

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