Taiwan’s English language education: A living dinosaur

Taiwanese napping

By Trista di Genova, The Wild East / Editorial

The Taiwanese fare abysmally in international English scores. Why?

Part of the reason could be attributed to the difficulty  of learning such a vastly different language. According to the US State Department, Mandarin is one of the world’s most difficult languages for English speakers to learn (rivaling Cantonese, which has even more tones). The reverse is definitely also true; English is linguistically a polar opposite. In other words, English is a bitch for them, just like learning Mandarin is for us!

But why is the Eng-a-leesh so poor here, when it would seem the Taiwanese actually have a linguistic advantage? They’re bilingual in Mandarin and Taiwanese, and often get by on basic Hakka, or one of the many other indigenous languages. Mandarin and Taiwanese do share the same written characters, making the otherwise mutually incomprehensible easier, which partially explains the ‘gift’ . But according to linguists, language learning is supposed to get easier, the more of them you learn. But is the Eng-a-leesh really being learned?

Other Asian populations, for example Philippine or Hong Kong, manage to achieve a good average English language proficiency. True, these examples were both colonized and acculturated by Western powers in the past, by regimes who, importantly, implemented a comparatively more competent system of English language education.

I think Taiwan’s educational system itself is the culprit responsible for its students’ embarrassing English performance. English language learning in public schools in Taiwan is so bad (How bad is it?), foreigners in mixed marriages routinely  ‘vote with their feet’. Evidence in education’s failure can be seen in the way foreigners remove their children from schools here to send them ‘home’ for a proper education; that, is if they can’t afford exorbitant costs of sending them to international schools here, like TAS (Taipei American School). Foreigners in Taiwan would never want their children to face the spirit-crushing high school entrance examination process in Taiwan, and subsequent high school ‘penalization’ that comes after the age of 12.

But why does Taiwan’s English education blow, so hard? Historically, Taiwan’s educational system was implemented by the Japanese colonizers (1895-1945), whose only goal in creating an island-wide educational system was to assimilate the Taiwanese and create an unthinking labor force. Thus math and science, even some innocuous fields like arts education, were advanced at an early stage. The Japanese mine bosses created schools to educate their own children; Shyr Yeu boarding school in Jinguashi is one example of this.

In Taiwan today, one can see the Japanese autocratic style of instruction lives on in Taiwan schools, with hourly testing, constant ‘drilling’ of students who must at all times remain quiet and silent in this boot camp atmosphere. They ‘write’ their homework (like ‘automatic writing’, as opposed to actually ‘doing’ it), preparing for tests by rote memorization. They are not supposed to contribute anything to class discussion, only look straight ahead, motionless, under the constant threat of punishment if they do otherwise; much like the British school system in The Wall. Up until only this past decade, corporal punishment was a fixture in classroom discipline.

So is it any surprise that high school students in Taiwan today seem like robots in the classroom, paralysed with shyness and insecurity? I personally observe a massive difference in the spirit, energy and confidence between junior high and high school students in Taiwan, and it seems sad they grow up in such an oppressive learning environment.

Another major problem is this: Taiwanese students rarely if ever have the experience of learning English from native instructors. This failure in the public school system has single-handedly created the rise of the multi-billion-dollar buxiban industry. Buxibans are big business in Taiwan, and maybe why education policy so far at least has  refused to overhaul the system.

Cram schools are a form a ‘supplementary education’ that actually demonstrates the failure in its high school education.Taiwan’s pervasive cram school system may be the only good job degree-holding foreigners can get, which is the positive side. But after teaching here over a decade I have come to the conclusion that buxibans are just a symptom of a bankrupt English language policy in Taiwan’s public schools.The buxiban industry then forces parents to shell out Ivy League tuition rates, so that their children actually learn English  properly, from a native speaker.

Taiwanese learn English for ten years in the public school system. So why can’t they speak it? Everybody else who studies a language ten years is usually proficient, or fluent.

Another enormous problem is due to insufficient teacher training and qualification in Taiwan. The current policy actually prevents foreign degree-holders from teaching in public schools, so schools cannot provide enough competent English language instructors in the public school system..

The problem with the current English education policy in Taiwan is it effectively shuts out a potential stream of degreed foreign teachers.  Thus you see bizarre situations where otherwise exceptionally qualified teachers are forbidden to do so., For example, in my case I hold a Master’s degree from Oxford University, and married to a Taiwanese but somehow it was against the law for me to teach at Ruifang Junior High School last year. Ridiculous!

All the youth of Taiwan are missing out ‘thanks’ to Taiwan’s backwards English education policy, and if officials were smarter they would relax these rules. According to an educational consultant to the Taiwan government, the education ministry is currently reviewing its policy on foreign teachers, which currently only allows foreign teachers licensed from their home state to teach English in Taiwan public schools.

The public schools suffer from Taiwan’s current policy, too. Since foreign teachers are given no pension or other benefits than the pleasant teaching experience, only semi-retired teachers from abroad bother – or would be allowed – to teach there.

Even Noam Chomsky, speaking at Academia Sinica a few years ago, noted the absurdity of Taiwan’s language policy, which makes it illegal for foreign native teachers to teach kindergarten. Everyone knows that is the age where language acquisition is like drinking water.Taiwan officials’ arguments against early immersion in English are tellingly specious: namely they fear the children’s Mandarin skills would somehow be compromised. Studies have proven bilingual education to actually enhance overall verbal ability.Their fears show their fundamentally flawed understanding of language acquisition, behind the misguided education policies they are inflicting upon the public.

In the meantime, to this day, foreign teachers are being deported for teaching 5-year-olds in Taiwan. Buxiban owners get around the law by lying to naive foreign teachers saying that it is all legal, and showing us the school’s ‘escape hatch’ in the likely event of a police inspection.

What’s damning for the students is that the Taiwanese who are teaching English in public schools rarely have a basic grasp of English themselves. One might reasonably ask then, so why are they considered qualified  to teach Taiwanese kids English? After all, a nation truly interested in improving in any field would properly train and educate its educators – just a little common sense here!

Let’s look abroad, and consider France’s approach. French teachers of English must spend a year in an English-speaking country, as part of their ‘formation d’enseignant’. Since many Taiwanese want to study abroad anyway, why not capitalize on their willingness, to implement better training of the teaching corps.

It is absolutely clear to me why Taiwan’s language scores are so dismal. Their educational system  is overall oppressive, its teaching style parochial, and its English language education in particularl is bankrupt and misguided in the policies that guide it.

And until today, little if any attempt has been made to update that dinosaur.

Taiwan can achieve ESL proficiency if policymakers model the system on one of the many other countries that have achieved success in ESL proficiency. Taiwan must begin with revamping its educational system, if it wants to prepare its citizens for the 21st century.

What do you think? Leave your comments below !


6 thoughts on “Taiwan’s English language education: A living dinosaur

  • December 25, 2019 at 11:47 pm

    I’m checking back in.

    My kids have gone to elementary school for a few years now. Elementary school isn’t bad at all, lots of activities. Their Chinese is awesome now as well. I don’t think the kids going to private schools here will have very good Chinese in many cases.

    As for the English, well we need to teach them ourselves . It is what it is.

  • November 17, 2016 at 11:46 pm

    A well written article but so sadly true. In my opinion, you only get what you pay for. Taipei European School and Taipei American school are filled with children, who are thriving in both Mandarin, English and additional languages. However, they are costly and not accessible to the majority.They are for the most part, the same kids who attend government schools; therefore, if given proper opportunities and teaching they could achieve proficient language skills and importantly be happy while learning. I remain skeptical to see any changes in the abysmal education system. However, I would be delighted to be proved wrong.

  • July 30, 2016 at 12:59 am

    Best, and most accurate, piece I have ever seen written about the abysmal “education” system on Taiwan.

  • November 8, 2015 at 12:34 pm

    Nice write-up. I have two young kids, married to a Taiwanese. I don’t want my kids to go to junior high school here, I think the whole system is a waste of teenagers lives in particular. Most of them don’t get anything out of it either!
    My kids will start going to elementary school next year..wish us luck.

  • July 9, 2015 at 4:44 pm

    Well said Trista. This is the ”
    land of half way is good enough”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *