Taiwan needs more than a few more foreign English teachers to realize its national bilingual ambitions. | Taiwan News
The Ministry of Education (MOE) this week announced plans to try to attract more foreign English teachers to work in Taiwan as part of the new policy to make Taiwan a fully bilingual country of here 2030.
As most native English speakers who have spent time in Taiwan will attest, this is an extremely ambitious goal and many would argue that it is unrealistic to achieve it in just twelve years.
It is certainly fair to say that simply hiring more native English teachers will not solve the problem on its own.
An overabundance of English teachers
Taiwan is already teeming with foreign English teachers plying their trade in one of the many cram schools that line the streets around primary and secondary schools.
Some even work (illegally) in the public schools themselves. This has been the case for decades now, but levels of fluency among Taiwanese who have passed through this system are still minimal.
Many Taiwanese think that in order to teach English effectively, you need to look Western and not much else. Certainly, most do not require any educational qualifications or prior experience.
It’s great for gap year students and expats heading to Taiwan looking to earn enough to cover their rent and beer money, but it’s not so great for students learning with them. .
While some will throw themselves heart and soul into their work, the truth is that many do little more than go through the stages, happy to fill a few hours of their students’ time until their parents pick them up and the next paycheck is paid.
The average English ability of generations of students who go through this system is a testament to the fact that it just doesn’t work.
It’s not just the fault of the teachers, of course. Taiwanese school children have to work inhumanely long hours and are expected to retain an absurd amount of knowledge to regurgitate during the frequent and extremely stressful exams they have to take. It’s no wonder their after-school English classes are pretty low on their priority list.
However, the fact remains that the current system, which emphasizes teachers with native English skills rather than proper teaching skills, is simply not working.
An urgent need for systemic reform
Even if we reject the 2030 goal as unrealistic, if Taiwan is to become a truly bilingual nation at any time in the future, it is the system itself that must be reformed.
Many of the necessary reforms could and should be applied across the curriculum. The abandonment of information retention and learning by doing, application, analysis and critical thinking are desperately needed in Taiwan.
Most people know this and it’s no coincidence that schools that move even part of their curriculum in this more progressive direction are overwhelmed with applications and have long waiting lists for places. .
The simple fact is that you cannot teach language skills to children. Learning by rote and repetition could eventually help them learn traditional Mandarin Chinese, but it’s a language all Taiwanese children are surrounded by every day. It’s used in their homes, it’s on their radios and televisions, it’s used on the streets and in the playgrounds.
For the vast majority of children, this is not the case with English. Most will only be exposed to English in the classroom, which means their lessons need to be fun, inspiring and effective if they are really going to help children learn it. Frankly, this must be the case in all subjects.
To offer this type of curriculum, Taiwan needs to turn away from anyone born in the West and instead focus on hiring good, qualified, and motivated teachers from all kinds of backgrounds.
The future role of foreign teachers
Some of them will be bilingual Taiwanese teachers, but foreign teachers still have a role to play in a reforming Taiwanese system. After all, the only way Taiwanese education will enter the 21st century is with the help of those who already understand modern teaching styles.
Taiwan’s budget for foreign teachers should therefore aim to attract highly qualified and fully qualified teachers from countries such as the United States, United Kingdom and Australia to settle in Taiwan and bring their skills with them.
This will mean offering salaries significantly higher than the short-term NT$800 an hour that most cram school teachers live on. But for those higher salaries, there should be more responsibilities.
In addition to teaching classes, these teachers should be tasked with helping to shape a new, modern curriculum. This program should provide effective English language skills to ensure that all children who come through the system leave with at least conversational English skills.
A high proportion should be as good as fluent and certainly with strong enough language skills to be able to study at an English language university without needing to take additional language courses.
The truth is that the public school curriculum should be able to provide all of this without the cram schools also needing to supplement the children’s learning. An ideal long-term goal of Taiwan’s education system should be to completely remove the need for cram schools.
These new foreign teachers can also help reshape the curriculum in other subjects, train Taiwanese teachers, and equip Taiwanese students with the skills that most international companies are looking for these days.
It is not the ability to retain information and pass exams. It is the ability to think constructively, independently and imaginatively and to bring an entrepreneurial zeal to any work they do.
It will be a major reform and it will not please many people. Traditionalists who are tied to centuries-old traditions of civil service exams will resist. They must be argued.
Many public school teachers, who are comfortable with their high salaries and good pensions, will resist all efforts to change them. They should be forced to change or otherwise retired and replaced by hungry new teachers who still have a passion for education rather than an eye on retirement.
More importantly, such sweeping education reforms will also require political will. The current PDP government has proven that it is ready to show political courage and take decisions that will prove unpopular for the long term good.
It could cost them at the polls in the short term, but the political will to make courageous, long-term decisions is a quality rarely seen but badly needed by countries like Taiwan.
Certainly, it is absolutely necessary if Taiwan is ever to hope to become a truly bilingual country and, frankly, if it is ever to develop an education system suited to the modern world either.