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FEATURE: Small town tries to build English-friendly environment

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FEATURE: Small town tries to build English-friendly environment

The town of Huwei in central Taiwan's Yunlin County might look like your typical Taiwanese township with its rows of shops lining the edge of a highway, but start chatting to locals and it will soon become clear that there is something rather unusual about this community. On one of the streets, Denny Liao, the 62-year-old owner of a juice store, sees students coming to his store and instead of speaking to them in Mandarin or Taiwanese, asks them in English: "How may I help you?" He expects a response in English, too. On a shelf of his store stands a green plastic sign that reads: "Dung-Ren Community English Village Learning Site." Several streets away, Cheng Chien-chih, who runs a small clothing store, invites foreign customers in fluent English to visit his wife's handicraft and folk arts shop next door. His store, too, has a sign like the one at Liao's. Liao and Cheng are among some 40 Huwei residents who have been voluntarily assisting the school's English Village program. The idea came from Lin Cheng-hsiung, the principal of Dongren Junior High School in Huwei Township, population 70,000. Since 2009, he has been overseeing the project, which tries to get the whole community involved in speaking English, so that the school's children will have an environment that promotes English learning. As part of the project, the adults in the community can attend a free community English class that helps them learn and improve their English, so they can help the students. The project -- known as the Dongren International English Village -- has become one of the most successful programs of its kind in Taiwan, attracting the attention of local media and other schools around the country that hope to learn from the Dongren experience. "We have influenced the high schools close to ours, including Huwei High School, which has decided to open a special English class for gifted students. Even schools in other cities and counties are attracted by our English teaching program," Lin told CNA. That's no small feat for Yunlin County, an agricultural bastion that is economically less developed than those in northern Taiwan. Compared with big cities, the county has fewer after-school centers that teach English, and fewer foreign tourists, which makes English learning challenging for the local children. In 2006, Lin was asked by the county's Bureau of Education to try to improve English learning for the county's students, but was given a tight budget of only NT$3.98 million (US$132,000) from the financially strapped local government. "That's all I got for the project, while other rich counties and cities like Taoyuan and Kaohsiung would get as much as NT$10 million to fund an English Village program aimed at lifting students' English speaking proficiency," Lin said. With such a shallow pocket to work with, he thought: "Why not turn the community into a big English village?" Lin and his school staff then busied themselves setting up the "village." They transformed empty classrooms into facilities equipped with life-size models of an "airport check-in counter," a section of an airplane cabin, a corner of a supermarket, and a restaurant. Lin later made the acquaintance of Wolf Wu, a businessman who returned from Australia to Huwei, his hometown, not long ago to open an English cram school. Lin and Wu then jointly set up the non-profit Yunlin International Education Communication Promotion Association, through which they opened their free English class for community residents to teach them the international lingua franca. "Then I invited those who attended the class to assist our English Village program at the school," the principal said. "We had a warm response from Huwei residents, who showed great support for my idea that English must enter communities and be integrated into daily life." The results have been surprisingly successful, Lin said. With the community's participation and the school's English teaching, Dongren students do not just speak English at school, but also outside the school, Lin said. For example, when the students shop at Liao's store, they can practice English conversation with the owner, Lin said. "At present, we have three learning sites outside the school. I expect the number to increase soon because many township residents are passionately learning to speak English, including me," said Lin. Humble about their English proficiency, Lin and 11 other principals of junior high and high schools in the area have also joined a weekly English class to sharpen their English conversation skills, with Wu serving as their teacher. "My dream is to be able to deliver a speech in English in front of my students," Lin said. Huwei's approach to learning and teaching English is unusual for Taiwan. English education in Taiwan has traditionally focused on asking students to memorize vocabulary, grammar and sentence patterns in order to score well in examinations. In middle school, English is a required subject besides Chinese literature and mathematics. However, most high school graduates, or even bachelor-degree holders can't communicate with foreigners in English because of the rigid English teaching method that ignores the importance of actually being able to speak the language. Attracted by the free English course, more and more community residents -- some of whom are retired public servants and some of whom run their own small businesses -- have joined the circle of community English learners, treating speaking English as a pleasure, according to Wu. "The adult students have received good feedback about their volunteer services," Wu said, explaining that it gives them a sense of achievement. Since they opened the class in 2009, the number of adult students has increased from 40 to more than 100. They attend the class twice a week, and most of them rarely take time off, Wu said, praising the students' passion for learning. Asked why the adult students are not scared off by the English course, Wu explained that it is because it is free. The class attendants "can learn without pressure," he said. They are also happy to be able to assist with the English teaching in the Dongren English Village program, help schools in remote villages and towns organize their English books, and serve as English-speaking guides at tourist spots in the area. To encourage his adult students to conquer their fear of speaking English, Wu, also known as "Teacher Wolf," asks them to learn from foreigners who are not afraid of speaking Mandarin incorrectly, according to one of his adult students, the clothing store owner Cheng. "When they want to say 'ni hao ma (how are you),' they will mistakenly say 'ni ma hao (your mother is good),' and they are not afraid of being laughed at. Why should we?" Cheng said. Thanks to Wu's encouragement, he said, "we are no longer afraid of speaking English despite not being good at it." As for Principal Lin, he feels it's his duty to cultivate in his students the ability to "introduce Taiwan to foreigners in other peoples' language," as the distance between people from different countries is narrowing thanks to modern technology. "I call it 'New Mother Tongue' education," he said. To help achieve this goal, he has taken students overseas to visit arts and cultural festivals, and promotes student exchange programs with schools in New Zealand. He has also recruited students to serve as English-speaking tour guides when the school has foreign guests or when students and teachers from other schools travel to Dongren to use the English Village facility. "Recently, our students have even helped a neighboring temple translate its advertising brochure from Chinese to English for foreign tourists," Lin said. The school and community are not focused only on English. They are also planning to open after-school courses teaching other languages, including Japanese, Korean and Spanish. By integrating the school with the community in this effort, students will have more opportunities to use the skills and knowledge they learn at school, Lin said. The program has also won praise from the people it is aimed at helping in the first place -- the children. "I like the English Village program," said Dongren second-grade student Wendy Chen. "The most interesting part is serving as an English-speaking tour guide when there are visitors to our school and the English Village." Lin explained that inviting students to work as English interpreters is also one of his strategies to encourage them to speak the language. As one of two schools in Yunlin equipped with English Village facilities, the Dongren English Village is a place all Yunlin middle school students will visit at least once each semester to practice their English conversation. Now, the school is organizing a new program called "Community English Tour Bus," which will take the students and adult volunteers to other townships and villages to help people there with English tour guide services, Lin said. "I hope that in the future, even our vegetable vendors in traditional markets can communicate with foreigners in English," Lin said. By Elizabeth Hsu CNA staff writer


Updated : 2021-01-20 12:58 GMT+08:00