The Ministry of Education (MOE) has announced plans this week to try and attract more overseas English teachers to work in Taiwan as part of the new policy to turn Taiwan into a fully bilingual country by 2030.
As most native English speakers who have spent time in Taiwan will testify, this is a hugely ambitious target and many would suggest that achieving it in just twelve years is unrealistic.
It is certainly fair to say that simply hiring more native English language teachers is not going to solve the problem on its own.
A glut of English teachers
Taiwan is already awash with foreign English teachers plying their trade at one of the numerous cram schools that line the streets around elementary and junior high schools.
Some even work (illegally) in the state schools themselves. This has been the case for decades now, yet fluency levels among Taiwanese people who have been through this system are still tiny.
There is a perception among many Taiwanese people that, to effectively teach English, you need a western appearance and not a lot else. Certainly, most do not require any kind of teaching qualification or prior experience.
This is great for the gap year students and ex-pats who head to Taiwan looking to earn enough to cover their rent and beer money, but it is not so great for the students learning under them.
While some will throw their heart and soul into their work, the truth is that many do little more than going through the motions, happy to fill a few hours of their students' time until their parents come and pick them up and the next paycheck is paid.
The average English ability of the generations of students that pass through this system is a testament to the fact that it just doesn’t work.
That is not solely the fault of the teachers of course. Taiwanese school kids have to work for inhumanely long hours and are expected to retain absurdly large amounts of knowledge to be regurgitated in the frequent and extremely stressful exams they have to sit. It is little wonder that their after-school English classes are pretty low on their priority list.
However, the fact still remains that the current system, which places a focus on teachers having native English ability rather than appropriate teaching skills, simply doesn’t work.
An urgent need for systemic reform
Even if we dismiss the 2030 target as unrealistic, if Taiwan is going to become a genuinely bilingual nation at any point in the future, it is the system itself that needs reform.
Many of the reforms that are needed could and should be applied across the entire educational curriculum. A move away from information retention and towards learning through doing, applying, analysis, and critical thinking, is desperately long overdue in Taiwan.
Most people know this and it is no coincidence that schools that move even part of their curriculum in this more progressive direction are overrun with applications and have lengthy waiting lists for places.
The simple fact is that you cannot hammer language skills into children. Learning by rote and repetition might eventually help them to learn Traditional Mandarin Chinese but this is a language that all Taiwanese kids are surrounded by every day. It is used in their homes, it is on their radios and TVs, it is used in the streets and in the playgrounds.
For the vast majority of kids, this is not the case with English. Most will only be exposed to English in the classroom and this means their lessons need to be fun, inspirational, and efficient if they are really going to help kids to learn it. Frankly, this needs to be the case across all subjects.
To deliver this type of curriculum, Taiwan needs to switch its focus away from anyone born in the west and instead focus on hiring good, qualified, and motivated teachers from all sorts of backgrounds.
The future role of foreign teachers
Some of these will be bilingual Taiwanese teachers, but there is still a role for foreign teachers within a reforming Taiwanese system too. After all, the only way Taiwanese education is going to move into the twenty-first century is with the help of those who already understand modern teaching styles.
Taiwan’s budget for foreign teachers should, therefore, be focused on attracting highly skilled and fully qualified teachers from countries like the USA, the UK, and Australia to relocate to Taiwan and bring their skills with them.
This will mean offering salaries substantially higher than the short-term NT$800 an hour most cram school teachers live on. But for those higher salaries, there should come more responsibility.
As well as delivering lessons, these teachers should be tasked with helping to shape a modern new curriculum. That curriculum should deliver effective English language skills with a view to ensuring all kids that go through the system should 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 any additional language courses.
The blunt truth is that the public school curriculum should be able to deliver all of this without the need for cram schools to supplement children’s learning too. An ideal long-term aim of Taiwan’s education system should be to remove the need for cram schools altogether.
These new foreign teachers can also help to reshape the curriculum across other subjects, train Taiwanese teachers, and help give Taiwanese students the skills most international companies are looking for these days.
That isn’t the ability to retain information and pass exams. It is the ability to think constructively, independently, and imaginatively and bring an entrepreneurial zeal into any job they do.
It will be a big reform and it will not please many people. Traditionalists who are tied to the centuries-old public service exam traditions will resist. They must be argued down.
Many public school teachers, who are comfortable with their high salary and great pensions will resist any efforts to get them to change. They should be forced to change or otherwise pensioned off and replaced with hungry new teachers who still have a passion for education rather than one eye on retirement.
Most importantly, such sweeping education reforms will take political will too. The current DPP government has proved it is willing to show political courage and take decisions that will prove unpopular for the long term good.
It might cost them at the ballot box in the short term, but the political will to take brave, long-term decision is a quality not often seen but much needed by countries like Taiwan.
Certainly, it is badly needed if Taiwan is ever going to have any hope of becoming a truly bilingual country and, frankly, if it is ever going to develop an education system fit for the modern world either.