TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — Taiwan’s plan to develop a bilingual (Mandarin and English) society by 2030 is an ambitious one and should involve culture and art, but it needs to be funded properly too.
Previous efforts were less comprehensive and centered on making the “physical environment” bilingual, including government agencies, public signage, and tourism. As a 2018 Cabinet report noted this was “unable to encourage a general mood of popular participation successfully and to actually attain the goal of establishing a bilingual environment.”
Taiwan’s new and improved initiative aims to increase English proficiency so Taiwanese can speak the language whenever necessary. Furthermore, it will be “demand-driven,” meaning it will focus on “enhancing the people’s English listening, speaking, reading, and writing communication abilities and creating the maximum benefit at minimum cost.”
The reasoning behind this renewed effort — aside from improving the English skills of Taiwanese — is to reduce the urban-rural divide with digital technology and create a competitive advantage for young talent.
Though this massive undertaking is well-intentioned and will undoubtedly benefit the nation, it is largely focused on the business, science, and technology sectors. Meanwhile, traditional and performing arts have been largely ignored.
This oversight should be rectified, as Taiwanese will inevitably need English-centric spaces — particularly in the performance arts — to showcase their creative work now that bilingualism is being promoted. Such venues would allow Taiwanese to express themselves and provide immersive English environments for locals.
Power of culture
It is within this context that the eighth Global Taipei Dialogue on art and multilingualism was held at the Kishu An Forest of Literature in Taipei on March 27. It was co-hosted by Taiwan NextGen Foundation and the Belgian Office Taipei.
Belgium Office Deputy Representative Maxime Ramon opened the discussion by explaining how the European nation became multilingual. He stated that “when a country becomes multilingual, or when a group wants to assert a social identity, it will use culture and arts.”
However, he said this could go in two directions: an exclusive way, meaning one single identity, which could lead to a far-right movement; or an inclusive approach that is open to multilingualism. Ramon remarked that Taiwan’s goal of bilingualism is great but he stressed that “it should not be at the expense of other languages.”
In fact, the Cabinet report emphasizes the nation's bilingual nation policy will be implemented alongside the promotion of native languages and cultures. “Its implementation will not constrain native language education,” the report said, adding the policy “will enable Taiwan’s next generation to enter the future with a greater competitive advantage.”
The deputy representative continued by saying “art can bring people together irrespective of the language people actually speak.”
Ramon explained that language and culture are tools for identity shaping and nation-building, which was the case in Belgium: “Culture played a part and is still playing a part in who we are as a country.”
Ramon pointed out parallels between Belgium and Taiwan and suggested that embracing diverse cultures has helped each nation shape its own identity. He highlighted the importance of looking back at Taiwan's history — as Belgium has done — and recognize the diversity of its languages and identity to progress as a country.
The deputy representative concluded by asking, “What is Taiwanese?” Culture and arts have a key role in defining what that means today, was his answer.
Taiwan already has a small community of English-speaking performance artists that are eager to contribute to the national language initiative and collaborate with local creatives. However, there should be adequate funding and assistance.
Inclusivity is key
Taipei Shorts founder and creative director, John Brownlie, stated at the Global Taipei Dialogue event that funding has been difficult. He remarked “the government hasn’t been very open to people who don’t speak Mandarin ... Every performance has been funded out of my own pocket, but I will continue to do so because I feel art is important.”
Brownlie emphasized the theater production company wants to be more inclusive by “getting more Taiwanese directors, Taiwanese writers, Taiwanese performers involved to play a bigger role and build bridges towards different cultures.”
Meanwhile, Liam Fanning, workshop director of the Formosa Improv Group (FIG), noted the nation’s bureaucracy “can be very nebulous.” For example, he said the stipulations for performers' visas are very difficult to understand.
Referring to the confusing visa process, he said, "Grassroots movements are amazing and so collaborative, and I’m really drawn to them. I wonder how many people would get involved if this was much easier for them to do?”
Roma Mehta, a member of the board of directors at Red Room, stated, "It’s not easy to find out where to get a grant, what kind of application? What applies? How do you make [events] happen if you don’t go through everything in Chinese? It’s a lot to go through."
When discussing how performance art could contribute to the 2030 bilingual policy, Fanning explained that FIG was formed on the principle of bilingualism: “Learning how to communicate and work as a team despite linguistic or cultural background differences to overcome and see what is universal about our experiences as people and what we can all share through improv.”
The creative director added that “implementing these soft skills could be used for future educational pursuits as part of this larger framework.”
From the Global Taipei Dialogue event, it was clear the English-speaking performance community is enthusiastic about the bilingual policy and is ready to help with implementation. However, it cannot do so if funding is lacking and the visa application process is not streamlined.
If the Taiwan government is sincere in launching this massive undertaking, it cannot turn a blind eye to such a vital facet of culture that offers a safe and welcoming space for Taiwanese to be immersed in English.
Taiwan NextGen Foundation CEO Chen Kuan-ting (Taiwan NextGen Foundation photo)