By: Jens Kastner

A plan to make English Taiwan’s official second language, agreed earlier this week by the National Development Council (NDC),  is raising suspicions in Beijing that the real goal is to distance the island further from China by “decinisizing” its people.

The delivery date for completion is 2030, 12 years from now, the period it will take for today’s elementary school beginners to make it through the Taiwanese school system. The ruling Democratic Progressive Party is calling for the implementation, in addition to Mandarin, the official language, as a method of raising Taiwan’s international competitiveness, however. 

Indeed, the DPP government is experiencing increasingly serious tensions with its Chinese counterpart over its refusal to acknowledge that Taiwan is part of China.  Earlier this year it raised Beijing’s hackles by tinkering with the high-school history curriculum, to separate Taiwan’s history from China’s history.

“The political implication of the English as a national language measure is to dilute the Chinese identity of Taiwanese,” said Wong Yiu-chung, a professor of political science at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University and an expert on cross-Strait politics.

Wong told Asia Sentinel, that “the DPP government clearly has Singapore in mind, where English is an official language and Singapore is an independent country. Secondly, they are trying to convert Taiwan into a more globalized state for English is an international language, thus reducing the influence of mainland China.”

Of the 76 countries in the world that have designated English as their official language, most were former colonies of Britain, such as India, which kept English as Hindi could not readily be made a national language because many Indians did not speak it.

In Taiwan, road signs, traffic, and hardware instructions largely do come along with English translations but mostly target foreign tourists. 

The 2018 English Proficiency Index of global language-class provider EF places the island 48th out of 88 countries and territories, which is a dismal showing by regional comparison, trailing Singapore (3), the Philippines (14), Hong Kong (30), South Korea (31) and even Vietnam (41) and China (47) but still coming in an inch ahead of Japan (49).

To make headway in the daunting catch-up race, Taiwan will increase the number of English class hours at elementary, junior and senior-high schools and launch more bilingual classes.

The NDC has drafted a bill making any foreigner with any college degree eligible to teach English and other subjects at elementary, junior-high and senior-high schools as well as universities.

Unlike Taiwanese nationals, the foreigners would not be required to take teaching courses, complete an internship or obtain teaching certificates.

An estimated 4,600 additional English teachers, both domestic and foreign, will be needed at a handsome hourly pay in the neighborhood of NT600 (US$20).

The move is certain to upset the Chinese government, which promotes the sole use of Mandarin in an attempt to nurture nationalism and self-identity; Hong Kong is a case in point, where promotion of Mandarin has raise increasing fears about growing “mainlandisation” of the city.

The turn to English may also be an indication on the state of Taiwan’s relations with the US, its sole protector against invasion by China. Relations have been improving greatly during the presidency of Donald Trump, as evidenced, for example, by the Trump administration since February encouraging high level government exchanges between Washington and Taipei as well as in April preliminarily approving the sale of hugely-sensitive submarine technology to the island. 

The DPP government’s most recent expression of gratitude was the defense minister, Yen De-fa, in early November dangling the possibility of a Taiwanese nod for a US Navy docking at Taiwan-held Taiping Island, a strategically crucial location in the contested South China Sea.

“A U.S. military presence on Taiping Island would be a serious provocation for China, as it would give the U.S. greater mobility in the South China Sea, as well as provide ammunition for rivals such as Vietnam or the Philippines to undermine Beijing’s territorial claims,” says geopolitical intelligence platform Stratfor.

Geopolitics aside, there can be very little doubt as to what Taiwan’s English language drive holds in store for those who will be at the center of it.  Already, Taiwan scores the world’s top spot in the number of daily hours students spend in the classroom, with 8.5 hours leading the pack ahead of South Korea (8), Hong Kong (7.5), Shanghai (7), U.S. (6.8), Japan (6) and Singapore (5.5), according to data compiled by the US’s National Center on Education and the Economy.

Studying long hours indoors is believed to be a major factor in Taiwan’s high myopia (nearsightedness) rate.  A whopping 80 percent of high school leavers in Taiwan suffer from the condition.

“The new policy will not come along with a reduction of hours spent on learning science and Math, as they are equally important,” said Mo Reddard, a lecturer and expert for English language training at I-Shou University in Kaohsiung.  “The outcome will therefore be that the children are overburdened.”