Bilingual Education: Is It Really Working?

The government of Taiwan has an ambitious plan to make Taiwan, or Taiwan students bilingual by the year 2030. But from what I am seeing so far, the majority of people in Taiwan do not know how to speak English fluently. That includes my students.
I am teaching in a public school which has been assigned as a bilingual school. I am sure that not all public schools in Taiwan are designated as bilingual schools. When I worked in Taiwan ten years ago all they had was an EFL/ESL program in which I taught from grades 3 to 6. Now, I am teaching in a bilingual program, but this program only covers students from grades 1-4. I am one of five foreign teachers at my school and I am teaching ESL to only one grade level, and I am teaching 3 other subjects to grades 2, and 4.
The question I have is this: is the bilingual program really working? Because what I notice is that most of the students who I teach are still not grasping the English language skills. Not all the students are going to English buxibans to learn ESL. Most of the students are still not making the use of the English language in their homes. Plus where my school is located, there are markets surrounding the school where some or a few students have parents that work in these market places in which they have to struggle to make ends meat. So yes there are socio-economic factors that effect some students in their abilities to learn. But generally a lot of them still do not have the basic English language fluency, and yet the government has a goal to make Taiwan bilingual by 2030.
One of my co-workers told me that in the 2020-2021 school year, the grade 4 students (currently in grade 3) are supposed to write some examination for basic English language skills. If the majority of them score above the average, the bilingual program will stay, but if the majority of them score below the average, the bilingual program will be scraped by June 2021.
Is your public school a bilingual school, or do they just teach EFL/ESL?
Do you think the bilingual program will work?

To begin with, I want to clear up the difference between ESL and EFL, as these are not interchangeable:

  • ESL, English as a Second Language (or EAL, English as an additional language, ELL, English language learners) are the terms used to describe English language programs where the dominant language of the outside community is English (aka, in English-speaking countries or on English-speaking countries’ military bases.)
  • EFL, English as a foreign language, is what is taught in Taiwan, wherein leaving the classroom means limited or no English exposure in the community. For clarification, this is not cram schools or families who play English TV and force their kids to only watch English movies. We’re taking about English being the primary language used by shopkeepers, bus drivers, street signs, product packaging, etc., not a language that comes in, often awkwardly, because a white person is present.

Any time “ESL” is used in Taiwan to describe an English language program, it shouts to the world how very misinformed the government and schools are on the most basic level of TESOL (teaching English to speakers of other languages, the umbrella term for English language programs regardless of environment), and why Taiwan’s “bilingual by 2030” policy is a joke.

This leads me to your question: bahahahaha? Pretending that the correct use of terminology is not important (as a linguist, I will say it’s cricual), in one sentence, “hell no, ‘bilingual’ education is not and never will be effective in Taiwan”.

To begin, a proper bilingual school typically has at least 50% of core classes (ie, math, science, history, reading) taught entirely (and only) in the target language. The schools in Taiwan, whether public or private, who claim to be bilingual, rarely do this. Instead, they have core classes taught entirely in Chinese, and might have more than the MOE required 1-2 EFL classes per week (one to two 40 minutes of English per week will never be sufficient, but that’s where we’re at). These EFL classrooms often have a Chinese speaker in the room who translates virtually everything “just in case” students don’t understand. In addition, they might have a foreign teacher in the room for PE, art, and other “specials”, who might teach a few words or phrases in English that the students will promptly forget. It sounds like your school is doing the later. By most definitions, that ain’t bilingual ed.

Why this doesn’t work: well, there’s a lot I can say on this topic, as I teach public school here too, and have had more than a few moments where I really want to give up.

  1. English is seen in Taiwan as a subject where you need to pass written tests. If you pass the tests, you’re “good at English”. Especially at the elementary level, kids get very inflated egos wherein they think they’re great at English because they can recite the ABC’s and can match the picture of a cat to the word “cat”. Everything goes downhill when you try to introduce pronouns or use any method available to effectively teach verbs (and that they change forms in English, which they don’t in Chinese). I have pushed back against many a parent, teacher, and administrator on why it’s not enough to have students who can pass written tests. None listen. Until Taiwan recognizes and tests Taiwanese people based on their communication skills and not multiple choice tests, this will never change.
  2. Teachers teach the way they were taught, mostly, using the grammar-translation method. Despite a push for more English in English classrooms here, most teachers teach English by introducing a word or phrase, having the students mindlessly repeat it back, and then telling them what it means in Chinese (or having a student translate). It comes as no surprise that so little is learned. The American Council on Teachers of Foreign languages dictates that no less than 90% of class time should be spent in the target language. Most EFL classes in Taiwan are 95% or more in Chinese. Taiwan has a loooonnnggg way to go.
  3. Students (with the opportunity to have one) are taught early on that it’s ok if they don’t understand what the foreign teacher is saying to them, as there’s almost always a local teacher or classmate around to translate everything. Rather than use their eyes and ears looking for clues as to what the English could mean, students zone out and wait for Chinese, acting out when no one tells them what was said, especially when it’s easy to figure out from context. This leads to massive gaps in ability and, by midway through the first year of English education, kids who “can” and kids who really truly “can’t”. Excuses are then made by teachers and administrators, and students fall even more behind, often unable to read the sentence “my name is” in ninth grade. I’m speaking from experience as a teacher here.
  4. No meaningful input or reason for output. Language learning requires constant input, and 80% of the time, this input should be a review of what’s already been taught. In Taiwan, meaningful input is VERY limited and rarely goes back to relevant things that have been taught before. The input focus is instead on using grammar and vocabulary that was arbitrarily set by the MOE, and often makes no sense. After the “input”, the teacher almost always goes back and translates everything, often dissecting grammar in meaningless ways along the way. “Output” is often translation or creating of a sentence using a specific grammar pattern, which is not how language works, ever. I hesitate to call that “output”, actually. Even if you have a hard-working teacher fighting the system and getting students to read or listen and understand without translation, and produce their own output, at the end of the day, the kids are still going to have to take that messed up test that doesn’t consider anything useful in its assessment.
  5. The government refuses to hire people who know anything about English language education to write the classroom materials. If you look at who wrote any of the textbooks used in Taiwanese English classrooms, you’ll see that everyone involved in writing the texts have Chinese surnames. There’s nothing wrong with a core team of Taiwanese people writing texts, but if you don’t consult with any native English speakers or experts in TESOL whose first language is something other than Chinese, you end up with the garbage sentence patterns and outdated vocabulary that Taiwanese students are forced to learn.
  6. No one’s heart is in this. Taiwan wants to be competitive and whatnot, but no one really understands what it takes to be bilingual as a person. How many “bilingual” schools and English cram schools are run by people who can’t speak a word of English? As someone whose first ever exposure to Chinese started at age 18, and I got my ass kicked in Mainland China for a year of insanely intensive Chinese study at the age of 20 to go from very beginner to advanced (ACTFL OPI score of advanced high), I think I know what I’m talking about. Simply changing the laws isn’t going to do anything. What it will do is create a broken society where those with means will hire private English tutors and travel the world and be very fluent in English, thus getting all the jobs, and everyone else will be fucked.

TLDR: at the moment, bilingual education is not working. Without a complete and total overhaul of the Taiwanese English language education system and the hiring of competent people to oversee things, bilingual education will never work in Taiwan.

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Last job I had in TW was at a school which offered bilingual classrooms. The kids were pretty fluent by the end of the year.

My question is – is the government planning on changing their visa requirements for this to happen? Meaning only those with certification or teaching degrees will be allowed to work in TW or will it be only for when applying to schools?

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At the moment, only people with teaching licenses are legally permitted to teach in public schools here. We got a discussion going about that:

In my opinion, only people trained in teaching English to speakers of other languages or individuals with bilingual teaching experience should be teaching English in public school classrooms here. It’s helpful from a cultural standpoint to have math or history teachers from English speaking countries, but it’s not great from a teaching the English language standpoint. Either that or the MOE needs to step up its training (and accountability…)

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Bilingual Education does not mean that one of the languages needs to be English.

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True, but in the case of the 2030 bilingual plan, they want it to be English.

Any nation concerned about the future of its own culture would go for bilingual ed in its existing languages (in Taiwan’s case, Hokkien, Hakka,… any aboriginal languages), but that’s not what Taiwan’s government wants. They want to be “globally competitive”. Thus, they want Mandarin-English.

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Screw giving kids so much attention. How about giving their parents/grandparents opportunities to learn English someplace that isn’t so prohibitively expensive. If the kids see someone in their household learning the language, they’ll see the importance for themselves.

NZ Thanks for reminding me of the EFL/ESL clarification.

One thing I also should have pointed out regarding the bilingual program
are the textbooks. One of the subjects I am teaching is called Life Skills.
The textbook that I used for this class contained English in it, but that
textbook did not have any content about life skills. It was more like another
English education textbook. For the second semester, I have to use a different
textbook for this class, and this time the textbook is totally in Mandarin.

For the second semester I got the grade 3 English textbook which has English in
it. But the other three subjects I have to teach have textbooks that are
strictly in Mandarin! Now you tell me, how the heck can you call it a bilingual
program when the textbooks used for subjects like P.E. or Life Skills are
not bilingual?

I agree. They should just stick to EFL and make bilingual education Taiwanese focused with regards to learning Mandarin, Hakka, and the Indigenous languages.

Hell no it’s not working. Most Taiwanese people don’t take English education very seriously, in part because most schools don’t take their foreign teachers very seriously. Administration generally doesn’t bother to create the environment or procure the resources English teachers need to provide an actual quality education to Taiwanese children because they view ESL as a business first and foremost. It’s all about the money and tax evasion, and choosing a teacher generally comes down to whichever foreign monkey looks, smells, and behaves best.

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Don’t use the provided books as an act of defiance against the status quo. Schools are not required to use the government-provided texts; they just put a lot of pressure on everyone because everyone but you is getting a kickback by using the texts. Tell the school that you’re only legally allowed to teach English (which is the reality) and that if they want you to teach those subjects, they need to provide you with texts in English. Play the “I don’t know enough Chinese card”. Chances are, even if you have great Chinese, they’re not easy to understand anyway. Find some books online that you like (cavesbooks has a good selection, but make sure you get something from an English language publisher like Oxford or Nat Geo) and ask the school nicely if they’ll buy it for you. Or create your own materials and make sure the students keep them organized in a binder so when someone inevitably comes over to tell you off, you have proof of the work they’ve done in class. Teachers Pay Teachers is an excellent resource for this, plenty of free stuff. In my experience, someone will probably just have the students copy the answers from the teacher book to their books when the time comes, but that’s not your problem. You were hired to teach English and the school didn’t give you English books.

Your dilemma is right in line with the billion other FET problems we have. If you’re in a public school, that would make you an FET too? Or what does your contract say you are? Do you know about the biannual trainings?

I say we (FETs) unionize. I’m mostly serious. Step one is finding everyone because the 20 or so people who come to trainings do not make up the majority of the FET population.

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Question: Is there a law that says that we as foreign teachers are only allowed to teach English in Taiwan’s public schools?

if you have a subject licence, you can teach the subject in a language recognized by taiwan as an official language of your passport country as a foreign teacher at public schools.

If you have a Taiwanese teacher license/teaching eligibility and work right or open work permit, you can teach what the license/eligibility allows you to teach.

Regulations Governing Educational Institutions at All Levels Applying for Work Permits for Foreign Teachers and their Administration

Employment Service Act

Act of Governing the Appointment of Educators

I think CLIL is supposed to more or less negate the whole “only teach English” thing for foreigners. It’s “weaving English into every day skills” or something, so you’re not technically teaching another subject (jokes!). I still play the “I’m an English teacher only” card every time my school asks me to do anything not directly related to English teaching because: a) I’m licensed in TESOL and Mandarin, not PE and general science and b) I’m not a dancing monkey / hired model here to shoot school promotional materials

If I had the chance to teach interesting content among teachers who had any qualifications in their subject area, I might be more inclined to roll with it. But probably 90% of the subject area teachers at my school graduated from uni in the past year with degrees in something other than teaching/the content area they’re expected to cover. I’ve sat in on some of the classes. They have the kids open the books and drone on for the entire period, ignoring students who don’t do homework as long as the answers are written down when the government does their checks.
Also, my English classes get “borrowed” by my desperate-to-finish-the-unit coteachers at least a few times per week as it is; if I was teaching another subject area I might as well plan to put my feet up at my desk and watch Netflix all day. Great way to earn money, boring way to live life.

I’ll agree that the public school model isn’t well equipped to provide bilingual education. Right now I’m running a buxiban that serves students aged 3 to 6. We have great results. Shouldn’t it be free to send your child to a private school for a year or two? They already give allowances for private kindergartens. Of course, teaching English in kindergartens is officially illegal. There is a huge market to facilitate bilingualism in Taiwan but it seems no one is prepared to face facts.

Hear, hear!!

The current state of CLIL in Taiwan is a ridiculous transmogrification of what the approach is meant to be and how it is meant to be implemented (eg., with both instruction and assessment in the target language). It is largely workable in European countries where there are a sufficient number of content area instructors who have a high level of English proficiency. It is somewhat workable in countries like Singapore or Hong Kong where similar contexts can be found, and where there is some history of English being used bilingually or as an official or semi-official language, largely due to colonization. Taiwan is, in no conceivable way, in the same category.

The vice-president-elect, William Lai®, is one of the instigators of this bilingual policy and the conflation of bilingualism with CLIL. He did very little to help teachers when he was the mayor of Tainan; in fact many teachers in schools faced great hardship under his ignorant conception and implementation of “full English” from first grade and a push for bilingualism (English as Taiwan’s second official language – no, not 閩南語 or Hakka) mixed up with his investment in CLIL, particularly in remote and rural schools where there is a lack of resources. Most who know of his policies consider him a feckless asshat.

I spent a couple years collecting data on this situation, finding that there has been almost no support provided for teachers who are forced to teach CLIL, no official guidelines for how CLIL is to be implemented, and no sources to be used other than crude translations of Chinese textbooks into English. Some “academics” have used the situation to procure the hard work (lesson plans and materials) from teachers and obtain funding. However, these “scholars” have no classroom experience, no accurate understanding of CLIL, and just rely on trends from other countries, such as Hong Kong, to attempt to feign legitimacy.

Furthermore, foreign teachers (FETs) who are brought in through the MOE are often forced to teach subjects that they were not trained for or had no propensity for. I recall one teacher who was told to teach music who said she couldn’t read music or hold a tune. This is the kind of ridiculous formulation of bilingual education in Taiwan that is causing heartache for both students and teachers. I could go on for hours about this, but shouldn’t.

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About 5 years ago I was employed to do some CLIL teacher training. It was utterly soul-destroying. A class of about 25 Taiwanese teachers from all subject areas with English ability levels ranging from fluent down to low intermediate. Several teachers had real issues, arguably justified, with being there.

It was horrendous. This may have been down to me to a degree, but it put me off ever doing teacher training again.

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This is a big one too. I could drone on about child language acquisition vs adult language acquisition and why adults are not technically at a disadvantage for language learning, but the reality is that no successful truly bilingual school starts kids in the L2 after age 5. Very few accept new students after K5 if the student doesn’t already speak the target language. Third grade is what, 8 years old? And then they’re only teaching 40 minutes (mostly in Chinese anyway) per week. Bilingual my rearend. Age 7-8 is when a child finally has a full grasp of their L1 (first language) and any instruction in a second language needs some serious intrinsic motivation, something kids in TW don’t have. (both due to a focus on passing pointless tests and because there’s no model in society by any adults that it’s needed)

I don’t know that tuition-free private bilingual kindy would do the trick— try across the board truly bilingual kindy in the public schools. This would only work if they hired native or near native English speakers with backgrounds and licensure in early childhood Ed, something most TW kindys don’t have in the first place. This would need to be followed up by bilingual elementary and junior high schools, again taught in tandem with native or near native (ACTFL-Superior or higher, none of that GEPT shit) English speakers.
They also need to use textbooks written by English speakers for English language schools.

Yeah, I love the ROC for trying, but man do they struggle to do anything worthwhile in the effort.

Thanks for the history background. I figured it was something like that.

I would love to hear about your data (or lack thereof/evidence to the contrary about the success of CLIL). I just submitted my mid year report and specifically called out MOE for its use of CLIL despite there being no evidence that it works. I then regretted this move because they probably do have evidence. Then again, if I had ten NT for each time my school or the county governemnt showed a picture of my face as evidence that students are getting better at learning, I’d be able to buy a nice apartment in Taipei City…

My experience complements yours. I’ve taught local insevice teachers and foreign inservice teachers. Several workshops. Always separately, and always with complaints that their counterparts were absent. The system, at present, is a setup for failure!