A Bilingual Nation? What are the Efforts from Southern Taiwan Stakeholders?

Written by Brian Doce.

Image Credit: 2015 清大電機英文營-1685 by 楊淳佑/Flickr, License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 2018, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen announced the government’s objective to transform Taiwanese society into a bilingual nation to elevate the English fluency of the Taiwanese people and upgrade the country’s national competitiveness. Looking at the current blueprint published by the National Development Council, the plan’s enumerated key performance indicators (KPI) show a government-centric outlook by emphasising the simultaneous use of Mandarin and English by government agencies for respective services.

The aspiration to become a bilingual nation provided additional momentum for Taiwan’s diplomatic engagements around the world. One good example is the recent pronouncement of Taiwan and Canada to pursue bilateral educational partnerships. One of its goals is to improve the English language proficiency of Taiwanese teachers.

Consequently, the plan’s announcement was viewed by the Philippines as an opportunity because of the following reasons. First, the Philippines is one of the Southeast Asian states nearby Taiwan in which its citizens have a good command of the English language. Per the 2020 English Proficiency Index, the Philippines ranked 27th out of 100 countries surveyed by the international firm, Education First. Second, while Taiwanese parents prefer Westerners as English language teachers, a considerable number of Filipino teachers employed in international schools or serving as private tutors is growing in the island-nation. Third, Taiwan’s need for English language teachers is aligned to the “people-centric” dimension of the New Southbound Policy. Lastly, the Philippines has invested in educational tourism strategies targeting students from East Asian states to learn English from Philippine universities and English language centres.

In addition, while the Philippines is constrained by its compliance with the One China Policy, educational partnerships for bilingual exchange are in-line with the permitted international engagements with Taiwanese counterparts, particularly on activities performed on a people-to-people basis.

Responding to Philippine interests in Taiwan, such as terms of trade and investment – and the welfare of its migrant labourers and cultural exchange – the Philippine government, has a sui generis entity named the Manila Economic and Cultural Office (MECO). This mimics the functions of official diplomatic missions sent by the Philippines to other territories. While other analysts view this situation as a limiting circumstance for the Philippines to latch on to the opportunities provided by the 2030 bilingual objective, the collaborations of MECO with a Kaohsiung-based civil society organisation called the Edu-Connect Southeast Asia Association (simply known as the “Edu-Connect”) proved the opposite scenario. In fact, since MECO is registered as a private corporation and enjoys special privileges under Philippine laws, this institutional arrangement proved beneficial for the Edu-Connect to roll out its development projects in the Philippines. Specifically, MECO and Edu-Connect signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in 2019 for a partnership for the latter to advance its two start-up projects that will be discussed in the latter part of this article. 

The Edu-Connect is an alliance of universities, MSMEs (micro-, small-, and medium-scale enterprises), professional organisations and faith-based groups operating among Southern Taiwan cities. Since most of its members and leaders come from Taiwan’s higher education sector, the organisation aims to use educational and academic exchanges to establish an integrated region between Taiwan and Southeast Asia, where the Philippines serves as the location of its pilot project. Before the pandemic, the association was active in reaching out to Philippine universities, particularly with state universities and colleges, through delegation visits and hosting Filipino academic delegations to engage with their academic counterparts in Kaohsiung and other cities outside Taipei. Furthermore, inspired by its sloganized development philosophy of ICUE (Industry-City-University-Entrepreneurship) linkage, Edu-Connect forged an official partnership with MECO in 2019 for two of its flagship projects: the Training Network in Asia and the iCARE English initiative.

The Training Network in Asia is a platform to catalyse academic and business exchanges between Philippine and Southern Taiwan universities through a city learning tour. Through Edu-Connect’s partnership with the Kindness Hotel Chain and its network of educational and research institutions and local government offices, Philippine academic and professional organisations arriving in Kaohsiung can avail discounted accommodation rates and well-planned itineraries. 

On the other hand, Edu-Connect’s iCARE English initiative is a separate venture that aims to position Filipinos as alternative English language teachers for Taiwanese learners. According to Edu-Connect’s directors, the venture was named iCARE because the acronym represents Filipino values and virtues the association wants to introduce to modern Taiwanese society: C – Culture, A – Apprenticeship, R – Resiliency, and E – Excellence. Through the iCARE initiative, fresh graduates of Philippine state universities and colleges shall be allowed to teach the English language in Taiwan. The arrangement enables future Filipino teachers to earn during their stay; however, the contract contains specific conditionalities. First, during their stay in Taiwan, these teachers need to learn Chinese language skills and attend entrepreneurial lessons offered by Edu-Connect’s member-universities. Second, these teachers can only stay in Taiwan for five years. Upon expiration of their contracts, they are required to go back to their respective provinces and start their respective social entrepreneur projects to contribute to the socio-economic development of their localities.

The inauguration of this language learning vis-à-vis social development project was set for the first quarter of 2020. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, the project’s launch was temporarily shelved; however, the project is currently undergoing continued incubation and online promotion

With the Taiwanese government’s pro-active push to introduce English as an official medium of exchange, the iCARE English initiative serves as a valuable independent contribution to realising such goals coming from the private sector. However, the development and future implementation of the initiative must be understood based on the contemporary events and issues facing Taiwanese society.

First, we need to account for the impact of the demographic winter on Taiwanese universities. The declining birth rates and preference of Taiwanese students to receive tertiary education from Western academic institutions render Taiwanese universities scrambling for students and state funding. This resulted in an informal divide between universities located in the northern cities, especially Taipei and those stationed from Taiwan’s central and southern regions. The presence of Filipino teachers employed by the iCARE initiative can provide additional learners to Southern Taiwan universities, especially as most universities in the southern cities are now gearing to shift towards developing programs for adults and professionals interested in availing lifelong learning courses.

Second, suppose the national government wants to elevate the country’s national competitiveness. In that case, the local government of Kaohsiung itself has been positioning itself as a global city, particularly with its consistent efforts to forge sister-city partnerships in Southeast Asia and Europe. Becoming a global city means accommodating various multicultural and multilingual encounters and influences from foreigners arriving in the southern region. Thus, for economic and tourism objectives, locals in Kaohsiung and nearby cities need to learn English for smooth engagement with foreigners that will visit or reside in the area in the years to come.

Third, the philanthropic nature of the initiative is rooted in Edu-Connect’s faith-based outlook and approach to development. For instance, one of its directors is a charismatic Protestant pastor. Because of his religious affiliation and network, he included local churches and faith-based development organisations in each delegation visit of Edu-Connect to the Philippines every year prior to the pandemic in 2020. The very presence of religious and philanthropic ideas inside the association is linkable to the increasing numbers of Taiwanese converting to Christianity in recent decades. 

The proposed goal for Taiwan to become a bilingual nation in 2030 is faced not only with domestic issues but also sparked opportunities and interests concerning Taiwan’s relations to other states that can potentially supply the human resource needed to realise this goal. While the Tsai administration strategy for the Anglicisation of Taiwanese society starts from state agencies, the Taiwanese government should also look at possible partnerships with private entities. Through Edu-Connect’s altruistic orientation of its iCARE English initiative, Taiwan will not only achieve its bilingual policy’s targets but also further explore innovative strategies in deepening people-to-people exchanges with its partner states in Southeast Asia. 

Brian U. Doce is a lecturer and the Chinese Studies Program Coordinator of De La Salle University’s Department of International Studies. He previously worked with the Manila Economic and Cultural Office – the Philippine representative office in Taiwan – and he served as the first liaison officer for Edu-Connect’s startup projects in the Philippines.  

This article was published as part of a special issue on Multilingual Taiwan

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