Understanding the Desirability of English Language Education in Taiwan

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Understanding the Desirability of English Language Education in Taiwan
  Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood Volume 9 Number 1 2008 www.wwwords.co.uk/CIEC 83 http://dx.doi.org/10.2304/ciec.2008.9.1.83   COLLOQUIUM Understanding the Desirability of English Language Education in Taiwan CHAO-LING TSENG  Department of Curriculum and Instruction, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA    ABSTRACT The popularity and desirability of English language education has become somewhat unbeatable in Taiwan. This article seeks to understand the multiple threads of reasoning systems that come together to constitute and sustain the desirability of English learning. It conceptualizes that language education is more than teaching and learning a new/foreign language. Language is intertwined with the sphere of culture. Thus, it is hoped to encourage an alternative perspective for rethinking English language education in Taiwan. The importance of English has become unquestionable in Taiwan. Outside the field of education, English language education is promoted as a significant element of a ‘lifelong’ learning project for all by the central government. Inside the field of education, English language education has been classified as a required and mandatory  curriculum/subject area in Taiwan’s national compulsory educational system since 1968.[1] In addition, starting from the late 1990s, changes in English language education, including augmentation of credit hours and an earlier starting point for the teaching and learning of English, have been planned and implemented.[2] Current changes concerning English language education signify the growing status of English language and illustrate the desirability of English language education in Taiwan. The desirability of English language education is multilayered. At one level, it is informed by the global circulation of linguistic and language acquisition research studies and brain research literature that are related to a critical period hypothesis  of language acquisition (Lenneberg, 1964, 1967; Krashen, 1981, 1985; Hoffmann, 1997; Birdsong, 1999; Chen, 2001). At another level, the drive towards an early start on English language learning in Taiwan is related to a present construction of a particular national imaginary that is related to a Taiwanese interpretation of globalization and ‘appropriate’ modern education. In the following sections of this article, a brief discussion on reconceptualizing the desirability of English language education is presented to understand and analyze the desirability of English in Taiwan. The Circulation of a Critical Period Hypothesis  in English Learning Nowadays, many Taiwanese parents buy into the idea of the earlier the better  , especially when it comes to children’s English language learning. This is related to the circulation of a critical period hypothesis  on language acquisition (Penfield & Roberts, 1959; Lenneberg, 1964; Johnson, 1992). In Lenneberg’s 1964 paper, The Capacity of Language Acquisition , he emphasized that the biological by guest on September 18, 2016cie.sagepub.comDownloaded from   Chao-LingTseng 84 innateness of psychological capacities in language acquisition could lead to a hypothesis of a critical language learning period. The critical period hypothesis is associated with a particular assumption related to linear and homogeneous  human development. Lenneberg’s hypothesis on a critical period is closely associated with human biological growth, such as neurological development. The ability to master a language is linked with the plasticity of the brain. It is assumed that as one grows and develops from childhood into adulthood, the loss of brain plasticity hinders one’s ability to master any language, especially a foreign language. Such assumption and theorization about child development and human growth has been mobilized in Taiwan to imply that if we miss the ‘teachable’ moment(s), we lose the optimum opportunity to educate our next generation to become fluent and proficient English speakers. Lenneberg’s hypothesis is controversial (i.e. see the work of Marinova-Todd et al, 2000); Taiwanese parents’ common fear of missing children’s optimum ages in learning a second or foreign language has far exceeded any critiques or critical questioning on the validity of the critical period hypothesis. Currently, making or even forcing children to take English lessons outside of regular school hours or enrolling children in English enrichment classes/programs is deemed a common parental and normal educational practice in Taiwanese preschool education (Ho & Wu, 2007). In addition, many parents believe that the preschool years are the prime years for learning English as well as mastering it like a native English speaker. The hypothesis of a critical period in English language learning has been neither challenged nor reconceptualized in Taiwan, particularly in teaching and learning English as a second language in the early years. Many parents and teachers have come to understand English language learning as a ‘must-have’ curricular subject in preschool education; English language learning plays a key role in influencing Taiwanese parents’ perception of what counts or qualifies as appropriate and desirable early childhood education. In short, English has become a taken-for-granted second language in Taiwan. Constructing a Contemporary National Imaginary: the promises of English language education Working together with the circulation of the critical period hypothesis in supporting the desirability of English language education in Taiwan is a particular national imaginary which emphasizes the importance and political-economic power of English. In addition, the desirability of English is constructed through national (local) and international (global) positioning on the status of the English language. In Taiwan, the importance of English language is never doubted. As noted in a government publication: ‘English is the language that links the world, the government should designate English as a quasi-official language and actively expand the use of English as a part of daily life’.[3] In conjunction with the launch of the Challenge 2008 national development plan (Council for Economic Planning and Development, 2002; Executive Yuen, 2002), the Premier during 2002-05, Yo Si-Kun, also announced that English should be recognized as an official language  of Taiwan in 5 years.[4] The push for English has grown into a national desire by all in Taiwan. English, as it has been constructed as an ‘international’ and ‘global’ language, is a strongly desired ‘tool’ that could ‘help’ Taiwan to become internationalized and globalized. However, such cultural and economic reasoning could be dangerous without problematization. What does it mean when English is promoted to become an official language in Taiwan? If the addition of English classes is at the expense of native languages and Mandarin Chinese classes, the gaining of English language education could ironically equate with the losing of ‘who we are’. Some Concluding Thoughts In sum, the desirability of English education in Taiwan has been sturdily constructed through multiple reasoning systems. From the perspectives of economic planning and development at the levels of personal interests and national interests, who could possibly reject or refuse the dream and/or hope for becoming better or prosperous? Thus, the assumption of ‘ earlier is better  ’ becomes a normal educational practice to help children achieve fluent English. Laced with economic and by guest on September 18, 2016cie.sagepub.comDownloaded from    English Language Education in Taiwan 85 cultural reasoning, the power and the promise of English education has become unbeatable and reasonable in Taiwan as a new truth for all to desire. While it seems reasonable and normal for one to desire English and to acquire English education as early as possible, such a trend and shift in curriculum is not without danger and should be problematized in that the growing attention to and demand for English education should not be taken for granted. Questioning and problematizing the desirability of English language education is not to deny or discriminate against English as a foreign and/or a second language. Rather, this is to enable us to be critical and vigilant of current trends and popular constructions of the importance of English education in Taiwan. While it is fashionable to think of the contemporary world as a ‘global village’ in which a global or world language is needed for communication, it is problematic to construct English as the single world language. The debates on whether English is a killer language or the language of the future are significant.[5] The power of English as a global or world language should be reconceptualized as it helps to deconstruct the current desirability of English language education in Taiwan. An important thinking point is that language learning embodies cultural learning. In other words, the teaching and learning of any language is not just educational but also cultural and political. As Soto (2005) asserts: [Language is] a symbol of colonialism that promotes language domination, cultural invasion, loss of sovereignty, loss of resources, loss of dignity, loss of humanity and silences the voices of children and ‘others’. ... Language domination impacts the cultural, the social, the spiritual, the civic, the moral, the economic, and the political. (p. 154) Language embodies abstract forms of culture. When English becomes pervasive within Taiwanese education, how is Taiwanese culture being transformed through the promotion of English education? Recognizing and responding to the ‘needs’ of becoming proficient in English, an early head start in English within the field of early childhood education seems to be fully embraced by parents and teachers. However, if we do not problematize the desirability of English language learning in Taiwan (or any non-English speaking countries), we risk supporting the reproduction of a dominant narrative on ways of being. Correspondence : Chao-Ling Tseng, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, School of Education, The University of Wisconsin-Madison, 556 Teacher Education, 225 N. Mills Street, Madison, Wisconsin 53706, USA (ctseng3@wisc.edu). Notes [1] The current structure of the nine-year compulsory education includes six years of primary school education and three years of junior school education. In 1968, when the Ministry of Education decided to extend its previously existing six-year compulsory primary education by adding another three years of junior high school education for all, English became a required subject area in the  junior high school’s curriculum. [2] For example, during the school year 1997-98, English as a subject was ‘pushed downward’ island-wide in Taiwan from the junior high school level (seventh-ninth grades) to the higher elementary school level (fifth and sixth grades). By the school year 2001-02, English language classes were further pushed downward to be implemented starting at the thirrd grade island-wide in Taiwan. Moreover, in some selected metropolitan regions, particularly in Taipei City and Taipei County, English language education has had an earlier start from first grade since the school year 2006-07. [3] See http://www.gio.gov.tw/taiwan-website/4-oa/20020521/2002052101.html, under the section of ‘Cultivate Talent for the E-generation’. [4] In one of his 2002 public policy address speeches, Yo Si-Kun announced that the English language should become one of the official languages in Taiwan by 2008. The current official language in Taiwan is Mandarin Chinese, which is taught as a mandatory language subject in the national compulsory education system. All government documents, such as public policies, laws, and the Constitution are written in traditional Mandarin Chinese. While not replacing Mandarin Chinese, through adding the English language education classes as another mandatory language subject into the compulsory educational system for all children in Taiwan, the intention is to adopt English as an by guest on September 18, 2016cie.sagepub.comDownloaded from   Chao-LingTseng 86 official language. It is projected that by 2008, some official government documents should and will be circulated in English and English should become a common mode of communication used by all in Taiwan. In addition, it is important to note that there are multiple ethnic dialects currently being recognized as ‘mother-tongues’ in the curriculum as optional/selective courses within the compulsory educational system. [5] For a detailed discussion, see http://www.edu.gov.mb.ca/k12/cur/diversity/eal/senior4/m5_t1-2b.pdf   References Birdsong, D. (1999) Whys and Why Nots of the Critical Period Hypothesis for Second Language Acquisition, in D. Birdsong (Ed.) Second Language Acquisition and the Critical Period Hypothesis , 1-22. Mahwah: Erlbaum. Chen, C (2001) A Discussion on Preschool English Teachers’ Choices on Language Curriculum,  Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy , 2(3), 37-50 (in Mandarin). Council for Economic Planning and Development (2002) Challenge 2008 – National Development Plan.  http://www.cepd.gov.tw/upload/URBA/Infra/GoFar2008/challenge2008@59893.57966673947@.pdf  (accessed 25 February 2006). Executive Yuen (2002) Challenge 2008: national development plan. http://www.cepd.gov.tw/upload/URBA/Infra/GoFar2008/challenge2008@59893.57966673947@.pdf  (accessed 16 November 2005). Ho, Y.C. & Wu, Y.J. (2007) Teaching for English . Taiwan: Common Wealth Magazine Group.   Hoffmann, H.S. (1997) Imprinting: a brief description. http://www.animatedsoftware.com/family/howardsh/imprint.htm (accessed 21 February 2006).  Johnson, J. (1992) Critical Period Effects in Second Language Acquisition: the effect of written versus auditory materials on the assessment of grammatical competence,  Language Learning  , 42, 217-248. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-1770.1992.tb00708.x Krashen, S. (1981) Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning.  Oxford: Pergamon Press Krashen, S. (1985) The Input Hypothesis: issues and implications.  London: Longman. Lenneberg, E.H. (1964) The Capacity of Language Acquisition, in Jerry A. Fodor & Jerrold J. Katz (Eds) The Structure of Language , 579-603. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall. Lenneberg, E.H. (1967) Biological Foundation of Language . New York: Wiley. Marinova-Todd, S.H., Marshall, D.B. & Snow, C.E. (2000) Three Misconceptions about Age and L2 Learning, TESOL Quarterly , 34(1), 9-34. Penfield, W. & Roberts, L. (1959) Speech and Brain-Mechanisms.  Princeton: Princeton University Press. Soto, L.D. (2005) Bilingual Border-Crossing: children’s ideological becoming, in L.D. Soto & B.B. Swadener (Eds)  Power and Voice in Research with Children , 153-164. New York: Peter Lang. by guest on September 18, 2016cie.sagepub.comDownloaded from 
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