Taibei chezhan ... Taibei zong tai ... Thoi-pet ... Taipei Main Station ...

First-time visitors to Taipei are often perplexed by the linguistic cacophony that is the Taipei MRT. As any regular passenger will tell you, station names are broadcast in four languages – and earlier this month, passengers at Taipei 101/World Trade Center started to hear five, with Japanese being added to the mix.

This charming custom has legal binding: per Article 6 of the Mass Transit Broadcast Language Equality Law and "the trend towards internationalization in Taipei," according to the Taipei Rapid Transit Corporation, "all broadcasts will be made in Mandarin, Taiwanese, Hakka and English."

If Premier William Lai (賴清德) gets his way, Taiwan's official language laws will soon be amended to include English along with Chinese. Executive Yuan spokesperson Kolas Yotaka said on Monday that Lai will present clear-cut goals next year for a government plan to make English into Taiwan's second official language.

"I will set a policy goal next year to make Taiwan a bilingual country, with English and Chinese being its official languages," Lai told the Chinese-language Economic Daily News in an interview. The Ministry of Education will submit its recommendations to Lai in the next few weeks, said Kolas.

As mayor of Tainan, Lai engineered a 10-year plan to elevate English to that city's second official language. "Culture is our root, and the English language is our tool, or see it as our foot, if you will," Lai told the Taipei Times in 2015. "A lack of English proficiency hampers one from gaining an advantageous position in international competitiveness."

"It is the hope," said Lai, "that after 10 years, Tainan city councilors will be able to question the mayor in English."

There's a long way to go, depending on who you speak to – and to do that, you may have to break out your Mandarin. Taiwan's English proficiency ranks 11th in Asia and 40th out of 80 global non-English speaking countries, according to English First's 2017 English Proficiency Index.


Credit: English First

Taiwan dropped from the "intermediate" to the "low" category, notching its lowest ranking over the past seven years, and was outpaced by neighbors South Korea, Vietnam, Japan, Indonesia, and China.


Credit: English First

These worrying statistics may serve to validate Lai's efforts, which could also create more teaching opportunities for native speakers in Taiwan's buxibans, or cram schools. But changing the law is a foolish effort that will put a greater burden on Taiwan's already stressed out students, National Taiwan University language professor Karen Steffen Chung told Focus Taiwan.

"You can't improve English-language learning by changing the law," said Chung, who is strongly opposed to Lai's idea. "Maybe the government thinks we have tried everything we could to improve English education, so now let's do what Singapore did and our English will get better."

Ming Chuan University English professor Chang Wu-chang (張武昌) agreed, telling Focus Taiwan the government should instead focus on improving the flaws in its current English-language education curriculum. Chang also said that making English an official language would "widen the already huge gap" between urban and rural school children, as the latter often do not receive adequate learning materials and cannot afford supplementary English education.

Taiwan should take pride in its commitment to multilingualism; after all, it was borne out of an oppressive "Mandarin only" environment during its long period of martial law. Taiwan's wider language policies have won plaudits for striving to be inclusive of Hakka, Taiwanese, and indigenous languages.

However, there is plenty of reason to question whether Lai's policies – in Tainan and on a national level – are aimed at improving Taiwan's English education, or whether they are merely grandstanding. Lai is viewed as a political rising star, and high-visibility efforts like this serve to increase his national political profile.

And the effects of a law change may not be publicly visible for a decade or more. Tainan has pumped resources into "English friendly" branding, but the jury is out on whether English-language proficiency is on the rise in the city.

What is visible, of course, is Taiwan's inability to provide adequate English education to its overworked students – especially those from impoverished backgrounds who cannot afford hefty buxiban fees.

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Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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