As Confucius Institutes are being shut down across the United States due to concerns over academic freedom, the U.S. representative to Taiwan is urging the Mandarin-speaking nation to fill the gap.

Brent Christensen, director of the American Institute in Taiwan, said the U.S. and Taiwan have had high-level cooperation on education for years and “the moment is right” to deepen the cooperation.

In December, the U.S.-Taiwan Education Initiative was launched as a framework for the two countries to increase educational exchanges. Christensen said it will “highlight and enhance Taiwan’s role in providing Chinese language instruction to Americans and to people around the world.”

As part of the initiative, AIT and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the U.S., Taiwan’s representative office, signed an agreement to expand existing exchange programs, including the Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant Program (FLTA), which sponsors foreign teachers to offer language instruction on university campuses for ten months.

Emerging opportunities

This year, up to 60 young Taiwanese teachers will go to the U.S. on the Fulbright scholarship to teach Mandarin in the fall semester. Fulbright Taiwan had planned to send 36 in 2020 before international flights were suspended due to the pandemic.

For Taiwan, “it’s an opportunity to fill in the gap and to provide good language instruction without political content that Confucius Institutes had,” said Randall Nadeau, executive director of Fulbright Taiwan, echoing Christensen.

Confucius Institutes offer Chinese language and culture courses on U.S. university campuses. These Beijing-backed institutes have been accused of spreading pro-Chinese government propaganda and censoring speech on sensitive topics like Xinjiang, Tibet, and Taiwan.

Last August, the Department of State labeled the program’s Washington D.C. headquarters as a “foreign mission” of the Chinese government, leading to a mass closure of institutes. As of February, more than 64 Confucius Institutes have closed or are in the process of closing across the United States.


Photo Credit: CNA

Joseph Wu, Taiwan's foreign minister, and William Brent Christensen, director of American Institute of Taiwan, speak at the launch event of the Taiwan-U.S. Education Initiative, December 3, 2020, Taipei, Taiwan.

The U.S. also suspended the Fulbright program in China last year. With no Chinese teachers coming to teach Mandarin on the scholarship, the Department of State has increased the award quota for Taiwanese FLTA’s to 60, Nadeau said.

Fulbright Taiwan launched the Mandarin teaching program around a decade ago, in 2011. While China dominated the grant in the early years, the proportion of Taiwanese FLTA’s has been expanding steadily in relation to that of their Chinese counterparts.

Young Taiwanese educators have also shown growing interest in teaching Mandarin in the states. Nadeau said more than 95 teachers applied for this year’s FLTA program, up from around 50 last year.

Taiwan’s edge

Compared with China, Taiwan appears to be in an ideal position to meet the growing demand for Mandarin teachers in the U.S. Nadeau cited the country’s “long history of language training pedagogy.”

Launched in the 1950s, the Mandarin Training Center at National Taiwan Normal University is one of the most well-known institutes for foreigners to learn Mandarin in Taiwan, educating scholars and government officials. The Stanford Center at National Taiwan University, the predecessor of NTU’s International Chinese Language Program (ICLP) today, also played a crucial role in laying the foundation.

Taiwan also has around 20 master’s degree programs in Teaching Chinese as a Second Language (TCSL), Nadeau said, to train prospective Mandarin teachers.

Fulbright has benefited from the development of these programs. “We have noticed definite improvement over the years in the quality and training background of the applicants,” Nadeau added. “A lot of them now are coming out of these M.A. programs.”


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Students ride bike on the Royal Palm Boulevard with the background of the main library in National Taiwan University.

Michael Chang is one of them. After graduating with an M.A. in history and Certificate for TCSL from National Tsinghua University, he went on to teach Mandarin at ICLP before leaving for the U.S. to teach Mandarin at West Point as a participant in the FLTA program.

Chang believes outstanding educators can come from anywhere in the world, but Taiwanese FLTA’s, because of their diverse backgrounds, can provide a much wider range of learning activities in class than their Chinese counterparts. They “might have been working as English teachers at elementary schools, studying as graduate students at TCSL programs, or teaching Mandarin at universities,” he said.

It may also be easier, Chang suggested, for U.S. universities to find instructors that meet their requirements in the Taiwanese pool.

“For example, elementary school teachers, with the relationship with their schools, are able to lead cross-national educational activities, such as allowing U.S. university students to practice Mandarin virtually with school kids.”

By contrast, Chang found that Chinese FLTA’s are predominantly English teachers at universities. “They are capable of teaching in fluent English, but might not be familiar with Mandarin teaching methods,” he said.

Exploring common values

While showing Taiwan’s strengths, Nadeau described the FLTA program to be “one of the best ways that we can promote Taiwan and our shared values in the U.S.” He also expects it to continue growing during the Biden administration.

“What we do is not controversial,” Nadeau said. “It’s not a political program, but an academic program, and at the same time it helps that we share these common, democratic values.”

中國輸出銳實力 孔子學院已有530所

Photo Credit: CNA

Hundreds show up at an event organized by the Beijing headquarters of Confucius Institutes, September 29, 2018.

As a society, Taiwan’s freedom of expression also allows locally-trained teachers to lead discussions on social and political issues in ways that American students may expect in a university classroom.

Chinese teachers of Mandarin, who in recent years have occupied a much greater presence in higher education in the U.S., may struggle to manage a classroom in which competing viewpoints contest. Chang pointed out that China’s media is dominated by state-run organizations like Xinhua News Agency, and they might be exposed to a single narrative on various topics.

Chinese media’s framing of sensitive topics can further limit the ability of teachers to lead open discussions. Chang recalled an American student at ICLP told him how his Mandarin teacher from China once had students discuss “the Hong Kong riots,” referring to the pro-democracy movement that spans over a year in the city.

“But in a Taiwanese-led discussion, the topic might be ‘anti-extradition law protests,’” he said.

Vying for market share

With the number of Mandarin teachers from China declining, many American universities are eager to have Taiwanese teachers assist in language instruction. But Chang admits that it is hardly possible, if not impossible, for Taiwan to occupy all the vacancies.

“We cannot wield as much economic power as China does,” he said. “Our Ministry of Education can never sponsor education in a way Chinese government does with Confucius Institutes.”

In fact, some Western academics are against closing Confucius Institutes, saying that they offer access to Chinese language education that cash-strapped universities cannot afford on their own.

Meei-yuan Fann, who taught Mandarin at NTU for 30 years, questioned the Taiwanese government’s commitment to take the lead in expanding Taiwan’s influence in the global market of Mandarin education.

“In Taiwan, the tradition is that the civil society is always ahead of government initiatives,” she said. NTU, for example, established the first Chinese Overseas Flagship (COF) in Taiwan with Hunter College in New York as part of the U.S. government-sponsored Language Flagship program.

“The government designs systems that mistrust its people,” she said. “If a government agency wants an institute to send Mandarin teachers to a foreign country, it always starts with bidding, but the lowest bidder can fail to offer education that lives up to the standards.”


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

Foreign exchange students joke around in the hallways at a school in South Dakota, February 13, 2012.

As U.S. relations with China remain at an ebb, Taiwan has welcomed rare opportunities in Mandarin education as a Mandarin-speaking democracy; but for China, Fann said, it can be simply a minor setback in dominating the U.S. market.

Fann believes the Taiwanese government risks letting this opportunity slip by if they do not think strategically and invest long-term, citing the low wages that plague Mandarin teachers in Taiwan.

“It requires so much more than two to three days to train a teacher,” she said. “It is not possible to fill the gap straight away.”

“New mindset”

Short-term programs like Fulbright’s facilitate cultural exchange, Fann said, but for prospective teachers, the experience can be nothing more than a line on their resume. To stay and teach in the U.S., they usually have to have a formal academic degree at a local university.

Chang believes as Taiwan can never supply as many teachers as China, the U.S. and Taiwan need a “new mindset” if the two governments want to see more Taiwanese teaching in the U.S. For one, the U.S. government should provide more opportunities for Taiwanese teachers to teach Mandarin and pursue a degree at the same time.

“If the U.S. wishes Taiwanese teachers to balance with Chinese teachers in higher education, or fill the gap left by Confucius Institutes, it should encourage American universities to open doors to Taiwanese teachers,” he said.

Shutting down Confucius Institutes might not help change the status quo. Many Chinese teachers, having lost their jobs due to the decision, chose to stay and study in the U.S., Chang said. In the near future, they will still be competitive candidates for teaching positions at American universities.

“If, say, there are 30 Taiwanese students who teach Mandarin in the U.S. every year with a scholarship to study for a degree,” he said. “After they graduate, they will be the perfect fit for American universities.”

Still, Claire Chen, a Mandarin teacher at Shih Chien University, holds that Taiwan can fill the void, but teachers must demonstrate excellence in language education. She has taught Mandarin at Johns Hopkins University in 2018 as an FLTA.

“The more vacancies that are opened up in the market, the more teachers who will be allowed to offer quality instruction,” she said. “But it is left to the Taiwanese teachers to show their passion, energy, and professional capabilities after they get the job.”

Chen believes that Taiwanese teachers of Mandarin need more long-term programs to teach abroad and deepen their knowledge of the higher education scene in the U.S., which would increase their job-market competitiveness.

However, short-term programs are not without value. “Through FLTA, more American students will learn about the culture and beauty of Taiwan,” she said. “It encourages them to come and study in Taiwan, enhancing U.S.-Taiwan ties.”

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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