Why our children's English is inferior
Jan 6, 2006

  With the growing importance of English as a means of international communication, both the government and people in Taiwan have been making vigorous efforts in recent years to promote the use of this language.

  The result has been what may be called a national English-learning movement. The emphasis has been especially great on teaching children English. English classes now start in the first grade in elementary schools, and commercial institutions that teach children English are everywhere.

  One might expect, given the craze about English, that the people here, especially the children, should have been getting along well in acquiring English skills.

  That, unfortunately, is not the case, in view of the results of an assessment by the Cambridge Examinations Center (CEC) of the International Learning, Teaching and Evaluation Agency (ILTEA).

  The CEC recently published an assessment of the English ability of children in English for 2004, which ranks the English proficiency of children in Taiwan 11th among the 16 countries that participated in the evaluation. This showing is better only than that of Vietnam, Sri Lanka, mainland China, Japan, and Thailand.

  At the top of the list is Malaysia, followed by Indonesia, Pakistan, India, United Arab Emirates, Burma, South Korea, Iran, Hong Kong, and Saudi Arabia, in that order.

  To those who believe the English education in Taiwan has been fairly successful, the most shocking aspect of the CEC evaluation is that the English ability of the children in Taiwan has been regressing from year to year.

  In 2002, when the CEC started the assessment of the English ability of Asian children, Taiwanese children's level of English proficiency was ranked fourth among the nine Asian countries that participated in the evaluation. In 2003, Taiwan slipped to the ninth spot among the 14 countries in the race. In the 2004 ranking, Taiwan dropped to 11th place.

  The main reason for the lack of English proficiency among our people, in our opinion, is the ineffective teaching methods used in public schools. Although it is generally recognized today that the abilities to speak and comprehend English are essential, in practice most English classes in our schools still focus on the abilities to read, and the traditional grammar-translation method remains the most common approach used by teachers. That is to say, children are seldom taught to use the language for actual communication.

  One measure that should be adopted to remedy this situation is to drastically revise the English textbooks used these days in public schools, which are designed to improve students' reading abilities and by and large overlook the abilities to speak and understand. Another is to require elementary and secondary school English teachers to undergo retraining so that they may be better qualified.

  Another problem that could have been a reason underling the poor performance of our children in the CEC evaluation is the government's policy of requiring children to learn dialects. This policy may be well-intentioned. It is designed to preserve the dialects such as the Holo, Hakka and Aborigine dialects used on this island.

  However, the policy means students have to learn these dialects beside Mandarin and English. Many children are confused and find it hard to cope with the study of three different speech forms simultaneously. It is time educational authorities reconsidered this controversial policy.