Linguistics academic, Mark Fifer Seilhamer, looking into the politics of language in Taiwan, interviewed several Taiwanese women about their attitudes to the English they use.
By Stuart Hill
Assistant professor in the department of international communications at Nagoya University of Business and Commerce in Japan, Mark Fifer Seilhamer, was recently interviewed in Australia for the research he has done on English as an international language in Taiwan. As part of his research he interviewed young women who were trying to enter the employment market, and asked their opinions about the role of English in their lives.
They generally identified English as an international language, though several women connected it specifically to countries whose official language was English. They used it as a means to communicate with people on Skype and MSN, to their foreign friends, and while traveling. For them, English was a “door to the world” and each recognized how English has become a big part of their lives.
Taiwan’s obsession with learning English is obvious to anyone walking down the street in any Taiwanese city, with all kinds of language schools and even kindergartens promoting their English classes and English learning environments.
At the same time, the quality of English teaching and English proficiency in Taiwan is an often debated topic, especially among teachers working in the system, but also by many English-speaking foreigners who tend to comment on what they see as lousy levels of English proficiency, or at least poor or curious uses of English. It is not unusual to hear this reaction from a native English speaker working in Taiwan: “The boss wants to say what?”
But Fifer Seilhamer’s focus has been about the embrace of English as an international language, which in Taiwan has occurred at the same time that Taiwanese themselves have been debating the value of language training, and the recognition of Taiwanese, Hakka, and aboriginal languages as national languages of Taiwan, alongside Mandarin.
In his interview with Australia’s Radio National Lingua Franca program, Fifer Seilhamer provides a summary of Taiwan’s very complicated linguistic landscape, including political moves on expanding the number of national languages and the commercial value of English. In short, that the KMT has held up legislation that would recognize Taiwanese, Hakka, and Taiwan’s aboriginal languages as national languages beside Mandarin. Meanwhile, the promotion of English has been a seemingly less politicized phenomenon.
While many private businesses use international English scores (such as TOEIC) as a prerequisite for certain job positions, the relevant issue is whether it is a government sanctioned policy and, as an extension, whether it is legal to discriminate based on an unofficial language.
What Fifer Seilhamer’s interview doesn’t explain specifically, was that Taiwan’s official language Mandarin is the language of a colonizing cultural group (ie the “mainlanders from 1949”), and was imposed by the education system on a society that until then was using Japanese as the official language, itself imposed via the education system on the population since the 1890s.
Earlier still was the use of Dutch by yet another group of colonizers.
So in this context, the attitudes of a group of Taiwanese women who see (or are finding) English as a barrier to their social and economic progress, perhaps doesn’t differ too much to the situation faced by those that dealt with Mandarin, Japanese and Dutch in earlier periods of Taiwan’s history.
As Fifer Seilhamer quotes, around 70% of the Taiwan population use mother languages that are NOT the official language. This is due to political reasons that have been reflected at a cultural level, which has meant these other languages have not just been neglected but at times suppressed. This issue offers yet more complexity to the discussion as to why English is so obsessively studied (and sought after) as an “international language”. And also how it is being encouraged (imposed?) by business or the government.
Of course, there are probably many reasons why English is considered so valuable. Fifer Seilhamer refers to Taiwan’s insecurities over international competitiveness as one reason for this. The government’s decades-long focus on creating an export-driven economy, with electronics and IT products being a major part of this strategy, is possibly a more direct cause, with most customers originally being American.
In this way Taiwan is no different to many other countries though, where languages that offer the greatest economic potential tend to become the most popular.
Fifer Seilhamer predicts that proficiency in English will become as standard requirement as literacy in official languages used to be for many jobs.
Referring to his interviewees, Fifer Seilhamer says: “My participants expressed concern [about English being a significant barrier to employment] that this could come sooner rather than later. But their response to this was to learn additional languages, to further make themselves stand out and be hot property on the job market.”
“In the future when everyone speaks English with relative proficiency, it [not knowing English] will be no big deal. Eventually I believe that will be the way it will be around the world with English.”
Link to interview on ABC Radio National Lingua Franca program
One curious element of Fifer Seilhamer’s interview is that he begins by clearly making a distinction between China and Taiwan, but that by the end of the interview he is referring to China as Mainland China. Given he is aware of the political issues associated with preserving Mandarin (ie China’s national language) as Taiwan’s national language, and that this situation is bound up in the debate about China and Taiwan being separate states, it is ironic that he uses a phrase that is so loaded with political meaning.