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TEFL scores in Taiwan: a humiliating failure

No matter whether you like it or not, English is the language that’s most widely used for international communication. Good English skills are useful to most of those who travel outside their own countries and people who often need to talk or write to foreigners. Proficiency in English is crucial to most Asians who need to pursue advanced studies.

That is why this foreign language is a required subject for students in most Asian countries. English teaching has always received much emphasis in Taiwan’s educational system. Until about three or four years ago, students in Taiwan began their first formal English lessons in junior high school. Now children throughout the island study English as a foreign language from the third grade. Some are sent by their parents to English cram schools before they start elementary school. Kindergartens that offer English classes mostly roll in money these days.

Despite the huge amounts of resources invested, the campaign to make Taiwan students proficient in English has been an ignominious failure.

One indication of this fact came when the British Council published recently the results IELTS (International English Language Testing System) for 2006, showing that Taiwan ranked 17 among 20 countries or areas with the largest numbers of students taking this English proficiency test. The IELTS is jointly managed by University of Cambridge ESOL Examinations, British Council, and IDP Education Australia. The test is accepted by most Australian, British, Canadian, Irish, New Zealand and South African academic institutions, by an increasing number of academic institutions in the U.S., and by various professional organizations. It is also a requirement for migration to Australia and Canada. According to results released by the British Council, the scores of Taiwan students who took the exam were inferior to those from Hong Kong, Japan, and Korea in the four skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing. They did only a little better than mainland Chinese candidates.

In the past, the vast majority of young people from Taiwan chose to study in the United States when they wanted to pursue studies beyond high school. “Come to National Taiwan University (the most reputable university in Taiwan) and then go to the U.S.” was the dream of all high school students in those days. That was because the U.S. used to have a far stronger influence on and a much closer relationship to Taiwan than any other country in the world. In those days, when people here thought of the West, they thought mainly of the U.S. And they identified American culture with Western culture. Now, residents of the island tend to take an increasing interest in other parts of the world. As a result, more and more of people choose to pursue advanced education in other major English-speaking countries such as Britain, Australia and Canada. The number of Taiwan students taking the IELTS has risen sharply these past few years. Last year, approximately 8,000 people took this test. Cram schools that specialize in preparing people for advanced studies in English-speaking countries are keenly aware of this trend and are stepping up efforts to cater to the needs of those who take this examination. The British Council attributes Taiwan students’ disappointing performance on the IELTS to the use of old-fashioned teaching materials in schools, the lack of individual teaching for students, and a deficiency of fully qualified teachers, among other factors. We started to express these same views as far back as 20 years ago.

Sadly, Taiwan citizens’ ability to use English has made little, if any, progress over the years. Many university freshmen in Taiwan hardly know the English alphabet, even though they have studied the language for at least six years. And most university graduates can’t carry on a simple dialogue with a foreigner in English. With the trend of globalization, English has become the first language of international enterprises, said Chiu Wen-jen, the marketing director of 104 Job Bank, an organization that helps job seekers. Chiu indicated that English ability in Taiwan has been declining in recent years, while the demand for English ability in the job market has increased, year by year. According to 104’s statistics about job opportunities, nearly 50 percent of jobs require workers’ English ability to meet a certain standard. The high-tech industries especially make English ability an essential condition of employment.

We want to repeat a call we have made many times regarding how English classes can be made more effective. It is our belief that classes in elementary and secondary schools should be focused on communication. These students should spend more class time learning how to speak and write English than memorizing grammatical rules. We also believe that more native speakers should be hired to teach these classes, which will contribute to allaying fear among students about oral communication. It may be a good idea for every university to require all students to pass an English proficiency test before they are allowed to graduate. Such a test should evaluate all the four language skills — listening, speaking, reading and writing.

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