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Forget 'Gangnam Style,' address your poor English skills

Only 27.9 percent of top Taiwanese companies ask to see job applicants' Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) score, compared to 100 percent of leading South Korea's companies, according to a survey released earlier this month by the Educational Testing Service.

Taiwanese businesses also expect an average of 550 points on their new employees' 990-point test, which is much lower than the TOEIC score of 700 that South Korean companies expect. No wonder only 2.4 percent of Taiwanese companies are satisfied with their staff's English communication skills.

But this survey is more than just another embarrassment for Taiwan. It shows that we must address our English-learning curricula, instead of having students dance the horse dance in “Gangnam Style” — Taiwan media's No. 1 topic for several straight weeks.

Much can be said about Taiwan's uninspiring and “backward” education system. Students are required to memorize words and grammatical rules, but are given few opportunities to practice using the language in real-life situations.

The problem is that spoon-fed students are only encouraged to shoot for high scores in examinations. They are given no time to reflect and connect what they've just learned with what they already know, or to use the knowledge they have gained in any way. Reflection should be regarded as a key part of the learning process. Teachers should have students reflect on what they've learned. They should analyze the process to see what works and what needs further research.

In spite of the general lack of an English environment in Taiwan, students should also be encouraged to read books, magazines and newspapers, which can greatly contribute to language learning.

For many locals, learning English is purely utilitarian. But students shouldn't be asked to memorize vocabulary lists on the MRT. They should be compiling the lists by themselves based on their personal interests.

So many English words have already entered Taiwanese people's daily lives that most can cobble together enough of a sentence to get his or her point across. For younger people, the breadth of vocabulary is astonishing. By graduation, every high school student knows a couple thousand English words — easily enough to hold a conversation. Give them a vocabulary test and they'd pass it. So why can't they speak?

English learning has been a major educational topic for several decades now and it is time to make progress starting from kindergarten up to universities. Taiwanese grad students score an average of 542 points in the TOEIC test, higher than the 510 points scored by their Japanese counterparts but lower than their South Korean counterparts' 626 points.

To foreigners, Taiwan may still appear to have a relatively high standard of English. After all, in our country of 23 million there are more than 5,000 cram schools specializing in English. Most children take their first English classes in elementary school, if not earlier. Local educators and government officials often use slogans “promoting the nation's global competitiveness.” Yet after billions of New Taiwan dollars have been spent, Taiwan is still having problems gaining a truly high level of English proficiency. This must change.

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