Taiwan presidential candidate Ma on English teaching

On Tuesday the KMT’s presidential candidate, Ma Ying-jeou (Mǎ Yīngjiǔ / 馬英九), made a campaign promise to establish a national “English village” to promote English education. This would be part of strengthening “practical English teaching” in Taiwan, Ma said, according to the Taipei Times report.

Scott Sommers has already written about the prospect of English villages in Taiwan and about the Korean model that Ma wants to copy. Johan has touched on this, too. So I’ll leave further discussion of Ma’s at best naive position on English villages in their capable hands.

But the article had some other points I’d like to address.

When approached by reporters later, Ma said he believed fifth grade is the best time for elementary schoolchildren to study English.

This is very strange. In 2002, when Ma was mayor of Taipei, the city moved the start of the teaching of English in Taipei from third grade to first grade. The move from fifth grade to third grade was made just a few years before; this might also have been under Ma, though perhaps it was late in the Chen administration.

At any rate, under Ma Taipei moved to teaching English quite early, something that has prompted the KMT-led Taipei County Government to follow suit, with English classes in Taipei County now beginning in first grade rather than third grade.

So is Ma saying he was wrong before?

He said he was opposed to having kindergarten children spend the whole day learning English because they should master Mandarin before they learn any second language. Ma also said it was unnecessary and unfeasible to make English an official language.

Just something for the record.

source: Ma promises to set up a national ‘English village’, Taipei Times, December 12, 2007

6 thoughts on “Taiwan presidential candidate Ma on English teaching

  1. Same here, Mark.
    We shouldn’t be too surprised about Ma’s language education plans. He’s a nationalist, and history has shown – in Taiwan and elsewhere – that nationalist language planning has been detrimental to languages other than the official government language. That’s why, I believe, it’s a great pity the current government has not been able or willing to grasp opportunities to make a real difference from a past and a possible future nationalist language education.

    Maybe two more questions in this regard. If he were to be elected, should we consider Ma to be solely responsible for future language policy? Except for speaking fluent English himself, he’s not an expert on languages. So he listens to and is advised by Taiwan’s academics inside his ‘Circle of Trust’ to decide on the way forward. Also, if (as president) Ma would really push for island-wide “English villages”, then who knows, Taiwan might end up with a new generation of youngsters speaking English for breakfast and high tea. But at what cost? As for the answer, academics close to him with enough guts – excuse the expression – really should inform Ma. Because unless they have never read any report on language planning abroad, they know.

  2. One of the noteworthy situations about the [Chinese] nationalists’ education policy toward language is that much of it emphasizes literature written in Literary Sinitic, a different language than modern standard Mandarin (MSM). Indeed, proposals to increase the percentage of language education devoted to literature written in MSM, a language that students actually know (as opposed to something they’re given to memorize — and then forget), have been greeted with derision by the KMT. It’s very much like the situation in the West with Latin not so long ago, when traditionalists insisted that the language had to be required lest the barbarians at the gate burn down all of civilization, etc.

    This gives me a chance to give another plug for Latin or the Empire of a Sign (title in the original French: Le Latin ou l’empire d’un signe XVIe-XXe Siècle), by Françoise Waquet. This even briefly discusses a seventeenth century idea for Latin villages. This is a terrific book. And the story of Latin provides a lot of insights into traps modern pedagogy should avoid.

    OK, back to the comments. The matter of experts reminds me of the case of Tongyong Pinyin. Although President Chen Shui-bian certainly doesn’t know a thing about romanization, he has been the guiding force in Taiwan’s policies regarding this … against the recommendations of his own experts.

    His first minister of education, for example, was Ovid Tzeng, who is a world-class expert on psycholinguistics and does know about romanization. It was Tzeng’s job to recommend a romanization system for Taiwan. He chose Hanyu Pinyin. Shortly thereafter he was forced out of his position and replaced with someone whose knowledge of linguistics might best be summed up by the fact that he wanted to come up with Chinese-character systems for the languages of Taiwan’s aborigines, a plan so far beyond “stupid” that words fail me. This new minister selected Tongyong Pinyin (surprise, surprise).

    Furthermore, within Tongyong Pinyin there were at least two important figures: Yu Boquan (???) and Robert Cheng. Yu is neither a linguist nor an expert on romanization. Cheng, however, is a linguist and does know about romanization (though I disagree with his approach). Yet Cheng’s objections to some of Yu’s choices were ignored, and it is Yu’s version that Taiwan now has.

    So presidents can most certainly screw things up if they want.

    I wonder, too, if Ma Ying-jeou ran Taipei’s “nicknumbering” scheme past anyone other than a small crew of yes-men before he implemented that useless bit of nonsense around the city. Of course, in the matter of English villages we’re talking about real money, so maybe cooler heads will prevail — assuming they’re not trying to figure out how to skim off some of the funds for themselves.

  3. Hmm. I’m trying to understand why Ma is changing his position on this. I assume it is because of numerous (and over hyped) recent press stories about how poorly Taiwanese school children do on Mandarin tests: zhuyin fuhao, and characters. One thing I’m pretty sure of is that it isn’t based on serious pedagogical concerns.

    Thanks for the Latin reference – looks good!

  4. If you follow Ma Ying-jeou’s comments on anything, you will see a pattern of 1) Never admitting he made any mistakes (even blatantly obvious ones), 2) unable to make decisions on any semi-important issues, 3) belittling people because they were not US and Harvard-educated (even though his use of English is worst than most elementary school age children). Plus he is pretty stupid and un-cunning for a major political figure.

    So flip flopping on his earlier decisions is nothing to be surprised about. When confronted about his change in positions on anything he has voted on previously, he will always respond with something like “I don’t recall” or “I never said that”.

    Having just spent the past 4 months in Taiwan, and seeing his face on TV daily, it sickens me to see how someone as incompetent as Ma Ying-jeou can ascend up the ranks of the KMT from the lowly position as a KMT-sponsored snitch during his time at Harvard (he is responsible for a lot of names being added to the Taiwan Black List, which he also claimed to be on – which is an insult to everyone on that list). Also he has been campaigning to get the otes of the aboriginal Taiwanese votes, only to insult them late in December commenting that he will now view them as “people”.

    The latest “not guilty” verdict on his US$330,000 graft charges is a major failure of the Taiwan Supreme Court, hopefully that will anger the Taiwanese people enough to not vote for him. Otherwise, the fate of Taiwan will be a dark one. And if Ma has his ways, there will not be anything left of Taiwanese culture by the time Ma is done with any Ma-proposed plans to promote it.

    So if you are an overseas Taiwanese, please go back and vote in January and March elections.

  5. I’m just curious. Why are Pan-Greens so aghast at Ma Ying-jeou? If he’s really as bad as you say he is, he’ll get bulldozed once he takes over the presidency. He, if you’re right, can’t deliver on his platform and the Pan-Blues will be left with nothing. On the identity issue, they’re in a race against time; the Chinese nationalist position is neither modern nor vigorous, it doesn’t stand well against an internationalist education. The more time elapses, the worse their position becomes.

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