Taiwanese people’s motivation for learning English is a desire to communicate and a major obstacle to the mastery of spoken English has been the lack of opportunities to speak. As noted in my previous post, the purpose of buxiban is to assist students to pass standardized tests rather than to speak proficiently. Although effective for test-taking, these traditional grammar-translation and teacher-centered methods do not produce fluent speakers. This is a common complaint from teachers and students alike. Students are continually frustrated by the fact that they have been studying English for many years, but can’t carry a basic conversation or communicate with a foreigner.
This realization has popularized teaching methods such as Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) and English-Only immersion methods. As a result, there is a huge English language teaching market in Taiwan comprised of literally thousands of language schools geared towards teaching English for communication. The methods employed in private language schools emphasize active participation in the learning process and include a variety of teaching aids and materials, handouts, activities, and games to assist learners in increasing their English speaking proficiency. Moreover, the use of native English-speaking teachers and small class sizes are other factors in the success of private language schools. Learners learn to use the language as a tool of communication rather than viewing it as one more subject to be memorized and regurgitated.
Although there is often a notable improvement in a student’s speaking ability there are socio-economic aspects of language learning that render these innovative communicative and English-immersion methodologies problematic, such as the linguistic environment outside the school and the almighty TaiBi (Taiwan Dollar).
In order to illustrate my point, I will use a TV commercial by Jordan Language School. The dynamic commercial presents Jordan Language School as an English language learner’s utopia: Taiwanese students are taught by Caucasian foreigners, multi-media computer programs are utilized, and parents participate with their children in the learning process. The main theme of the commercial is that Jordan’s English Language School uses a scientific teaching method that integrates classroom lessons with multimedia and Internet English teaching. The commercial ends with their slogan, 喬登數位美語，輕鬆快樂無比 ‘Jordan’s Digital American English, absolutely relaxing and fun.’
Slogans such as this one come to define the ideal English language teaching method independent of context.
This commercial promotes English teaching as a practical skill and it suggests that English can be learned easily if the ideal teaching method is used: interactive immersion classroom teaching with an enagaging Caucasian teacher combined with computer technology. After school, children can learn English with their parents at home via online English learning or with language-learning devices such as smartphones.
Commercials such as this one suggest that English teaching and learning is always autonomous and never affected by social, cultural and economic conditions outside the classroom. Nothing could be further from the truth – in Taiwan as elsewhere.
The reality is that disadvantaged children often have limited access to the Internet and cannot afford to study in private language schools.
Private language schools are also privileged as regards method because students tend to be grouped by ability levels in private schools. By contrast, teachers in public schools are usually faced with students of varying levels of English ability. Dealing with a diversity of needs is an elementary school is an English teacher’s greatest challenge in Taiwan.
Methods used in private language schools encourage parents to spend money for additional English study, so their children will not fall behind in their regular elementary school English classes. This creates an injustice whereby wealthy families are able to allocate significant amounts of money to their children’s English education, while poor families are unable to do the same for their children. In other words, it is only wealthy families who can afford to send their children to English language schools and/or send them abroad to immerse themselves in real life communication situations in an English-speaking country. The end result is that English language learning to high levels of proficiency has become the exclusive privilege of the wealthy.
English is often touted as a way to lift poor people out of poverty but the exact opposite is true: English is an important instrument of social stratification in contemporary Taiwanese society (as elsewhere?) where the rich get richer because they can afford to learn the kind of English that opens doors while the poor get poorer because they can’t.