Taiwan’s love affair with American English

Ad for a private English language school in Taiwan: the normalization of American English is obvious in the name and imagery

Ad for a private English language school in Taiwan: the normalization of American English is obvious in the name and imagery

There is no denying the fact that English has become the global lingua franca. However, as far as English teaching and learning are concerned, there is a prevailing belief that the world should be learning  not some “English as a lingua franca” variety but “Standard English.” In this post, I want to explore what this kind of “Standard English” that is implicit in English language teaching and learning looks like in Taiwan.

Taiwanese are dedicated English language learners and Taiwan invests a lot in English language learning. Even so, there are often media debates that decry the poor quality of English in Taiwan. So what is the yardstick against which Taiwanese English is measured? It’s American English!

Despite the fact that English is now supposed to be learned for global communication, British English and American English have long been the two models underlying English instruction in English-as-a-Foreign-Language countries such as Taiwan. In Taiwan, it is American English that is regarded as  ‘good English’ because of the close historical and political relationship between the USA and Taiwan. ‘English’ for Taiwanese means ‘American English.’ This is a strictly perceptual and ideological issue and means that Taiwan is different from most other Asian countries, where British English is regarded as the ‘good’ or ‘correct’ model to emulate in learning English.

In examining the language ideologies that undergird English learning and teaching in Taiwan, I employed Critical Discourse Analysis to analyze data drawn from private English language schools and buxiban (Mandarin for ‘cram school’) promotional materials. In my PhD thesis (Chang, 2004), which is accessible here, I specifically analyzed school fliers, websites, television commercials, television English teaching programs and English teaching job ads.

Private English language schools refer to schools that offer general English courses for different groups (elementary, secondary and tertiary students, adults) and whose purposes are not geared towards academic tests. Buxiban refers to language schools that offer arduous supplementary English courses for test purposes, such as junior high, high school English, TOEFL, IELTS, GRE and so on.

The following are two short excerpts from private language school fliers in my corpus that demonstrate how American English is promoted and normalized by English language schools in Taiwan.

Example A:

無國界的世界來臨了, 從小提供小孩子世界通用語言(美語)的環境, 培養最有競爭能力的下一代,是現在父母的期望。

(The time of the world without boundaries has come. To provide little children a learning environment in an international language (American English) and to provide the next generation with competitive ability is every parent’s hope in the contemporary society.) [my translation]

Example B:

您知道美國小孩子如何開始學美語嗎? 您希望您的孩子有同樣的出發點開始學美語嗎? 100% 純美語環境。

(Do you know how American children start learning their American English? Do you want your children to start learning English as American children do? 100% pure American learning environment.) [my translation]

Text A makes a number of unstated assumptions including the one that American English is the global language. In fact, Text A illustrates three pertinent language ideologies of English language learning in Taiwan: in addition to the fact that American English is normalized as THE English, English is also presented as the global language and it is implied that an early start to learning English is imperative. Text B explicitly tells readers that American English is the Standard English and Taiwanese children need to learn it through an English-only immersion teaching method, and, again, suggests that the earlier a child starts to learn English, the better.

Other evidence for the predominance of American English in my data include lexical collocations involving USA, America or American such as USA degree, American English teacher, North American accent, American curriculum, American teaching method, American English learning environment, and American teaching materials. These all reinforce the notion that only one variety of English – American English – is standard, appropriate, correct and prestigious. As far as English language teaching in Taiwan is concerned, anything associated with the term USA or America or American is viewed as the best. Indeed, no other varieties of English were even mentioned in my data.

The language ideology of ‘American English is best’ constitutes the context in which English language teaching policies are formed and in which English is taught and learned. As a result, English language teaching and learning in Taiwan has become a one-language (American English) and one-culture (American culture) teaching and learning environment and has resulted in widespread lack of  familiarity with the existence of any other varieties of English. This, in turn, has resulted in linguistic and racial inequalities between varieties of English and their speakers. It is not uncommon for English teachers speaking other varieties or having been educated in other English-speaking countries (including English-Center countries such as Australia or the UK) to hide their backgrounds and pretend to be American-English-speaking and/or to be US-trained.

The belief that American English is the best English is interlinked with a set of further pervasive language ideologies such as “English is the global language,” “there is an ideal English teacher,” “there is an ideal English teaching methodology” and “the earlier English learning starts, the better.” I will discuss these language ideologies in future posts.

Chang, J. (2004). Ideologies of English Teaching and Learning in Taiwan. Ph.D. thesis. University of Sydney.

Author Jackie Chang

Jackie Chang is an assistant professor in the English Department at National Pintung University of Education in Pintung, Taiwan. She holds a PhD in Applied Linguistics from the University of Sydney, where she worked under the supervision of Ingrid Piller. Before becoming an academic, Jackie gained extensive experience in the English language teaching industry in Taiwan.

More posts by Jackie Chang
  • Khan

    Excellent post raising the question of Globalization and language ideologies. While governments tend to present themselves as very international, promoters of multiculturalism, they actually negotiate differently with the discourses of inner circles. Studying linguistic practices is the weapon. Your post reminds me of ‘Kakusaika ‘ ( international) discourse in Japan and its translation or equation with Inner circles variety of English. While the emulation of Inner Circle is widely reported, I belief we still need a great deal of investigation in real life discursive practices looking at the moves people make, the shifts in stance and of course their meanings.

  • Thanks, Jackie, for this post and welcome to Language on the Move! My students find your research useful and one of my thesis students is following your approach and is looking at language ideologies implicit in private English language school’s advertisements in Thailand. We look forward to your future posts!

  • Neil Blonstein

    English is the world language with the following exceptions: 1) The one billion people who are still illiterate i.a. in Africa and Asia, notably in India (often where English is an official language). 2) The two billion people (with some overlap with the previous group) who earn less than 2 US dollars a day. 3) About half of the industrial world who cannot communicate in English. 4) The small group of logical people who discovered Esperanto. Among them are English teachers who know the present world order is totally wrong. http://www.EnglishTeachersforEsperanto.blogspot.com Esperanto is by far the most useful language if you wish to have friends in all the countries of the world.

    • Jackie Chang

      Dear Neil,

      Thank you very much for your comments. Thank you for the link of Esperanto.

  • Pingback: Marketing English as the global language in Taiwan | Language on the Move()

  • Yi Shan Lee

    Great article, I have been citing your PhD thesis with regards to some of the implications for introducing World Englishes in Taiwan and some of the potential challenges that mat be faced by teachers. Is there any information about how teachers might be approaching a more EIL situation in terms of teaching materials that may be used or methodologies employed? Many thanks. Yi Shan Lee

  • Jake Chazan

    This article simply scrapes the surface of the real issue around the teaching of English in Taiwan. There are a number of points that are relevant here. First of all, notwithstanding that fact that Taiwanese study English beginning in grade school, their English is poor. Taiwanese receive high marks on many of the international tests measuring English speaking and comprehension ability. The problem is that these are just tests and Taiwanese students are really good at studying for tests.

    I have from personal experience as a university professor in Taipei. I found that most of the students are functionally illiterate in English. But it’s not just the students. University professors and executives all have problems making themselves understood in English, whether it’s written or oral. This stems from the fact that Taiwanese have little opportunity to practice and when they do they are often shy about doing so. Also, Taiwanese students and executives fail to read. They cannot expand their vocabulary without reading. Personally, I don’t think this will ever change. An additional problem is why do Taiwanese really need to speak English anyway?

    • Steve

      A little late to the conversation here – agree with many of your points. I work for an online education company called Lingoloop (https://www.lingoloop.com). We teach small group English conversation classes using online video chat. Our observation of Taiwanese students is similar to your assessment. They are great at taking tests, but that is not a true measure of English comprehension. In fact many students from Taiwan and China who attend university in the U.S. struggle mightily with basic communication despite excellent TOEFL scores. Our service provides a comfortable environment for shy / reserved students to practice English from the comfort of their home – I hope we can be part of the solution.