Taiwan's Bilingual Education Goal Faces Delays Due To Teacher Shortages

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Taiwan’s ambitious goal of becoming bilingual in English and Mandarin Chinese by 2030 will have to "slow down," according to the new Minister of Education, Cheng Ying-yao. Cheng, who assumed office in April, acknowledged difficulties in recruiting qualified teachers and university faculty members as key obstacles.

Cheng, previously the president of Taiwan's National Sun Yat-sen University, was appointed following the January general election in which William Lai of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was elected president. Lai, who took office on May 20, had supported the bilingual policy initiated by former President Tsai Ing-wen in 2018.

In a June 1 interview with the Liberty Times, Cheng emphasized that while the bilingual policy remains essential for future generations, its implementation would require more time. "The bilingual policy cannot be achieved in a short time,” Cheng stated. “It may take 20 or 30 years; but if it is not implemented now, it will still take 20 or 30 years when it starts later, so it is beneficial to start now.”

The policy’s delay is a setback for Lai, who championed a 10-year plan for English education as the mayor of Tainan and advanced English-language teaching at Sun Yat-sen University. 

In 2021, several universities received government funding to increase English-taught programs, aiming for half of all undergraduate courses, 70% of master's programs, and nearly all doctoral programs to be taught in English. The next phase, set for 2025-30, requires funding approval from Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan.

The DPP lost its majority in the Legislative Yuan in January, complicating budget approvals for the bilingual policy. “[The] DPP government getting fewer seats in the Legislative Yuan may lead to more difficulties in securing the budget,” explained Yi-Hsuan Irene Huang, a doctoral researcher at Bristol University.

Criticism of the policy has come not only from opposition parties like the Kuomintang, which favors closer ties to mainland China and a focus on Mandarin, and the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), but also from broader society. The TPP has criticized the bilingual policy for inadequate planning and claimed it exacerbates urban-rural disparities.

Implementation challenges are evident, with bilingual programs present in 68% of Taipei’s schools but significantly lower in other major cities and rural areas. Groups like the Taiwan Languages and Literacy Society advocate for more support for local and indigenous languages, calling for an “English-friendly multilingual policy.”

Educators have reported "chaos" due to a lack of language teaching proficiency, emphasizing the need for quality education over rapid implementation. The “108 Curriculum Observation Report” by EdYouth, a student group, described the bilingual policy as “excellent” but noted that disadvantaged students were not adequately supported.

Minister Cheng acknowledged the need for supporting economically and culturally disadvantaged families. He suggested leveraging universities' social responsibility programs to provide resources and talent to rural schools.

Huang highlighted practical issues in universities selected for the bilingual policy, noting slower teaching paces and content coverage in English-medium instruction (EMI) courses. Faculty questioned the policy’s purpose, debating whether it was to enhance local students' English proficiency or attract international students. They pointed out that many students stay in Taiwan post-graduation, where professional exams are conducted in Chinese.

Some universities employed project-based assistant professors for EMI, potentially reducing tenured faculty's motivation to teach in English despite government incentives. 

Despite the slowdown, Cheng emphasized that the bilingual policy would continue. He pointed to Taiwan’s global industries and the necessity for international professional talent, noting that English proficiency aids in recruiting foreign students amid demographic decline and supports Taiwan’s export-driven economy.

Huang believes the slowdown will not significantly impact universities currently implementing the policy with government resources. Top-ranked universities with international faculty can continue English teaching with fewer resources, and international student recruitment, particularly from Southeast or South Asia, is expected to remain stable.

However, efforts to attract students from English-speaking countries may be affected. “If they want to explore markets like the US or other English-speaking countries, then maybe it will have some impact,” Huang noted.