Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Are you globalized enough to be President?

Fortunately for Taiwan, the legislature has its priorities straight:

The question came amid a proposal by the Nationalists opposition party that Taiwan's Election Law be revised to require presidential candidates to possess at least a high school-level of English fluency.

"If you don't even have a high-school student's English capability," the People First Party's Chung Shao-he asked Su, "how will you handle Taiwan's international relations?"

While English is widely spoken among Taiwan's business and political elite, many of the island's senior leaders have _ or have had _ only the remotest knowledge of it.

The Taiwan News went on to remind readers that Chiang Kai-shek barely spoke the language. Among the DPP candidates, Annette Lu has a Harvard degree and speaks excellent English, but the others range from poor to nonexistent.

The PFP's comments toward Premier Su about his lack of English attainment thus represent another of the usual KMT attacks on the DPP as a bunch of unsophisticated hicks fresh off the farm, but here is an excellent example of the way knowledge of English functions as a proxy for globalization in Taiwan society. Told to "internationalize" an organization, system, process, or text, Taiwanese invariably respond by adding English. When students are asked why they are learning English, they invariably answer "because it is the international language." Warrant enough! In Taiwan culture, "being international" means knowing English. It does not mean knowing international quality management practices, understanding civic culture, enjoying foreign foods, traveling frequently, or being familiar with other histories and societies.

In fact, I have often privately speculated whether one function of this totemic aspect of English education may be to prevent assimilation of other international norms. Taiwanese may talk as if they want English to access the outside world, but in the way they act, English is not so much a conduit to permit the welcome inflow of ideas, but an interface that lets users take what they want from the global environment while limiting the effect of that environment on themselves and their local culture. In other words, the purpose of mastering English is to hold globalization at arms length. Taiwanese businesses accomplish this by using students like those out of the English program at my university to interface with the world, leaving the bosses free to learn as much or as little English as they like, and to continue the practices of local management and business culture as they always have.


Jason said...

I seem to remember some pan-blue douchebag making a big(ger) ass out of himself a few years ago when he used his alotted interpolation time with then-Premier Yu Shyi-kun to ask all of his questions in English.

Keep in mind that Yu was famously never able to attain a higher level of education because he had to work to support his widowed mother. What's worse, the Greens' "constant stirring up of ethnic hatreds" by pushing the identity issue or the Blues' fundamentally classist attitude toward their fellow citizens?

Eli said...

I'm not sure how good his English is, but doesn't Frank Hsieh have a Masters degree from Kyoto University? That's pretty impressive in its own right. I believe he also spent at least a year at Harvard as a visiting scholar.

Jason said...

Taiwan isn't the only Asian nation to equate English with "globalization". This Asia Times Online article articulates this notion toward the end:

"Meanwhile, [President] Roh, whose loquacious nature never fails to create controversy, has come up with some words of advice that appear at variance with his earlier criticism of South Korean dependence on the US military alliance. Koreans, he has been saying, have got to get up to speed in English if the country hopes to compete more effectively on foreign markets. "International cooperation and coexistence are essential," he said on Educational Broadcasting System. "English skills are a must."

With that, he proposed setting up English immersion centers at 1,300 schools, all staffed with native English-speaking teachers, at a cost of more than $250 million, and the building of an English town on the resort island of Jeju, off the southern coast.

The question is whether South Koreans who look with disdain on American troops on the streets of Seoul and other cities will be more enthusiastic about an army of foreign teachers penetrating their entire society. Like a flood of American imports, their presence may be the price the country will have to bear for shipping ever more goods the other way, to the United States. "

Anonymous said...

My question is how do you judge someone's English ability? My work place just interviewed a Ph.D. from Kyoto University who had been in the US for at least half a year. I have no doubt his written English is good, however, when we tried to talk to him, majority of us think he understood less than ~50% what we are talking about. Btw, during his talk (I assume its his Ph.D. defence), he took out a cheat sheet and read from it. He is well published for people at his age in all English journals, and we were quite stunned.

Anonymous said...

could it be that the desire to be 'international' has as its first underlying reason *safety*. In other words: being international can mean to be an important international player, and so be internationally *recognized* and *respected*. Or perhaps the desire to be 'international' is more so directed at making as much money as one can, which means exports, or expanding one's international connections. Money is also linked to the desires for safety and respect. Looking at it this way, wanting to be international has nothing to do with welcoming the new ideas mentioned in michael's post. wanting to be more international has nothing to do with being more enlightened. it is a tool for other desires, thus english is just seen as a tool, for which other human tools (translators) can be hired to help use.

a better grounding in english could help with the above goals of safety/respect/money, but i guess people who need the english don't see the connection. anyway, if they were interested in ideas, couldn't they just read a chinese translation? ideas are not bound by language.

channing said...

Agree, English language alone won't get you very far. You may be able to make small talk with more people around the world, ask about the weather and order food.

The real skills are developed in professional education and training, something that is currently a huge issue in Taiwan as more people perceive the education system to be in a state of decay in morals and competence. Speaking English is a plus, but only the first step. Immersion in the outside world is even more important.

Anonymous said...

channing, "immersion in the outside world"- do you mean english-speaking world? or just the 'real world' as opposed to the isolated environment of books and university? in any case, you can get info from a number of different sources- the key is how you analyze it. one reason i am against making teaching foreign languages in the public schools mandatory is because just because someone can understand and communicate in say spanish, doesn't mean they will be able to appreciate the different cultures that use spanish. people can take in info from many different environments using many different languages, but this alone will not make them more enlightened. can a person pick out what is true from exaggeration? can they seek out reputable experts? do they double check info to see if people are lying by omission? do they seek out communication with people of good judgement to sharpen their thinking and help them uncover prejudices? good habits of thinking are what is needed first, not simply the ability to speak another language.

Unknown said...

V is right on. Speaking or communicating at all with the so called outside world is really the last thing of any use. The global market place only stops those at the door without cash or credit, English is not a requirement.

Locals in Taiwan understand this well, and my own recent research shows that deep psychological feelings about English are related to local social mobility, not some vague international thing, which as V points out, can always be bought.

In fact, in our data, subjects simply don't even think of using English for two way communication. Michael's post is really talking about capital. Those with it can buy English service, and when they do buy it, don't expect them to buy anything more than the text.

I find the same thing in the other direction. Western companies are not even forced to use Chinese, but when they say things like "We want to understand the local market," which is code for they want the local market to change to become "modern" (another code word for Western) so they can cope with it. I've seen this over and over.

Runsun said...

I have to disagree with v, clyde and others.

English alone, speaking or written, is not the sole reason for globalization, this I agree. But it definitely helps. Using "English is not the sole reason" as a reason to dismiss English's role on globalization or absorption of western knowledge is something as weird as "earning money alone can't ensure you a good life so we shouldn't earn money".

Language is the core of a culture. Be good at English, you have to learn to "think in English," otherwise you will have to do a translation everytime you talk.

When you learn to think in English, you start to pick up the cultural ingredients that are only specific to Engilsh world. This is something you will never achieve if you stick on getting information from translated materials.

v raised couple of questions:

"can a person pick out what is true from exaggeration? can they seek out reputable experts? do they double check info to see if people are lying by omission? do they seek out communication with people of good judgement to sharpen their thinking and help them uncover prejudices? good habits of thinking are what is needed first, not simply the ability to speak another language."

Those problems are undeniably existing in current Taiwan society, but I don't see any relevance between them and "learning English." They (questions raised and the role of English learning) are parallel arguments and there isn't any connection between them. Raising these irrelevant questions upon discussions of globalization (through English learning) is a very strange way to reduce the role of English learning.

Taiwan should definitely push for a broader acceptance and practice of English learning. At very least, it helps Taiwanese to release themselves from the myth of chinese culture influence.

Anonymous said...

English as a proxy for / protection against globalization. Smartest thing I’ve seen written about Taiwan in years. And to top that off, the English taught, tested, and forgotten is itself uniquely local.

Anonymous said...

clyde, can you talk more about locals feelings about english and 'social mobility'? you mean climbing the social ladder, and english is a badge of having reached the highest rung? or mobility as in moving out of the country? i think you are using social science terms i'm not familiar with.

i do think the desire/anxiety to be 'international' is real, though. but i haven't been in taiwan in a while, and i certainly didn't do any research while i was there, as clyde has.

clyde, it seems you are saying that both locals and foreign company execs in taiwan/china don't want to use a foreign language to really learn about the other side. is that right?

on another note, i'm sure you'll agree that for those with a sincere interest to understand other cultures and who know how to analyze information, knowing other languages well can provide one better sources of info (ie, primary), and so greatly increase understanding. that is why richard engel, a news correspondent for cbs in iraq who is fluent in arabic, is so invaluable. and why the us is at such a disadvantage by not having many arabic speakers in the state department.

Anonymous said...

michael wrote: the purpose of mastering English is to hold globalization at arms length.

i don't get this at all. i need more explanation. i started out responding to michael's post by saying what i thought being 'international' meant to locals. i think they want to be 'international' for the reasons i gave in my first post here.

when i think of 'being international', i can think of positive associations for locals. but as for 'globalization'- is that the same thing? in my mind the term 'globalization' has negative connotations: transnational law taking away some aspects of national soverignty, the strengthening of multinationals, etc. what do locals think of globalization and why would they want to hold it and arm's length? aren't they more afraid of being swallowed up by china? is that what in their mind is equated with globalization?

Anonymous said...

Do you REALLY talk to locals? All they want to do is travel all the time.

Most people in Taiwan have more exposure to foreign languages and better mastery of English than your Chinese Michael.

Learning English of course doesn't make you international. It's sad that there can only be one to dominate all, and that will probably be English, giving Americans, Brits, Australians, New Zealanders, Indians, and a few other places a real unfair advantage. The way it works these days is an American makes up some idiotic -ism and the rest of the world has to learn it. Something fair would someone ask everyone to meet on a middle ground.

Anyways, Taiwan is highly international. It's just that understanding things across languages is really tough, and though it's better than the average American, it's still not good enough.

Anonymous said...

Really interesting discussion going on here.

I agree that Taiwan's political leaders really need to learn English - because of Taiwan's unique political situation and Taiwan's need of support from the international community - especially the US population and government. Imagine if Abian had been able to express himself in English...I think in his interviews to the int media he comes across as being very distant, and this would probably be even more true with people who are not attuned to the more reticent Taiwanese/Chinese etiquette.

However, in terms of business practices, a lot of business and management concepts popular today originated in Japan, not just the West. And it seems like an area of relativity - who is to say that adopting the Western way in business will always be better?

As for cultural aspects, I think it will be beneficial for Taiwanese to learn English, but not under the rhetoric that Western culture is superior (or inferior) to Chinese/Taiwanese culture - Taiwan, as a country struggling for recognition and still finding its place after many years of colonialism and imperialism, does not need more paternalism. If having English skills gives more access to different ideas - which will be beneficial to Taiwanese because the education system is so deficient - then it will be a good thing. But hopefully, English learning won't be promoted as a way to escape or forget Taiwanese and Chinese culture in Taiwan.

Michael Turton said...

Do you REALLY talk to locals? All they want to do is travel all the time.

Of course. But how would you classify that? Is it because they are familiar with and interested in goings-on in Amman or Paris or Nairobi or Cairo or Columbo....? Because they are concerned about Iraq or Sudan? Because they some kind of international outlook in some field? Or what?

Most people in Taiwan have more exposure to foreign languages and better mastery of English than your Chinese Michael.

Do you REALLY talk to locals? Some educated people have better English than my Chinese. Most people in Taiwan can barely speak English.

Learning English of course doesn't make you international.

Duh. The point of my article!

The way it works these days is an American makes up some idiotic -ism and the rest of the world has to learn it.



Anonymous said...

michael, next time i'm going to make my questions more cutting/nasty-sounding, so you'll answer them... : (

Michael Turton said...

Sorry, V, I thought you were talking to Clyde, not me, and I didn't want to speak for Clyde.

I don't know what "globalization" means to locals. I have never had any local speak to me about the topic in any meaningful way. Maybe I'll check with some of my friends at NCKU.


Anonymous said...

michael, thanks for your reply. if you don't know wht globalization means to locals, then how can you say they are using english to keep globalization at arm's length? even though i am curious about this, i will no longer harangue for an answer if the topic has been exhausted in your mind . ps i also asked clyde some questions, but he stepped out.

Michael Turton said...

V, A fair question. I don't know what it means, but I think I know what it doesn't mean to them, from watching the way they handle the world.


Anonymous said...

reading through your post again, maybe i'm misunderstanding you. instead of "the purpose of learning english is to hold globalization at arm's length", perhaps you mean 'the defacto consequence of using english as an interface to deal with the world... is that globalization is held at arm's length'. For me, your working makes it sound like the bosses actively want to keep outside influences out, while perhaps what you mean, and what i would agree with, is that this is unconsciously what is happening. english is surface dressing and its potential to act as a conduit for new ideas is not being realized because many people in taiwan are content with the way they do things and aren't open to new ideas in the first place. sorry if everyone got this right away and i was being a little thick.

on a different note, learning any foreign language well can open one's mind or confirm one's erroneous prejudices. it all depends on the attitude/habits of mind in which the language is used. thus we have the forumosan poster cctang who has spent his teen years on mostly in the us and speaks/writes flawless english/chinese, but sees everything in the us from a china first lens.

Anonymous said...

I think it was The Foreigner's blog that pointed out how silly the KMT's proposal is...given that the majority of the island actually speaks Taiwanese, and it'd be a lot more sensible for that kind of language restriction to be passed. Still exclusionary and, you know, wrong. But slightly more sensible.

And since the party elite is mostly of Mainlander origin and disdain to speak the "low" island dialect, they'd be on the short end of that stick. Pretty much the whole reason for the proposal, I think, is to help Mr. Ma Steals-a-Lot look good since he, in fact, speaks fairly decent English. This would be due to the fact thathe spent about twelve years at Harvard, NOT becoming a lawyer. Some folks (deep-green folks) say that he was there that long to keep an eye on Taiwanese students abroad and make sure they didn't say anything incendiary. Nice.

Either way, I notice they've dropped the proposal pretty quick. Why open the language issue on TOP of the ethnic issue?

Ed en Vadrouille said...

All throughout this conversation i see notions of ethnocentrism (being focused on your own culture as your way to "decode" the external world) dripping out of paragraphs.

I was quite surprised to see how eager Taiwanese are to learn English, to send their students abroad, but how little they were changing their vision and uses on the process.

Take an academic program like Erasmus in Europe, sending dozens of thousands of students to study abroad for a year. For most of them it is an eye opener on how ingrained in their own culture they can be.
I can barely count the number of relationships that have started between these people and some other foreigners around me, how many have changed their life plans to keep studying abroad, to go working far far away... In average, I'd say that for about 60 to 70% of them, it has a major impact on their course of action.
There's an interesting movie depicting this life in a idealized way (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0283900/)

Back to Taiwanese (and Chinese students), which i see most of the time sticking in groups, living in the same flats, meeting everyday, and going back to Asia to get just another job. It doesn't seems this experience made much of a difference in what would have been their life, had they not left the motherland.

To me, this is due to an enormous dose of ethnocentrism from the Taiwanese. They just don't really seem to change their inner when involved in a different culture. Attraction from the mothership is just too strong.