Chen Hui-wen feels her 14-year-old son's pain when it comes to learning English.
"One time, he had to memorise 100 words for a test, and he got 80 of them wrong," said Chen, who lives in the southern city of Kaohsiung.
All is not well with the state of English in Taiwan. Despite learning the language from the age of nine and all the way through high school, many Taiwanese struggle to carry out a conversation in English.
English-language classes are often fixated on grammar drills and memorising words, with little chance for students to practise speaking.
As a result, experts say, Taiwanese students have been overtaken by Chinese students - who have been studying English with a vengeance, and Taiwanese executives are losing out on top jobs in the international labour market.
"Look at the Asia regional directors of multinational companies," said Professor Chen Chao-ming of the English Department of National Chengchi University.
"How many of them are Taiwanese? Most are from Hong Kong, Singapore and India."
While the problem is not new, a recent report by the University of Cambridge's English assessment arm for non-native speakers, or Esol Examinations, showed that Taiwanese students have fallen behind.
Last year, for the first time ever, Taiwanese primary school pupils fell behind mainland Chinese children in Esol scores for children aged seven to 12.
Not only that, Taiwanese high school and senior high students aged 13 to 18 trailed behind students in South Korea, Hong Kong and India, according to the biennial report.
The test is not mandatory. Some 20,000 children in Taiwan took the test at elementary level and about 6,000 at the high school and senior high level, Ms Wang Su-wei, manager at Esol Taiwan, told The Sunday Times.
Taiwanese children start learning English from the age of nine, with two lessons a week until Primary 6. In high school, they attend between two and four lessons a week. They have four lessons a week in senior high.
Despite countless English tuition centres and cram schools across the island, standards remain patchy at best, say education experts.
Professor Vincent Chang, dean of the Chinese Culture University's College of Foreign Languages, said the crux of the problem is that English is not widely spoken in Taiwan. "English is not a survival skill here. Sixty per cent of people are not good in English but that has not hampered their career," he said. "Most people learn English to pass school examinations."
Deputy Education Minister Lin Tsung-ming agreed. Chinese, the mother tongue, remains the top priority of language education in Taiwan, he told The Sunday Times.
"We need to lay a good foundation in Chinese first, before going on to English," he said.
Still, he pointed out that more universities are trying to raise English standards and now offer more courses taught in English to attract international students.
At the primary school level, the ministry is recruiting more foreign teachers, and sending Taiwanese teachers overseas for training.
Still, the emphasis on grammar and memorisation means students are able to read and write with reasonable competency, but falter in listening and speaking.
To Prof Chen, the problem is that class sizes are large and there are not enough lessons. "As soon as they get home, they forget what they learnt in school," he said.
He is involved in a long-term experiment in seven elementary schools in Taitung, one of the poorest regions in Taiwan. Pupils attend two lessons per week, with each lesson planned around a theme - colours, for example.
"Before the class, pupils are asked to find anything of the colour blue, and bring it to class for activities," he said. "They are also encouraged to read story books.
"In this way, learning is made to be fun and not rushed, and students actually retain what they learn in class."
Such a change is needed for all students in Taiwan, he said, but that would require a change in mindset from the top.
Meanwhile, for parents like Madam Chen - whose son struggles despite attending tuition classes and having one-on-one lessons with a home tutor - it feels like a losing battle.
"I've never heard him speak in English," she said. "We just don't have the environment for that."
Lee Seok Hwai
The Straits Times
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