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.