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Calls for more Chinese classes missing the point of education

A group of scholars and writers has urged Taiwan's Education Ministry to increase the course hours for Chinese in elementary and secondary schools in order to curb what they call the deteriorating proficiency among students using the official language of the country.

They note a significant drop in weekly hours for Chinese classes in the newly implemented 12-year nationwide free education programme.

They argue that it is ridiculous for Taiwan to place less emphasis on its national language when other countries, realizing the growing importance of a language that one-fifth of the world's people use, are encouraging their students to learn Chinese.

Some argue that the hours for other courses could be reduced, but Chinese must never play any weakened role in Taiwan's curriculum.

Language learning is definitely important, as all knowledge - in the form as we generally know it - relies on language for its dissemination. And our national language is definitely important because it is what this country uses: it actually defines the nation's identity.

But increasing the hours of Chinese classes at school may be a little tricky; it involves an overhaul of the entire curriculum at the expense of other courses. It means the other courses must see their hours cut to accommodate the increased hours for Chinese.

So what should be cut? History, geography, math, English, native languages, computer courses, physical education, music or art?

One has to remember that the total hours of a school week are supposed to be constant. Unless we extend the total hours, how are we to accommodate more Chinese classes?

And one also has to remember that more hours for Chinese classes were possible in the past when native languages and computer courses were non-existent. It was also a time when English was not even in the elementary curriculum.

So what should we do now? Fewer hours for music or art? But then why are they less important? Haven't educators been complaining about a lack of real music and art education for students in Taiwan?

Perhaps English should face the axe; after all it is a foreign language. But isn't English still the most important international language? Haven't we been talking about globalisation and increasing our international competitiveness?

Actually, students in Taiwan are learning English for the same reason that motivates their counterparts in other countries to study Chinese: learning an important foreign language that is likely to enhance their competitiveness after leaving school.

There could come a time when scholars and writers in these foreign countries start complaining about students spending too much time learning Chinese, and too little on their own languages.

Increasing the hours of Chinese classes may not necessarily improve the students' proficiency in the language. It really depends on how the curriculum is designed and how the courses are taught.

And it also depends on the students' attitude. They take for granted that they can already fluently use the language that most of them have been using since they started talking.

And the Chinese classes at high school levels are mostly about reading classics and literature, and writing good essays. They don't see these as necessarily relevant to their future careers.

That leads us back to the fundamental question about the purpose of education. What are we really teaching our students at school?

When exams - which serve the purpose of raising the chance of getting into good schools - are given priority, students are not really learning.

Composition is mostly taught only in Chinese classes, but are the teachers really teaching the students the essentials of writing good essays? Are they aware that it is less about the language - namely Chinese in this case - than critical thinking? Are the teachers teaching our students to become critical thinkers?

Language is of course essential to communication and disseminating knowledge. But without the support of critical thinking, our use of language could simply be producing "sound and fury, signifying nothing."


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