What can New Zealand learn from Taiwan’s multilingual policy?

As language and culture departments at New Zealand universities face major cutbacks, another island in the Asia Pacific is doubling down on teaching the region’s languages. 

Since 2019, Taiwanese primary school students have had the option of studying seven of the region’s key official languages: Vietnamese, Thai, Indonesian, Cambodian, Malay, Filipino and Burmese. 

At the same time, Taiwan has pledged to become a bilingual island of Mandarin and English speakers by 2030.  

Under the policy, primary school students are required to learn a third language in addition to Mandarin and English. Students must select from a list of languages, which now includes seven Southeast Asian languages, known as the “new immigrant languages,” as well as Taiwan’s “local” languages, which include Minnan (Taiwanese Hokkien) and Hakka, and the island’s indigenous languages. These languages are then offered as electives once students reach intermediate and high school. 

So what has prompted Taiwan’s Indo-Pacific linguistic push? 

According to scholars, it is largely to do with the island’s evolving identity — and its strategic economic and political goals. 

Taiwan is currently on track to have the world’s lowest birth rate by 2035. The aging population is increasingly reliant on a growing Southeast Asian migrant workforce, and with more Taiwanese women opting to marry later or not at all, marriages between local men and foreign women are becoming more common. This means a growing number of young Taiwanese have at least one foreign parent, and the vast majority of these are foreign mothers from mainland China or Southeast Asia. 

But despite their growing numbers, female migrants to Taiwan, commonly referred to as “marriage migrants” (婚姻移民) or “foreign spouses” (外籍配偶), frequently face discrimination and considerable challenges when it comes to setting up their new lives. 

Taiwan is currently on track to have the world’s lowest birth rate by 2035. Photo by Lisanto 李奕良 on Unsplash  

It is hoped that promoting key migrant languages will reduce some of the stigma these migrants, and their children, face. The rollout of the policy has also relied on recruiting marriage migrants as teachers and developing online resources and teaching materials. Dr Dorothy I-ru Chen, an associate professor of international and comparative education at Taiwan’s National Chi Nan University, explains that some local governments in areas with strong migrant communities have been including Southeast Asian languages in their school curriculums for years before it was adopted as central government policy.  

Professor Chen notes that while the long-term impact of the policy is yet to be felt, it is helping to change the narrative from one that emphasises assimilation to one that encourages migrants to retain and pass on their heritage. And students with non-migrant parents are also increasingly realising the benefits of studying these languages too.   

“Many people say in Taiwan that we are so close to Southeast Asia, but we know so little about them… We know a lot more about the USA,” observes Professor Chen. 

Others have also noted that the policy can be read as an attempt by the government to emphasise Taiwan’s status as a multicultural society — and to help reinforce the island’s unique identity vis-a-vis the much larger Chinese mainland, which has given primacy to Mandarin as its official language. 

Academics point out the policy also needs to be understood in the context of the island’s New Southbound Policy (新南向政策). Launched by the Tsai Ing-wen Government in 2016, the New Southbound Policy aims to strengthen connections with South and Southeast Asia, as well as Australia and New Zealand, while reducing economic reliance on mainland China. The need to build people-to-people links, including between Taiwanese of Southeast Asian descent and their parents’ countries of origin, is a key part of the strategy. According to an official guide to the policy, the government hopes that by learning more about their parents’ native countries, these second generation Taiwanese will be able to “act as a bridge between Taiwan and these countries by helping firms and people in Taiwan understand the language, culture, and customs.”                                   

Tsai Ing-wen's (pictured) government launched the New Southbound Policy in 2016. Image: Wikimedia Commons

In fact, language policies have long been used by respective Taiwanese governments for supporting political and economic ends. In addition to its own rich history of indigenous Austronesian languages — Taiwan is considered the homeland of the Austronesian language family to which Te Reo Māori belongs — Taiwan’s linguistic landscape has been deeply influenced by various waves of migration and colonisation. 

Early migrants from southern China brought over Hokkien and Hakka, while Japanese was the official language during Japanese occupation from 1985 to 1945. The Nationalist government, which fled to Taiwan after losing to the Chinese Communists in 1949, enforced a strict Mandarin language policy. Under the policy, Mandarin became the only language permitted in schools and the public service, and was intended to foster unification between local Taiwanese and the swells of post-1949 arrivals from the mainland.  

Following Taiwan’s democratisation in the late-1980s, and a growing awareness of a unique Taiwanese identity separate from the mainland, local and indigenous languages, along with English, have been taught as required subjects in Taiwanese primary schools since 2001. 

But despite investment from central and local governments, the recent policy push has also been met with pushback. Some parents are concerned the emphasis on “new immigrant languages” will take away from the time students are able to study English, while others have said that the responsibility should be on mothers to pass on their mother tongues at home. 

Professor Chen notes that finding enough teachers has been challenging, and the perceived lack of qualifications among teaching staff — those teaching Southeast Asian languages are required to undertake only around 36 hours of training — has come under scrutiny. It has also been pointed out that providing one language class a week is not enough for students to gain any real proficiency. 

So what can New Zealand draw from the Taiwan example? 

Despite the recent cuts to Asian Studies departments and languages programmes across New Zealand universities, almost 80 percent of New Zealanders think offering Asian language courses is at least somewhat important, according to Asia New Zealand Foundation’s most recent Perceptions of Asia survey. 

Associate Professor Stephen Epstein, who directs the Asian Studies programme at Victoria University, notes that while offering a weekly class to primary school students is unlikely to offer students more than a language taster (although heritage students with access to native speakers may make more progress), Taiwan is right to acknowledge that diaspora communities are an amazing resource. 

“New Zealand has a very significant resource with our diaspora communities, and we need to foster our heritage speakers to ensure our continued engagement with the region. We run the risk of falling behind if we don’t invest in building up our Asia expertise.” 

Associate Professor Stephen Epstein

Dr Will Flavell, Kaihautū Māori at Te Hononga Akoranga COMET, an Auckland-based agency addressing inequity in Aotearoa’s education system, points out that the language policy has some similarities to the unsuccessful Education (Strengthening Second Language Learning in Primary and Intermediate Schools) Amendment Bill. The bill, which was put forward by former National MP Nikki Kaye in 2018, would have required primary and intermediate schools to teach one of 10 agreed “priority” languages, including Te Reo Māori and Sign Language.  

Dr Flavell, a Te Reo Māori, Japanese and Samoan speaker and an advocate for multi-language learning, did not support the bill due to concerns around the particular model it proposed. 

“My city of Tamaki Makaurau Auckland has about 165 languages. How do you prioritise 10 languages? And how do you put Te Reo Māori in with nine other languages?”  

As part of his submission on the bill, Dr Flavell instead recommended that Te Reo be made a compulsory subject, and that the Ministry of Education resource schools to offer a third language, with the language being up to the school community to decide. This would help ensure that students had access to learning their heritage languages and other languages commonly spoken in the local community, says Dr Flavell.  

“We’re so small minded when it comes to the beauty of languages… New Zealand still does not have an official second languages policy in our schools. We’re lacking in that.” 

And it’s not just that language learning confers economic benefits for New Zealand on the international stage. Dr Flavell points out that having access to learning about one’s own culture improves outcomes for those in minority communities. 

“Research shows that when you're strong in your identity, you tend to do well in life. And identity that comes with culture and language, particularly if you're a minority… That can be really important.”

- Asia Media Centre