In 2017, Taiwan’s National Development Council under the Tsai Ing-wen administration unveiled Bilingual 2030, a national policy to become a bilingual English-Mandarin Chinese nation by 2030. Taiwan invested NT$30 billion (U.S. $982 million) into the initiative focusing on K-12 students, university students and its civil service. The government’s aim with Bilingual 2030 is to boost the competitiveness of Taiwan’s future labor force in global markets, enable them to gain better job opportunities and higher salaries and attract international enterprises to Taiwan.
Though Taiwan only has a population of 23.5 million, its 2022 gross domestic product amounted to about $761.69 billion USD — ranking it #21 in the world — and is projected to reach $990.75 billion by 2028. Taiwan is crowned as one of the “Four Asian Tigers” alongside Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea — the Southeast Asian countries that experienced rapid industrialization and economic growth beginning in the 1960s and 1970s. Taiwan earned the title initially through its export-oriented economic strategies of exporting semiconductors, electronic components and computer hardware.
Currently, Taiwan plays a vital role in the global supply chain, specifically in the technology sector. They are still a major producer and exporter of high-tech products. Taiwan’s tech companies dominate about “two-thirds of the semiconductor foundry market share with Taiwan Semiconductor Market Company (TSMC) controlling 84% of the production for the most advanced and efficient chips.” As a result, an increased number of “multinational corporations have invested in Taiwan in recent years, and demand for local talent with bilingual proficiency has also increased.”
Further, the United States’ goal of trying to ‘decouple’ from China, meaning, trying to significantly decrease or sever economic dependence on Chinese supply chains, technology and trade in order to avoid national security risks and intellectual property theft has the potential to strengthen trading ties between Taiwan and the United States. From Taiwan’s perspective, this is another reason for their Bilingual 2030 pursuit — to increase its competitive advantages and international mobility to gain trading partners going forward, especially against competitor suppliers like Brazil, India and South Korea.
Taiwan’s economic come up story and current success appear phenomenal at first glance. However, a closer look reveals that for both exports and imports, Taiwan’s “relative importance within global trade has fallen steadily since 2000.” In 2000, Taiwan ranked 14th in the world via exports, accounting for 2.3% of total world exports; in 2019, Taiwan ranked 17th in world exports, reducing its share of total exports to about 1.7%. Similarly, the bilateral trade relationship between the United States and Taiwan has greatly diminished. The United States has fallen to the fourth — from the first — largest trading partner for Taiwan since 2000.
China and ASEAN (The Association of Southeast Asian Nations) members such as Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines and Maynamar have had a competitive advantage over Taiwan through cheap labor and large domestic markets — attracting more foreign investment and trading partners — a key explanation for Taiwan’s diminishing trading relationships.
In addition, Taiwan’s domestic workforce is predicted to steadily decline over the next decade. 2022 was a year with a historically low number of births and the most deaths ever, indicative of Taiwan going into a negative growth by 2031. Consequently, Taiwan’s economic structure is no longer “labor-intensive, it is technology-intensive,” and now needs to fill shifting industry and talent shortage demands in “biomedicine, green energy, defense, modern agricultural and the circular economy.”
To counter the low fertility rates and push to create a ‘Silicon Valley for Taiwan,’ Taiwan also seeks to gain 400,000 white-collar foreign workers by 2030 with at least 20,000 being Silicon Valley-adjacent innovators and 200,000 overseas students. Despite this goal, Taiwan suffered a 5% decline in total foreigners from 2020-2021 — with some critics arguing Taiwan can make itself more expat-friendly, such as boosting English-speaking rates.
Coupled together — a decrease in global trade, diminishing trading relationships, negative population growth, shifting industry demands amidst talent shortages and a decline in needed expats explain why Taiwan is desperate to recruit foreign technical workers and boost its labor force. More so, it explains why Taiwan sees becoming a bilingual English-Mandarin nation as a key facilitator to these goals and overall productivity growth. Taiwan can’t supply a cheap, domestic labor force like China and ASEAN members did to increase exports and certain trading relationships. But, Taiwan can boost its English proficiency as a means of reducing barriers to foreign investment and facilitating itself as a a hub for multinational firms looking to enter the Asian market.” Likewise, Taiwan can hope to outcompete Hong Kong. Singapore, India and the Philippines where English is widely used in business, governmental and professional sectors.
The Bilingual 2030 policy realizes Taiwan’s shifting demands and meets them with a twofold policy. Its first aim is to “help Taiwan’s workforce connect with the world,” and secondly, to “attract international enterprises to Taiwan and enable Taiwanese industries to connect to global markets and create high-quality jobs.” For these aims to be achieved, Taiwan’s workers must not only align their professional expertise with international standards, but also collaborate with counterparts from other countries and work in global markets targeted by Taiwan’s industries.
Bilingual 2030 will stress college and senior high school education, supplemented by integrating English proficiency at all stages of education. In 2021, 21% of grade 12 and 6.5% of grade 9 students reached the B2 level (high-intermediate level) or higher on the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) for Languages, statistics that make 2030 bilingualism achievable. However, their high performance in receptive skills, reading and listening, were incongruent with their mediocre performance in writing and speaking — which is precisely what Taiwan wants to improve. The Ministry of Education has formulated six goals to bridge writing and speaking gaps and achieve bilingual proficiency.
First, accelerate the development of bilingual higher education. The Ministry of Education plans to select universities that are able to speed up the implementation of bilingual teaching and make them a beacon for other Taiwanese universities. The ministry will collaborate with the British Council to provide consulting to universities in hopes of achieving the 50-50-50 target by 2030 — at least 50% of all university sophomores should have achieved B2 in listening, speaking, reading and writing, at least 50% of all sophomore and master students should have done at least 50% of their credits in full English for that academic year.
Second, balance and optimize bilingual conditions for schools at the senior high school level and below. At a glance, this means enhancing students’ ability to use English in daily life, having STEM schools integrate more English, and adopting all-English teaching in English classes. Further, Taiwan seeks to form partnerships with the U.S., U.K. and Australia and have Taiwanese schools establish sister-school partnerships with these target countries — specifically to conduct online bilingual classes. By 2030, Taiwan hopes to have “one in every six schools nationwide to establish a partnership with a foreign sister school.”
Third, develop digital learning. The Ministry of Education aims to distribute technology to remote areas to bridge proficiency gaps between urban and rural areas. Likewise, Taiwanese university students with higher proficiency will online-tutor remote and disadvantaged students.
Fourth, expand the provision of affordable English proficiency tests to gauge the progress of Bilingual 2030. With the support of the Ministry of Education, Taiwan developed their own English proficiency test — about a half to one-third the price of foreign English tests — to increase access for more rural, economically-disadvantaged demographics.
Fifth, raise civil servants’ English proficiency. Bilingual 2030 will initially focus on the civil service whose work is integrated with international affairs and where English is pertinent to their job. In the future, English will be taught to all civil servants and the portion of English testing on civil service exams will be increased.
Sixth, establish an administrative body dedicated to policy promotion and implementation. Bilingual 2030 is still a novel and nebulous long-term initiative and requires various stakeholders to collaborate and reach a consensus. The Bilingual Policy Development Center will “assist with the horizontal integration of measures relating to education, examinations, and training across 31 related government agencies. It will provide these agencies with vertical specialized services ranging from policy research to policy execution and consolidate international cooperation efforts under the policy.”
In addition to the six initiatives, Taiwan has plans for multiple other ancillary initiatives. For example, there are plans to have “government regulations, policies, and websites in legally binding English” eliminating translation barriers to foreign businesses. The government will also “promote the establishment of an exclusively English-language television station, and both TV and radio broadcasters will be encouraged to produce English-language programming.” While Bilingual 2030 is still ongoing trial and error with each municipality and school having to acclimate the policies to its students, it’s a significant step for the island’s future.
Taiwan faces various economic challenges which will only be exacerbated in the face of rapid globalization, the rise of AI, its volatile relationship with China and competition from neighboring countries. However, Taiwan can control its future by endowing its workers and future generations with bilingualism, global perspectives and international mobility.