By Phoenix Hsu and Chen Chih-chung, CNA reporters
Chi Jo-yao, CNA staff writer
Seven years ago when Principal Huang Mu-yin (黃木姻) first came to Dong An Elementary School in Taoyuan City, she discovered it was suffering from a low enrollment rate because some parents were reluctant to send their children to the school due to its "exotic" feature.
The school is located in a neighborhood outside the Taoyuan metropolitan area, so its housing rents are relatively low, thus it attracts urban commuters, indigenous people and immigrants to move in and settle down.
"Our school has students from more than 20 ethnic groups. Among the 750 students, nearly 130 were new immigrants and another 130 were indigenous children," Huang told CNA.
Mainstream parents were worried enrolling their children in a school with so many immigrants' children would expose them to an academically inferior environment.
To Huang, however, such a distinct feature was the school's chance to become unique, compared to other urban campuses.
"What a shame it would be if the schoolchildren are ignorant about the school's multicultural environment," Huang said. "It is our job to let students realize the diverse cultures with lessons and activities."
So instead of shoving aside the rich mother tongue and culture of the students and their immigrant parent, most of whom were mothers from Vietnam or Indonesia, Dong An Elementary School in 2012 started multicultural education and encouraged students to learn Vietnamese and Indonesian.
Over past several years, Huang has successfully turned Dong An into a popular school where not only children of immigrant parents are fond of learning their mother's language and culture, mainstream Taiwanese students are also keen to learn to speak the languages of new immigrants.
( Dong An Elementary School )
"A good education broadens students' horizons and we achieve that at Dong An by promoting cultural awareness on campus," Huang said.
Southeast Asian language training now offered throughout Taiwan
Little did Huang know back then that the school was pioneering what years later became a Taiwan-wide education policy.
In late June, the Ministry of Education (MOE) approved the new curriculum guidelines, which went into effect starting in September when a new school year began and which provides the option for students to study at elementary school one of seven Southeast Asian languages, aside from Taiwan's existing Minnan and Hakka dialects and indigenous languages.
The new immigrant languages include Indonesian (Bahasa), Cambodian, Thai, Burmese, Filipino (Tagalog), Vietnamese and Malay. It's the first time they were written into the curriculum of the 12-year compulsory education systems, according to the MOE.
One of the reasons why this new policy has been adopted is because of the changing demographics in Taiwan, where there were 187,839 foreign spouses married to Taiwanese people as of July 31, excluding those from mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau, according to government data.
Among the foreign spouses, 107,440 (or 19 percent) were from Vietnam, 30,246 (5.5 percent) from Indonesia, 9,893 (1.8 percent) from the Philippines, 9,026 (1.6 percent) from Thailand, and 4,332 from Cambodia (0.79 percent), the data shows.
Instead of looking down on or considering new immigrants and their children to be a burden on Taiwan, Taiwanese society over the years has begun to realize the value of ethnic diversity and to see the immigrants and their offspring as assets which can help Taiwan form closer economic and other ties with neighboring Southeast Asian countries.
Such links are considered especially needed as relations with China have been tense and as the current government is keen for the local economy to rely less on the Chinese market.
Dong An school and its Principal Huang have not only served the school well, they have also inadvertently helped Taiwan recognize the value of immigrants and cultural diversity.
The school is now a role model for other schools nationwide and Huang and Dong An's teachers have helped develop the textbooks for teaching the languages.
How Dong An did it
When Huang started to promote multicultural education at Dong An seven years ago, she had to start everything from scratch because the teachers were not familiar with the concept.
Parents also had lots of questions regarding the school's new policy. Some of them even questioned the need to learn Southeast Asian languages.
To engage the students' families in the multicultural program and because there were no Southeast Asian teachers available, Dong An encouraged parents with immigrant backgrounds to become teachers at the school and to make children's books in Southeast Asian languages as (ad hoc) textbooks.
"We trained the parents in teaching techniques and some of them later became qualified teaching support staff," Huang said.
Meanwhile, to make sure that students are immersed in a multicultural environment, Dong An also provides a nonstop learning process, including language courses during the school years and language workshops during the winter and summer breaks.
Besides teaching the languages, the schools' teachers also find every opportunity they can to teach the students about the cultures -- from the Thai water splashing festival, to Vietnamese traditional clothing, as well as famous scenic attractions in those countries.
Huang said that the children may not be able to understand why some people wear a headscarf and may dislike the fragrance of curry or fish sauce, but they must respect the distinguishing characteristics of every different culture.
"Through learning the new immigrant languages and their cultures, students will also learn to respect, understand and appreciate those cultures," Huang said.
After years of effort, Dong An started to receive positive feedback.
Dong An student Chen Pei-chi (陳沛芹) found learning Indonesian and Vietnamese at school quite "useful" because she had the chance to practice those languages with her mother's Southeast Asian colleagues. Chen's mom is a Taiwanese person who works in Thailand.
Chen also found the activities in the course interesting because she can learn about Indonesian culture from them.
"I can try Indonesian cuisine and wear traditional Indonesian clothing in class," Chen said. "I really enjoy experiencing the country's culture."
Wu Li-ling (吳俐陵) and Wu Hui-ling (吳蕙伶) are students and teacher's assistants of Dong An's Vietnamese language course, whose parents both came from Vietnam.
The two were encouraged by their parents to learn Vietnamese at school.
"Learning Vietnamese is interesting because we can practice the language with our family," Wu Li-ling and Wu Hui-ling said.
They have also gained a stronger understanding of their cultural roots.
How to teach Southeast Asian languages island-wide
To prepare for the new language courses, the MOE's K-12 Education Administration has trained 2,465 teachers to teach the seven mother tongues of immigrants, Tsai Chih-ming (蔡志明), a division chief at the administration, told CNA.
Online Skype classes will also be provided for students in remote areas. Through such courses, teachers can teach students in different places at the same time to resolve the possible problem of insufficient teachers, Education Administration Director-General Peng Fu-yuan (彭富源) said.
"Even if there's only one student selecting the course, it will still be open no matter what," said Peng.
The number of qualified teachers, however, may not be the only challenge in the near future.
MOE statistics indicate that in the 2019 school year there will be around 6,000 new immigrant children (not including those whose parents are from China, Hong Kong and Macau) enrolled in elementary schools as first-graders, but a mere 2,513 of them are expected to sign up to learn one of the newly-offered immigrant language courses.
Tsai suspected the low willingness to learn one's mother tongue could likely be linked to the self-confidence of both the students and their new immigrant parents, who are mostly not from a high social-economic background.
After new immigrant language courses are given for a certain period of time, the ministry will invite education experts to conduct research to understand why students, especially those with new immigrant backgrounds, have opted not to study those languages, Tsai said.
A different way of learning languages
To make learning the languages more useful for the students, they will use textbooks that are compiled with the priority goal of inspiring students to speak, instead of having them focus on learning the alphabet or writing as the traditional way foreign languages are taught in Taiwan.
Unlike the teaching of Mandarin or English in Taiwan, which starts with the phonetic system "bopomofo" or the alphabet, the MOE-created learning materials for new immigrant languages focus on real life situations and encourage students to speak first.
These include greetings and family conversations, with spelling, reading and writing to be taught later in higher grade levels.
Tseng Hsiu-chu (曾秀珠), principal of New Taipei's Beihsin Elementary School and head of the city's new immigrant language advisory group, said the new approach is intended to attract and motivate kids to learn immigrant languages.
Tseng's school started to experiment with the new curriculum in 2018 and a Malay teacher named Ng Poh Hoon (黃寶雲) has followed the strategy laid out in the new textbooks.
"When I was a student, I did not like to sit and listen to the teacher lecturing all the time," Ng said, adding that she asks her students to role-play and talk to each other in Malay in class most of the time.
She also prepares activities such as playing the traditional Malaysian board game Congkak or trying Malaysian dessert ondeh ondeh because she believes the understanding of culture is crucial to language learning.
Tseng always reminds teachers at her school that they have to let students like the foreign language first, to make them want to learn it. Also, she hopes parents can treat new immigrant language and culture courses with a positive and open mind.
"In terms of cultures, there's no good or bad, just different," said Tseng.
Dong An school's Principal Huang agreed.
"We now have enough qualified teachers and proper teaching materials," Huang said. "What we still need are parents' support for and students' interest in the new curriculum."
"Rather than cramming students with knowledge, I believe the new curriculum will inspire students to go on learning by themselves and parents will have more positive responses if they see the changes," Huang said.