Taiwan moves to attract more foreign students of Chinese

Open society, scholarships and use of traditional characters boost appeal of Chinese courses

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 October, 2013, 3:46am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 October, 2013, 3:46am

Taiwan has unveiled plans to dramatically increase its number of Chinese-language centres available to foreigners amid rising global interest in Sinology studies.

The island has long been a destination for aspiring Chinese speakers, who say they are attracted by Taiwan's open society, numerous scholarship programmes and use of traditional Chinese characters, but its language centres have recently faced increased competition from the mainland.

Both Taipei and Beijing see Chinese-language centres as a means to project a positive global image. In particular, Taiwan has sought to attract foreigners to boost its international profile against a backdrop of diplomatic isolation.

Under the new eight-year plan drafted last week by the Executive Yuan - the executive branch of the government - Taiwan will nearly double the number of independently operated Chinese-language centres. The number of general tutorial schools accepting foreign students will jump from three to 25.

International students living in Taiwan pointed to its free society and blend of cultures as factors behind their decision to move there.

"Taiwan is like a bridge between China and the world. Its society has been influenced by Western customs, but it hasn't lost its Chinese culture or its native Taiwanese customs," said Andrea Galarza, 21, a Honduran student at National Chengchi University in Taipei.

Like many students - particularly those from countries that are diplomatically allied with Taiwan - Galarza received a government scholarship of NT$30,000 (HK$8,000) per month for her studies.

Figures released earlier this month showed a 20 per cent annual increase in the number of students opting to take the Taiwan-developed Test of Chinese as a Foreign Language (TOCFL).

Similarly, between 2006 and 2011, the number of foreigners studying Chinese in Taiwan rose from about 9,000 to 14,500 - a trend that was bucked last year by a slight decrease.

Chen Po-hsi, the head of the body that administers the TOCFL, said the decline last year was due to competition from the mainland.

"The manpower and funding China devotes to Chinese-learning promotion is 20 to 30 times what is invested by Taiwan," Chen told The Liberty Times.

About 180,000 students each year take a Chinese-language test developed on the mainland, while about 30,000 take the TOCFL.

Unlike on the mainland, students in Taiwan learn traditional characters, which are considered by some to be more attractive and meaningful. Simplified characters - which utilise fewer pen strokes - were implemented on the mainland in the 1950s in a bid to increase literacy.

"Traditional Chinese characters were the main reason behind my choice to come to Taiwan," said Wesley Holzer, a Taipei-based news editor who passed the TOCFL.

"Simplified characters have always been less appealing to me, visually and culturally, and so my choices were basically Hong Kong, where the official language isn't Mandarin, or Taiwan. The choice was pretty obvious."