English as a prestige language in Taiwan

« previous post | next post »

The focus of this post is the expression lào yīngwén, where the yīngwén part is written 英文 in characters and means "English".  The lào part is much more complicated, as is typical when it comes to writing Taiwanese morphemes with Chinese characters.  The Taiwanese verb "làu" means to master something.  When used with reference to a language, it signifies speaking fluently.  In current discourse, it often indicates that one speaks English in an ostentatious manner to show off.  For example, if a Mandarin speaker chooses to speak English on an occasion where everyone in the audience also also speaks Mandarin, then this person's behavior may be considered lào yīngwén. It carries a slight negative tone.

There is no standard Sinographic form for this Taiwanese morpheme.  In written Taiwan Mandarin, it may be written with the following characters:  lào 烙, liào 撂, luò 落.  Since these three characters respectively mean "burn; bake; sear", "put down; leave", and "fall; descend", they are obviously being used to approximate the sound of the Taiwanese verb and have nothing to do with its meaning.  The same is true of the traditional Sinographic representation of this Taiwanese morpheme, viz., lǎo 老 ("old").

Although excellence in English affords many benefits, there are countercurrents to the growing influence of the language.  The following article examines the subtle nuances of people who critique the term:

Hsi-Yao Su, "The Discourses of lào yīngwén:  Resistance to and Subversion of the Normative Status of English in Taiwan", ch. 11 in Henning Klöter and Mårten Söderblom Saarela, eds., Language Diversity in the Sinophone World:  Historical Trajectories, Language Planning, and Multilingual Practices (New York, London:  Routledge, 2020), pp. 229-249.

Here are the Abstract and  beginning parts of Su's chapter:


Analyzing language attitudes toward English in Taiwan, this chapter explores the slang term lào yīngwén, roughly meaning 'to speak English fluently (in a showy manner)', often with a jocular and disapproving connotation. The analysis is based on data collected from well-known bloggers' posts about lào yīngwén. These data are used to investigate the subversive reactions to the normative status of English as a global language and as a symbol of workplace competitiveness. In other words, these posts represent competing discourses on the use of English in a non-English, sinophone environment. The use of English becomes more widespread globally, and this chapter contributes to a general understanding of the many ways in which English is discursively constructed and ideologically represented as playing particular roles and indexing particular identities, personae, or images in various local contexts.


English changes a child's future.

(by U.S. KIDS Language School)


I spotted this slogan outside of a children's private language school right across from an elementary school in my neighborhood in Taipei. As a linguist, I found the message rather amusing: Every language changes a child's future if we consider the idea of linguistic relativity (or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) which, put simply, argues that the structure of a language affects speakers' worldviews (Whorf 1956). But clearly, the slogan does not relate to the Whorfian concept that any language necessarily affects the ways a speaker conceptualizes the world. Instead, it highlights the importance of English (as opposed to other local languages) for social mobility and career advancement.

Slogans like this and the underlying enthusiasm for English are, in fact, very common in Taiwan. A glimpse at the government proposals for the promotion of English reveals this predilection. In 2002, then-President Chen Shui-bian 陳水扁 proposed that English be designated as an official language. Along the same line, in 2003, then-Premier Yu Shyi-kun 游錫堃 announced that English was to be adopted as a semi-official language in eight to ten years. The goal was not pursued by the Ma Ying-jeou 馬英九 government (2008-16) after Chen's presidency, but in 2018, the Executive Yuan, the executive branch of the Taiwan government, announced Blue-print for Developing Taiwan into a Bilingual Nation by 2030, in which "bilingual" refers to Mandarin Chinese and English. In the educational realm, the starting grade of English classes in the standard curriculum has lowered significantly in the past two decades. In Taipei and some other major cities, pupils start English classes in grade 1. In a similar fashion, private language schools and bilingual or even all-English kindergartens are quite prevalent, especially in metropolitan areas.

These rapidly changing developments pertaining to English are one reason the PRC government is so anxious to annex Taiwan.  The situation is similar to what happened in Hong Kong this past summer with the passage of the National Security Law.


Selected readings


Update (Dec. 13, 2020) from Grace Wu: 

In this video, Minister of Health and Welfare, Chen Shih-chung 陳時中, usually speaks Mandarin, but suddenly he speaks a few fluent Taiwanese sentences. Shows very good Taiwanese speaking ability that is called “撂台語 lok tai-gi”.


[Thanks to Nick Kaldis and Melvin Lee]


  1. Neil Kubler said,

    November 29, 2020 @ 11:08 pm

    Certainly English is a prestige language in Taiwan and government officials as well as educated people in general agree that English language education needs to be strengthened, lest Taiwan fall behind its East Asian neighbors. However, among both educators and the general populace, there is skepticism — even ridicule — that Taiwanese will truly become bilingual in English; few people take this seriously. Regarding Su's chapter cited above, note that the BLUEPRINT FOR DEVELOPING TAIWAN INTO A BILINGUAL NATION BY 2030 refers to English and 中文 "Chinese", NOT "Mandarin Chinese". While Taiwan has 國家語言 "national languages" (Taiwanese, Hakka, the aboriginal languages, and Taiwanese sign language), legally speaking it has no 官方語言 "official language". Mandarin is, of course, what most people now speak most of the time, but it actually has no legal status. I respectfully disagree with the author that increased emphasis on English education in Taiwan is a major reason why China is "so anxious to annex Taiwan"; the details are totally different from the National Security Law in Hong Kong. Finally, regarding the position of English in China, English education there has been somewhat deemphasized since Xi Jinping came into power; the proportion of English vis-a-vis Chinese on the gaokao exam has been reduced, and as I can attest from personal experience, in English classes for undergraduates, there is now sometimes a preference for English translations of Chinese original texts (including the Confucian classics!) rather than original American or British or other original writings, lest the latter serve as a "Trojan horse" for bringing in unwanted ideas about democracy, human rights, etc.

  2. Terpomo said,

    November 30, 2020 @ 10:37 am

    It seems to me like there's not enough acknowledge of native English speaker privilege. Obviously there's native speaker privilege in a general sense (native speaker of the language of the society you live in) is a thing, but English as the lingua franca makes English as a native language a privilege on a global scale, and the free time and linguistic aptitude to acquire it fluently (which is helped greatly by being able to afford to spend a few years in an English-speaking country) a lesser privilege as well. That's part of why I support Esperanto, because I believe the current system that privileges Anglophones is fundamentally unjust.

  3. Philip Taylor said,

    November 30, 2020 @ 1:45 pm

    When I was TEFL in the Czech Republic some years ago, Terpomo, I had as my T/A a young Czech girl of maybe 11–13. Her English (and her accent) were absolutely perfect, yet she had never visited the U.K. or any other English-speaking country. Her knowledge of the language, and her accent, were acquired by a combination of good teaching (by a native Czech speaker) and watching English-language television. So, I would argue, "being able to afford to spend a few years in an English-speaking country" is not necessary in order to become a fluent English speaker with a near-native accent.

  4. cliff arroyo said,

    December 1, 2020 @ 2:02 am

    @Phillip Taylor, I'm not sure how that scales up… (and what is T/A? 11-13 seems a bit young to be a teaching assistant… not to mention child labor laws).

    The big problem is that native and non-native speakers want/need different things (that often conflict) from English. Native speakers want an expressive language that expresses their national identity and non-native speakers care a lot less about both – AFAICT they want a dependable, useful tool that doesn't threaten their identity. I've encountered evidence of the conflict but it seems to be mostly ignored within EFL..

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    December 1, 2020 @ 11:20 am

    Cliff, perhaps I should have said "is not always>i>necessary in order to become a fluent English speaker with a near-native accent".

    And yes, T/A = "teaching assistant", almost certainly unpaid, but as with everything associated with this particular summer school, everyone associated with the venture (including myself) did so entirely voluntarily and without any expectation of payment. In fact, I did not even know that I would be doing TEFL when I arrived in the Czech Republic (from Poland) but on my arrival my host asked how far I had driven, and when I told him (500km), asked if I would mind driving another 100km and explained the reason — the summer school which his wife co-organised had been running for several years, but had never before had the opportunity to engage a native English speaker as a tutor. Of course, I agreed without hesitation, and that evening gave my first talk ("the dialects of the United Kingdom") with zero preparation. After that, each day we did rôle play (I asked to be allowed to ditch the formal syllabus, and the organisers kindly agreed) and at the end of the week everyone said how well the rôle-play idea had worked out and how well it had been received. In turn, we tutors received free meals and free board-and-lodging for the week, the bills being met by the organisers.

  6. wanda said,

    December 1, 2020 @ 4:05 pm

    @terpomo: Yes, and written English is such an unnecessarily complex language too. I have a 4 year old, and earlier this year, I started teaching him to read using the book "Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons." After the 100 days were over I switched him to another series of books to designed to teach native speaker children to spell and write in conventional English, and today will be day 270. I realized around day 40 of the "100 Lessons" that we were Spanish speakers, we'd mostly be done. We could have spent the last 230 days focusing on vocabulary, expression, and understanding things like idiom and metaphor instead of how to decode and spell words with silent e's or -ough. It's a travesty to expect people all over the world who are adults and who don't have a very patient mother spending 45min a day with them to master these stupid rules.

  7. Bob Ladd said,

    December 1, 2020 @ 5:27 pm

    @ terpomo: There's no doubt that being a native speaker of English is a privilege in today's world, but substituting Esperanto would be at best a partial solution, because would still help maintain European privilege more generally. Whatever exactly Esperanto is, it's not the "international" language equally accessible to anyone in the world that Dr. Zamenhof hoped it would be; it's fairer to call it a "pan-European" language. Phonetically, orthographically, morphologically, lexically, etymologically, and syntactically it's overwhelmingly and obviously European.

  8. John Swindle said,

    December 2, 2020 @ 4:00 am

    Wouldn't Esperanto be a lovely, neutral second language for Europe, though, if English were somehow to falter?

    Elstara honkonga eks-esperantisto asertis antaŭ jaroj tion, ke la meza chino povus lerni pli facile la tibetan ol la nia kara. Mi ne scias, ĉu pravas tiu vidpunkto. E-o estas tamen kiel diris Bob Ladd nepre eŭropa lingvo. Legante esperantlingvajn romanojn mi foje sentis min mezmeze de Eŭropo, de iu Eŭropo de la menso, eĉ neniam vizitinte tiun kontinenton. Ankaŭ mi taksas min de jaroj eks-esperantisto, sed volonte mi vidus ekflori la lingvo.

  9. Terpomo said,

    December 2, 2020 @ 9:18 am

    Better spelling for English would certainly be good for native English (personally I'd prefer a somewhat regularized version of the current system, to minimize break in continuity.) However, sensibly-spelled English wouldn't be any more of a just international language.
    @Bob Ladd
    Phonetically – well, its phonology is somewhat European, yes.
    Orthographically – in that it uses the Latin alphabet I suppose, but it's the most widespread script in the world, what other script should an international language use? Even in China children learn pinyin before they learn many characters.
    Morphologically – I would say Esperanto's morphology is actually one of the most un-Indo-European parts of it, being agglutinative rather than fusional. What European language forms the plural accusative by the addition of successive plural and accusative morphemes, and forms it the same on adjectives and on nouns referring to people of a different gender?
    Lexically – most of Esperanto's words are of European origin, but so are most of the world's most widespread words. If English is only my native tongue, or English words are only present in Hindi or Indonesian, due to colonialism that does not make it any less my mother tongue, or make those English loans any less part of a monolingual Hindi or Indonesian-speaker's vocabulary.
    Etymologically – I'm not sure what the distinction you're making between etymologically and lexically is here.
    Syntactically – customary Esperanto syntax is somewhat European-influenced, but it's certainly capable of being quite un-European. See the following example:
    Nipatr', kies est' cxielas, igxu via nom' sankt'.
    Viu la regnalven'.
    Igxu via la volfar', kielas en la cxiel', tiel ankauxu surtere.
    Hodiauxu cxiutagpandon' nin.
    Kaju la pardon' al niofend', kiel ankauxas nipardon' al ofendintoj niaj.
    Kaju nea nia konduk' entent', sedu nia la liberig' de l' malbon'.
    For more information, I'd suggest these pieces by Claude Piron:
    @John Swindle
    Pri la vidpunkto de tiu honkongano mi sincere dubas. La tibeta pli-malpli ne havas rekoneblajn kognatojn kun la hanaj lingvoj kvankam ili ja (diste) parencas, kaj la gramatiko ne tiom similas; ili krome ne havos la simplan gramatikon, produktivegan vortfaradon kaj rektan rilaton inter literoj kaj fonemoj de E-o kiel helpilojn. Mi krome ne konsentas, ke esperanto estas tiom nepre okcidenta- legu la supre ligitajn artikolojn de Piron. Cetere vi parolas tre bone, kiel eksesperanisto kiu supozeble ne uzas la lingvon de longa tempo.

  10. Philip Taylor said,

    December 2, 2020 @ 6:48 pm

    Terpomo — What is the significance of the multiple occurrences of an apostrophe in the stretch of text commencing "Nipatr', kies est' cxielas, igxu via nom' sankt'" and the complete lack thereof in the stretch of text commencing "Pri la vidpunkto de tiu honkongano mi sincere dubas" ?

  11. John Swindle said,

    December 2, 2020 @ 9:37 pm

    @Terpomo: Thanks. I was drawn by Zamenhof's "internal idea" for Esperanto, something like peace and friendship. I was subsequently discouraged very specifically by the bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia, the land where Esperanto flourished perhaps more than any other (if I quote Spomenka Štimec correctly) and which furthermore had its own shared language. What good did either do? On the other hand (a) it wasn't the Esperantists who tore Yugoslavia apart and (b) the thin net of friendly Esperanto speakers still exists around the world.

    @Philip Taylor: In general the apostrophe in Esperanto marks a grammatical ending omitted for the sake of poetry. Terpomo may want to speak to the specific text. More conventional translations of it can be found here: https://eo.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patro_nia

  12. Philip Taylor said,

    December 3, 2020 @ 2:01 am

    Thank you John — all is now clear.

  13. Bob Ladd said,

    December 3, 2020 @ 2:53 am


    It’s true that Esperanto morphology is more agglutinative than fusional, but the inflectional and derivational categories (e.g. plural, accusative, feminine) are typically European. That’s not to say those categories don’t occur elsewhere in the world, but plenty of languages (like Chinese) get by just fine without them. Same applies to morphological categories that are not used in Esperanto (e.g. ergative, shape gender, focus) – their absence is typically European.

    That’s related to the distinction that I was drawing between lexical and etymological. The Esperanto lexicon – the set of things that Esperanto has words for – is European. Kinship terms provide the most obvious example. No distinction between elder and younger sibling; no distinction between same-sex and opposite-sex sibling; no distinction between aunt/uncle by blood or by marriage (actually, a few European languages have that); etc.

  14. John Swindle said,

    December 3, 2020 @ 7:42 am

    @Bob Ladd: You mentioned syntax. Esperanto famously has 16 rules. I wonder whether the other, unspoken, underlying rules that would explain how Esperanto is actually used may be Indo-European or even specifically Slavic. I couldn't begin to prove that, though.

  15. Terpomo said,

    December 3, 2020 @ 12:21 pm

    @John Swindle
    I wasn't aware that Esperanto was particularly popular in the former Yugoslavia, having only ever met one Esperanto speaker from there.
    @Philip Taylor
    The specific text is in something called Esperant' which is an attempt to speak with syntax as strange as possible without technically violating any of the inviolable rules of Esperanto.
    @Bob Ladd
    Lots of languages outside of IE have plural nouns and case-marking of some sort. Even Chinese has some form of pluralization, though it's not mandatory. Having a feminine derivational affix doesn't seem that weird at all- as far as I know even Chinese and Hungarian have that. As for ergativity, shape gender and focus- you aren't suggesting those would be good features for an auxlang to have, are you?
    And as far as kinship goes, that does happen to be the system popular in Europe, but it's present in plenty of other places too- you'll note the term for it is Eskimo kinship.

  16. Bob Ladd said,

    December 4, 2020 @ 5:49 pm

    Terpomo: I wasn't suggesting anything specific about what an auxiliary language SHOULD have, I was just commenting on the complex of characteristics that Esperanto does have.
    Oh, and I just figured out what your nom de plume means.

RSS feed for comments on this post