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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 September 2007, 10:38 GMT 11:38 UK
'English village' opens in Taiwan
By Caroline Gluck
BBC News, Taiwan

village street
A "village street" includes, shops,a bank and boutique
It has been billed as Taiwan's first English language "village" - and it has just opened for business.

Every day, 120 students travel by school bus to the Happy English Village in Taoyuan county - about an hour from the capital, Taipei, for English immersion classes.

The "village" is actually attached to one of the county's elementary schools.

Ordinary classrooms have been transformed to look like an airport waiting room and customs area - complete with the fuselage of a real plane donated by a Taiwanese airline company.

There are other themed rooms including a hotel; a bank; a pharmacy, general store; restaurant and coffee bar; science and cookery rooms and a dance studio.

It is the idea of a non-profit organisation, the King Car Education Foundation, which has spent $1m on the project which it operates in a joint venture with the local county authority.

Global market

General director, Morgan Sun, says he got the idea after visiting similar immersion English villages which had opened in South Korea.

"Ten years ago, when I visit Korea, I found they spoke very poor English, like Japan," he told me.

"But when I visited last year, I found they have lots of English villages, and they improve their young generation, they speak better English than Taiwan kids."

Mr Sun, like many parents in Taiwan and in many parts of Asia, believes that a good command of spoken English is vital for younger generations to be able to compete in a fiercely competitive global market.

In Taiwan, children start learning English at third grade (from the age of nine) in elementary school.

Children on a plane in the Happy English Village, Taiwan
Children go through a mock airport onto a "plane"

But it is estimated more than 60% of all families in Taiwan's large cities send their children to private English classes - which can start from kindergarten.

Not only can they be expensive, classes are often crowded and the quality of teaching is variable.

Many local papers were quick to report that Taiwan ranked poorly in the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) in 2006 - used by many British and other foreign universities to assess the English ability of students - citing the figure as evidence that current methods of language teaching need to be improved.

Taiwan ranked 17th among the top 20 countries which had the highest number of people taking the language-proficiency test: behind Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam.

Mr Sun, from the King Car Education Foundation, told me that too much emphasis was given in schools to rote-learning and exams.

"English education is still like 40 years ago: you just remember the words and grammar and pass the test.

"But we have very few chances to talk to foreigners. I hope this village has lots of different foreigners they can talk to face to face and (it will give the children) confidence and interest to learn better English."

Life experiences

At the Happy English Village in Taoyuan, foreign volunteer teachers interact with groups of 12 children in each class. The emphasis is on speaking. There are no lectures or written tests.

The children I spoke to certainly seemed to be enjoying their experience.

"I feel good at this school," 10-year-old Kent Lee told me.

"It's different from my normal school."

"It's fun here. There are so many places to play, like a science class, a bank, a shop and airport," said 11-year-old Tony Yu.

For now, the children spend just two days at the village. But the King Car Education Foundation hopes that in the future youngsters will be able to stay for a week at a time.

It's also looking at other sites to open similar villages. Several other county governments in Taiwan are also actively drawing up their own plans to create their own English language immersion centres.

"I think the immersion method, with the hands on and more realistic environment is much more meaningful to the students", said retired American schoolteacher, Marlin Martin, one of 24 volunteer foreign teachers at the English village.

"They can relate their learning in class to something that's real to the world. (With) rote memorization, the knowledge doesn't stick; because there's nothing to hang it on in the kids' life.

"Students really have to have life experiences to remember what we're really trying to teach them."

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