The MOFA challenge: getting diplomats to speak ASEAN languages

2018/05/15 19:04:21 fontsize-small fontsize-default fontsize-big
Image taken from Pixabay

Image taken from Pixabay

By Joseph Yeh, CNA staff reporter

For decades, Taiwanese diplomats focused on sharpening their skills in the foreign languages most commonly used around the world, such as English, Spanish, French, and Japanese.

But most of them have little knowledge of languages spoken in Southeast Asia, even though tens of thousands of men and women from the region have come to work in Taiwan or are married to a Taiwanese spouse.

So when President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) took office in May 2016 and initiated a New Southbound Policy to reduce Taiwan's economic dependence on China and strengthen ties with Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members, there was a new urgency to build up the proficiency of Taiwan's diplomats in ASEAN languages.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), which is responsible for producing the country's top diplomats, has taken up the challenge to address the language gap.

Addressing language gap

Its most important initiative came in 2017 when it added two new language categories -- Vietnamese and Indonesian -- to the Civil Service Special Examination for Diplomatic and Consular Personnel, the national test used by MOFA to select its future diplomats.

In the past, the examination had 13 different language tests but only two, Thai and Malay, that were exclusively spoken by ASEAN countries.

When the new languages were added in 2017, 13 candidates participated in the Indonesian test, and four in the Vietnamese exam, and one participant from each earned a job with the ministry, according to MOFA.

Beyond recruiting new blood, the ministry has since 2017 required Taiwanese staff at all of its offices in ASEAN countries to study the local language, and a total of 73 people are now participating in language classes.

In addition, young diplomats are being sent to ASEAN countries for language training, an initiative that dates back to before the launch of the New Southbound Policy.

According to MOFA spokesman Andrew Lee (李憲章), the ministry was sending people abroad for language training as early as 1997, but it was only in 2013 that the training link-up with ASEAN countries become an annual routine.

As of August 2018, the ministry will have sent a total of 21 diplomats to Indonesia (9), Thailand (6) and Vietnam (6), for language training.

Twelve of the 21 were sent prior to 2016, while the other nine will have been sent since the inception of the New Southbound Policy, but Lee said the ministry is increasing the frequency at which it is sending staff to ASEAN countries.

More study programs for young diplomats

Aside from learning the language itself, Lee said these trainees also take courses on the law, trade issues, international relations and diplomacy related to the ASEAN country they are visiting to sharpen their professional skills needed for their future jobs.

Fenny Chiang (江瑜婷), a young diplomat who joined the ministry only two years ago, is one of the three young MOFA people who will be traveling overseas for such training in August.

She will be visiting Thailand and study at its prestigious Chulalongkorn University for 10 months to sharpen her Thai.

Chiang told CNA during an interview earlier this month that she studied Thai in college because of her personal interest in the Thai TV drama she saw back then and the beauty of Thai script.

She took two semesters of Thai in college and decided after joining the foreign service in 2016 to apply for the overseas language training program.

With her familiarity with the language and the renewed emphasis on relations with ASEAN members, she was a perfect candidate for the project in Bangkok.

Such language training has proven invaluable for Taiwanese diplomats, and Frank Yen (顏銘男), a secretary at Taiwan's representative office in Hanoi who was trained in Vietnamese from 2012 to 2013, may know that better than anyone else.

"Being able to speak Vietnamese with local officials and diplomats gives me an edge in my work," he told CNA during a recent phone interview.

"It's like in Taiwan, if a foreigner can speak some Taiwanese, local people will have a more favorable impression of you and feel closer to you," he said.

Yen said he was one of the first Taiwanese diplomats to receive language training in Southeast Asian countries when he was sent to Vietnam for a 10-month language course in 2012 soon after he passed the entrance exam to be a diplomat earlier that year.

Having originally joined the diplomatic corps because of his proficiency in English, Yen said he always wanted to learn another foreign language to give him an edge on the job.

His first choice was Portuguese, but then he learned of the chance to be sent to Thailand or Vietnam. He opted for Vietnam and went to a language center in Hanoi for 10 months of one-on-one sessions.

After completing his training, he returned to MOFA headquarters in Taipei before being dispatched to Taiwan's representative office in Hanoi in July 2015 for his first overseas assignment as a diplomat.

He was grateful for the training he received because unlike in Thailand where most diplomats speak English, making it unnecessary for foreign diplomats to speak Thai, most diplomats in Vietnam cannot speak English, according to Yen.

Currently more than 20 Taiwanese work in the Hanoi representative office and only five of them, including himself, are able to speak Vietnamese, Yen said.

The office has arranged local teachers to teach its Taiwanese staff Vietnamese during lunch breaks or off hours to beef up their communication skills, he said.

Yen expects that with the launch of the New Southbound Policy, the ministry will spend more to train young diplomats in local languages, and he also suggested that MOFA offer more incentives to young diplomats to encourage them to learn new languages.

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