English scores low in college test
Taipei Times
Jul 24, 2007

By Hugo Tseng Tuesday, Page 8
The grades for the University Entrance Exams this year
have been announced. The results provided by the
College Entrance Examination Center show that of all
the subjects in the exam, the grades for the English
section were the lowest. Nearly 5,000 of the examinees
scored zero in English composition, and more than
20,000 got the same grade in translation.
As before, I graded the non-multiple choice sections,
evaluating the tests of 1,800 students from all over
the country during four days of work from 8am to 8pm.
It was exhausting to say the least. Countless poorly
written examination papers passed through my hands,
and although I was horrified by the results, they
didn't surprise me.
The non-multiple choice portions of the English
section of the exam covered the usual
Chinese-to-English translation and composition. The
number of blank answer sheets this year was as high as
usual -- about 10 percent of all exams and, for some
exam venues, even rising to 30 percent or 40 percent.
Of the answer sheets that weren't blank, it was
apparent a lot of students had given up on the
translation section. Perhaps the topics were too
difficult, or maybe the students were nervous, short
on time, or didn't know where to start; or perhaps
they were aiming for the highest return on their
efforts and gave priority to the composition section,
for which they could earn more points.
The fact is if the students had just tried to
translate parts of the section, they could still have
earned some points. The examiners award points where
they can if the examinees make an effort to fill in
everything, even if they simplify the vocabulary or
change the structure of a sentence.
However, if a student hands in a blank answer sheet,
and doesn't even make an attempt at the translation
section, we have nothing to work with, no matter how
much we would like to help.
This is much like interacting with a person in a
foreign language. If you don't say a word and just
stand there mutely, the other person has no way of
knowing what you mean. But if you open your mouth and
speak, there is communication. Even if your
pronunciation is off, or your grammar is incorrect, or
you use the wrong word, the other person can use what
you do say to guess your meaning.
In the end, this is what communicating in a foreign
language is about. Similarly, if the translation or
composition section is left blank, there is no hope
for the student to get any points at all. Only if the
students put their pens to paper and write do they
have a chance.
This year's assignment for the English composition
section was to imagine a world without electricity and
explain why it would be good or bad. Most of the
students wrote about how without electricity they
would not be able to watch television or movies or
play video games, there would be no air conditioning
or electric fans, and they would have nothing to do in
the evening but go to bed early.
Students who filled in this section had their own
opinions about the subject -- good or bad. We
respected all these opinions in grading their
compositions, and whether we agreed or not did not
affect our grading. This seemed to be an assignment
that students could do well in, yet only about one in
100 wrote a really good composition.
This year there were students who earned the full 20
points for this section, but the highest I awarded was
19 points. This high-achieving student wrote about how
we would lose everything we took for granted if there
were no electricity and how that would make us
appreciate the real meaning of life. The student's use
of words was concise, and the sentence structure and
grammar weren't overly showy. The content of the
composition had substance, the narration was clear and
the whole essay was almost philosophical. The one
point I subtracted was for some minor spelling
mistakes, and the ending seemed a bit hurried.
As to the translation section, which counted for eight
points, the students had to translate from Chinese
into English sentences such as: "The fast development
of public transport has gradually reduced the distance
between city and country" and "With the high speed
railway, we can go from the north to the south of
Taiwan and back in half a day."
The types of grammatical mistakes seen were the same
as last year -- those few deep-rooted problems that
are difficult to correct, such as spelling long or
difficult words. However, the misspelling of words
that should be in the basic vocabulary of an
elementary or junior high school student astounded me.
In the first sentence "public" or "mass" were both
good translations for "public transport," but on the
exam sheets we often saw "mess" and "republic,"
"poblic," or "politic."
For "country," we also counted "village" as correct.
But we also saw a lot of "contry," "county" and
"countery," and "vallige," "villege," "villige" and
"vallage." "Distance" was often written as "distence," "disdance," "distense" and even "instance." "Railway" could also be translated as either "rail" or "railroad," but many students translated it literally from the Chinese as "iron way." For the "half" in "half a day" we often saw "helf," "hafe," "have" or "harf." Even Taiwan, the country where these students were born and raised, was not spared. Seeing "Taiwen," "Taiwai," "Tawain, "Tiawan," "Taiwei," "Taiwa," "Tawan," "Tiawin" and "Twain" made us graders frown and sigh in desperation.
With so many students unable to spell "Taiwan," the various grotesque mistakes that were made in the words "south" and "north" didn't come as a surprise. There were all kinds of strange spellings for "south," like "soth," "sorth," "soulth," "sounth," "soath" and "sourth," but the different spellings of "north" weren't any less unconventional, with renditions like "noth," "nouth," "nourth," "nerth" and "nort," and even a lot of misspelled "east" and "west" could be seen.
This large amount of errors from students who seem to be completely clueless about English spelling is there for all to see. Why are the English spelling skills of Taiwanese students so bad? Even worse, students' English ability may be only the tip of an iceberg of problems.
In this era of globalization, this lack of English ability among high school students is worrying. Perhaps it's time to investigate the root of the problems in the English educational system.

Hugo Tseng is an associate professor of English at Soochow University and secretary-general of the Taiwanese Association for Translation and Interpretation. Translated by Anna Stiggelbout