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A Proposed Inquiry on the Use of English Text in Taiwan on Signs and Billboards: Motivations and Impact on Designers 陳美祥 Mei-Hsiang Amy Chen 環球科技大學應用外語系專任講師 歐書華 Christopher J. O’Brien

國立雲林科技大學應用外語系專任助理教授 Abstract This paper establishes the need for a complex, multi-part study of how English texts are used in promotional and other publicly-viewed designs in Taiwan, and how and why the English used is written, chosen, accepted, and viewed by the public. The current paper focuses on the first stage of this long-range study, considering billboards and signs on display in public places. One of the primary areas of interest here is the evident desire of many business owners to use English in their promotions, despite frequently having no desire to use the English correctly: a mysterious attitude for people who spend their money on large displays. The findings regarding motivation and actual procedures leading to the production of these signs will be determined, at this stage, with questionnaires given to four groups of people: business owners, sign designers, consumers from Taiwan, and foreign nationals living in Taiwan. Based on these responses, the true state of English usage in Taiwan will be understood. The findings will guide the researchers’ recommendations for what information is important for EFL teachers to share with students who are design majors in Taiwanese universities and colleges; it is hoped that this will help rising designers to help raise the quality of their profession and use English well in future, raising the public face of Taiwan for the scrutiny of international visitors, which hopefully will help to promote respect for the nation on a larger scale eventually. KEYWORDS: Design, billboards, signs, English, Broken English, questionnaire, EFL, design 1



A Proposed Inquiry on the Use of English Text in Taiwan on Signs and Billboards: Motivations and Impact on Designers by Mei-Hsiang Amy Chen, Christopher J. O’Brien, and Others In modern Taiwan, English, or at least the approximation of English, is on view almost anywhere you choose to look, at least in public areas. It does not comprise a majority of the text, but most establishments, signs, and plenty of products and apparel display at least some English. Since most of the material that is not merely decorative also has Chinese writing, it is unlikely that the English is included for the information of the local public. This begs the question: For whom is this English provided? Of course, there are international people present in Taiwan, and a large number of them cannot read Chinese, so it might arguably be for them, but these signs and products all cost money to produce, and it would hardly be worth the cost to cater to or to be courteous to this minority group; they make up a statistically insignificant portion of the consumers here; it is not likely because this motivation is not a profitable one; acting this way, the businesses would not be likely to get a good return on their investment. The abundance of English is evidently something that design students ought to understand well, and prepare themselves for; even better, educators who train these students should be proactive and make the students aware of the situation. There is at this moment much about this cultural phenomenon which is in need of clarification before this can be done; it has many puzzling aspects and self-contradictions, so that the overall trend of using English here does not appear to make sense. If more information is gathered on the people involved—those who use the English and the consumers who spend money on the English-bearing products—the information can be analyzed and understood, so that instructors of English for design students could make a positive impact on this situation, and some of the seeming inconsistencies might be resolved. There certainly appears to be a need for somebody to take action, and an opportunity for teachers to make a difference. 3

There are several likely motivations for the early adapters of this practice to have started using English as a key feature in their designs. First might be a desire to make information more accessible to foreign visitors or residents. While this is clearly true in some specific instances, it is probably not a primary motivation, as so much of the text conveys little in the way of actual informational content. Another likely explanation is that English has been included in the design for the sake of its impression on viewers and consumers. To specify further, a business might feel that using English in its product packaging or signs gives consumers an international impression, and so would enhance a feeling of sophistication and internationalism: that it is less provincial than competitors’ products that only use Chinese. On the other hand, consumers may choose products that use English because it makes them look cool, rather than for the text’s meaning. The thing that is most mystifying, and frequently amusing to native speakers is that so much of the English simply is not a good representative of what we we would consider English as used by natives. There are multiple reasons why this is so. One is found in “knockoff” items which pretend to be made by famous companies, but in fact are only imitations, using these better known companies’ copyrighted trademarks and slogans, but with minor alterations, as if to mitigate the infringement. This is particularly evident in Adidas and Mickey Mouse knockoff items. These changes often include rearranging, omitting, adding, or simply altering certain words or letters, usually in fairly random ways that result in nonsense text. Also common is simply using random letters or words that do not follow any specific model—clearly, not intended to be read at all, but only for decorative effect. Sometimes, English is included which is chosen or written especially for its meaning. At times, this is well chosen, whether or not it is quite intended to convey a message; often, it complements the design or mood of the rest of the design. Some of this text is copied from various sources, such as song lyrics or poetry. At other times, the writer either tries to write something original in English from the start, or else writes something in Chinese and then converts it to English later. The really odd thing about all of this is that very often, the English is flawed—frequently, amusingly and in


baffling ways. Generally, though, the English sense is broken in minor ways, such as poor word choice, grammatical errors, or odd word order. Now let us suppose that companies use English in design because in one way or another it is expected to increase profits—obviously this is a prime consideration for any business owner. To create a product or manufacture a sign costs money: the company clearly does so with the expectation of having a satisfactory return on this investment. Businesses are in the business of making money, after all, instead of losing it. So why is it that these companies are willing to pay for these items, and sell them, without even a reasonable attempt to make the English correct? This is fairly mysterious as a business decision, but it is very common here in Taiwan. When this happens, the results can be embarrassing—for foreign consumers and colleagues, at least, even if the employers themselves remain oblivious.

Purpose The purpose of this paper is to establish a means of understanding the motivations and purposes behind this English usage, so that in later stages of this study, English faculty members who teach design students at the college level will be prepared for this instruction, and can therefore prepare their students. It is hoped that the actual goals of those who use English for signs will reconcile their practices, at least in the rising generation, to the use of reasonably correct, or at least suitable, and always meaningful English.

Study Questions The main questions are: 1. Who determines what English is used? 2. Who decides that English should be used? 3. Why was this decision made?


4. Whose responsibility is to approve the product before it is either constructed or produced? 5. What specific goals are behind the decision to use English? 6. How successfully are these goals being met? 7. To what degree is the use of English (of varying qualities) responsible for the success of these goals?

Methodology Though English is placed on view in many types of public locations, this study will focus, at this initial stage, on billboards and signs created in Taiwan, specifically in the Central Taiwan area. We want to gather information on many specific examples of people involved in this trend: employers, designers, and both Taiwanese and foreign consumers: the four groups to be given questionnaires at this point. For each of the groups mentioned above, a questionnaire will be devised and distributed, and the results tallied. These findings will help the researchers to determine what the real situation is regarding the use of English on signs and billboards in Taiwan. Responding to this information and consulting his or her own goals, instructors will be able to make informed decisions about how and what to teach. The intention is to have teachers train students in how to effectively meet the expectations of their employers and the buying public, and be able to either use, or advise in the use, of good English in the process. Since English is typically used as the international common language, how it is used will be part of the user’s impression on others. Taiwanese businesses, individuals, and the ROC as an entity hope to enjoy international respect and custom; right or wrong, it is human nature to judge and evaluate others. So if Taiwan or any of its representatives use English poorly (according to “standard English� norms), they will be more likely to be determined unprofessional and ignorant of the larger world, resulting in less respect and international business instead of more. All in all,


this pattern seems likely to result in a loss of what Asia calls “face.� These findings may be of use to prevent such an undesirable outcome, for bad English can be avoided. After all, to have weak English skills is a personal, individual problem; displaying this weakness in public, and spending good money to ensure that it is noticed by a wide audience, is simply a bad decision, and likely selfdestructive behavior. When this happens to a company or corporation, one must wonder how such errors were able to make it to the final stage without being corrected. The entire body of personnel is reflected upon as being incompetent to do their own business properly, so their work is cast into suspicion—loss of custom is a natural result. This is wholly avoidable, and there really is no good reason to let this sort of disgrace happen.

Expected Results In general, it is considered probable that the designers of signs are permitted to concoct or select their own preference of English texts for their signs, aside from official company slogans or names. It is further expected that non-informational English is primarily included in signs (and by extension, other products) because it is eye-catching, and for that reason, the actual meaning of the English that is included is devalued by the employers, to the point that errors are, far from being sought out, are simply not noticed because the text is ignored by later stages of production; those who pay the bills are interested in sales, not design details, so if it sells, it is acceptable. Consumers cooperate with this by, for the most part, not concerning themselves with the English details, either; in fact, in actual experience, when asked about the English text on clothing items, students have no idea what they are being asked about, and have not especially noticed that the design included words per se. But there is more involved than mere personal preferences. We have seen how Westerners get tattoos permanently inked into their skin with Chinese characters which either make little sense, or are positively ridiculous or offensive to those who can read them. Those who can read Chinese


(or, frequently, Japanese) mock these people and consider them foolish. That is a personal gaffe brought about by various levels of indifference about details, and an overriding desire for a cool look; the characters may even be chosen for their appearance rather than their meaning. Alternately, the customer ordering the tattoo may care about the meaning, but the tattoo artist is either personally confused, careless, or misinformed about the characters’ meanings, but does not inform the client of this, so that the client decides to simply trust the tattoo artist that the characters convey the intended meaning, rather than seeking verification from one who is more reliable and knowledgeable about Chinese. One person with poor Chinese—in a non-Chinese-using setting—is a bit of a private, personal disgrace; a company with a big, expensive billboard that effectively advertises the company’s deficiency of skill at English—in a culture where every youngster is required to study English for at least seven years—is a disgrace on an entirely different level. As it is said, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure; it is worthwhile to make an effort to save the company’s face, and the students who will benefit from this study’s findings need to understand this so that they can protect their employers’ image. It is expected that the designers are typically given free rein to put any English that they wish, and the boss does not insist on using proper English; nor are customers sensitive to errors, in most cases, for despite being obliged to study English, a small percentage of students in Taiwan seem to become proficient at its use. The mindset seems to be that since English is merely a foreign language, it does not really matter how it is used; it is only a token usage to begin with, so control is left lax. The proposed research project is already in its planning stages, although the actual research has not yet begun. Initial drafts of the questionnaires have been prepared. The other steps of the current stage of this study are as follows: 1. Finalizing questionnaire questions 2. Locating and recruiting participants 3. Conducting the questionnaires


4. Keying in the results of the questionnaires 5. Doing statistical analysis of the findings 6. Interpreting the data 7. Writing the report on the findings and their meaning 8. Conference or publication

Suggestions for Further Study In later stages of this study, a wider range of products that use English—involving, therefore, a larger variety of designers and companies—would be consulted. As a result of this research, it is likely that a textbook can be written that is specifically designed for use in EFL college classes of design majors in Taiwan. Certainly, publication of the study’s findings and conclusions, as well as conference presentations, are likely. Interviews can be added to this study to get a more qualitative view and additional insights from people involved in the industry. Interviews with sign-designing professionals, consumers, and employees could help the researchers to get a metaphorical snapshot of representative views of this phenomenon, also including the instructors’ speculation of the experience of active designers’, employers’, and consumers’ expectations and impressions. This information could later compared to the study’s actual findings; there is likely to be some degree of disparity between the two sets of data. The researchers hope to determine a way to demonstrate whether there is or is not a positive correlation between using English in signs and increased sales or profits, and whether the quality of that English, be it proper English or flawed English, and suitable or poorly-suited choices of texts, have any influence on profits, sales, and the type of customers who give these companies their business. Auxiliary studies could be undertaken to find evidence to support our tentative hypothesis that good English, chosen well in the sign or poster’s context, would (or at least should) be more


effective at attracting customers, including specifically those with enough English ability to appreciate the distinction. This latter type of customer is the same type that is more likely to be put off from doing business with companies that employ broken, poorly-chosen texts, and to form a negative impression of the company; it is also the group to which most Western foreigners would belong, along with native Chinese users who have good English ability as well. Another test could contribute to the knowledge of the researchers: showing various signs of different qualities to randomly-chosen volunteers, and asking these people to specify, on a Likert scale, how good the English is, how suitable it is to the context of the sign or advertisement, and how effective it is at inspiring consumer interest in the product or service being promoted. There has already been at least one study of this nature that was undertaken by students in Dou Liu’s National Yunlin University of Science and Technology, and that study’s findings will be consulted and compared with our own. This can help to substantiate the correlation between consumers, English, and the advertising’s effectiveness, and also it can serve to evaluate how strong average consumers’ English actually is. The signs used for these ratings would vary, as suggested above, in the quality of their English, from proper English to gibberish, and from well suited to very poorly suited texts in the context of the promotion of which they form a part. It is expected that in general, educational level would have some correspondence with English sensitivity.

Conclusion This first part of the study will focus on signs and billboards, and will lead to later stages which have a broader scope of English use and of participants; the overall goal of the entire project is to determine what the actual situation is in Taiwan regarding the use of English in a primarily Chinese language setting like this one, and from this information determine what would be valuable to inform design students of, via textbooks and EFL instructors teaching groups of design students.


Ultimately, a better body of English texts that will be visible to the public on a daily basis cannot but help the English of the residents of Taiwan, for good input can promote better ability, and bad input cannot be helpful at all. Particularly, bad examples should not be made prominent in public places where youngsters, who are unable to distinguish good English from bad, will absorb whatever is around. Young people actually are led to believe by a snack food product that “Good good eat!” is the way to express approval for a delicious food in English, as one passing example. This is detrimental to the English ability of the nation, and it is much harder to relearn something that was learned incorrectly at first than it is to simply learn it right the first time. If this habit of using bad English in public places is curtailed, and better habits substituted in its place, it may enhance Taiwan’s international ‘face’ situation, and cause international visitors and news program watchers to revise their opinion about what Taiwan is like. Acting foolish in public makes a bad impression: it is that simple, and it is avoidable, and our project can make steps towards a more desirable impression on the minds of the world.


Sign Design Draft