Mon, Mar 11, 2002 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Adrift on an island of babel

No matter how hard we try, political correctness seems to elude us. Take our page 1 lead headline yesterday "Hokkien should be given official status, says TSU." Hokkien? We did consider the alterna-tives. "Hoklo" is linguistically more accurate, but not immediately recognizable to many of our readers. "Taiwanese" has problems in that it sounds like the language of the people of Taiwan as a unitary group and there is of course no such thing. "Minnan?" Why use a Mandarin name when it is the very cultural imperialism of Mandarin in the life of Taiwan that the Taiwan Solidarity Union's movement seeks to undermine. "Fukienese" is surely something spoken in China -- the language we are trying to name is spoken in Taiwan and contains many words from Aboriginal languages and Japanese that the variant spoken in Xiamen-Zhangzhou does not. So, what's an editor to do?

Defer to a higher authority, perhaps. The problem is that there is no higher authority that doesn't have an ax to grind on this issue. Normally the editor's bible for Taiwan-related stuff is the Government Information Office's ROC Yearbook. But the GIO was long the stormtrooper of KMT/mainlander/Mandarin cultural hegemony. This might have changed with the change of government -- we await the 2002 Yearbook with interest. But one thing the Yearbook does tell us is that Taiwan has two distinct types of Hakka, two distinct types of Hokkien, a third version of Hokkien which is a mixture of the other two, and of course at least nine Aboriginal languages. And of course there are those who speak only Mandarin.

So that isn't much help. But it does at least suggest that the linguistic situation in Taiwan is far richer and more complex than the TSU lawmakers referred to in our headline admit. We sympathize with their end, which is of course to break the Mandarin-based cultural hegemony -- which still survives -- imposed on this island by the colonial KMT regime, but are deeply skeptical about their means. It seems unfair to elevate Hokkien to the status of an official language and not give Hakka similar treatment. And while Aboriginal languages are many and spoken by few, all Han Chinese in Taiwan would do well to remember that the Aboriginals were here first and are victims of a historical injustice that the "Taiwan for the Taiwanese" movement -- of which the TSU is the most vociferous part -- unsurprisingly keep very quiet about.

What particularly disgusts one about the TSU plan is that that the party's lawmakers want the Ministry of Education to expand the amount of Hokkien studies in schools. Let us be clear, expand the amount of time spent on mother-tongue education by all means, the more the better. But that is very different from studying Hokkien exclusively. Why should Hakka and Aboriginals be forced to learn yet another language not their own, forced on them by another powerful group? The TSU's proposal sounds exactly like cultural imperialism imposed by Hokkien speakers to replace the cultural imperialism of Mandarin speakers.

And yet there is one realm in which change beyond increasing mother-tongue education might usefully be made -- in the public service. It is high time that the public-service exam contained a section on mother-tongue proficiency, in effect ensuring that all recruits to public service were proficient in Mandarin -- still the lingua franca, whatever the TSU might wish -- and another language of Taiwan. The result would surely be a public service more responsive to the public it serves, with an intake which would better reflect Taiwan's ethnic diversity. It would also have the advantage of giving mainlanders -- at least those who wanted a public service career -- an incentive to study one of the nation's languages and hopefully better integrate into society thereby. Now there is an objective the TSU might honorably pursue.

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