Sat, May 12, 2007 - Page 8 News List

Language is never a first line of defense

By J. Michael Cole 寇謐將

As frictions in the Taiwan Strait continue without apparent sign of a resolution, some Taiwanese have reached the conclusion that language is another tool the nation should use for its defense.

Many commentators have claimed that teaching Mandarin in Taiwan only plays into Beijing's hands and brings Taiwan ever closer to unification. Instead, those pundits contend, Taiwan should redouble its efforts to teach Taiwanese and expatriates not Mandarin, but Hoklo (commonly known as Taiwanese) or other local languages.

The problem with this vision is that it is predicated on the false, albeit not uncommon, belief that language is the same thing as culture.

Just as separatists in Quebec, Canada, believe that nothing less than political independence can save their language (French) -- and therefore (in their view) culture -- from encroachment by a bigger neighbor, some Taiwanese have turned the argument on its head and argued that Taiwan can only achieve official statehood and retain its political independence from China by emphasizing local languages.

But language isn't culture. It undoubtedly informs it, and in turn is informed by it, but culture extends much further. If language were the equivalent of culture, we would, for example, expect to see cultural homogeneity among English-speaking countries. Based on this theory, there would be no divergence of ideas, mores and habits in London, Washington and Toronto.

Following the same mistaken logic, a Quebec separatist from Canada would culturally share more with France, Belgium or Switzerland than with the rest of Canada or the US. The fact of the matter is, Quebec is a product of its history and geography, and no amount of focus on teaching French will ever bring it closer to its European linguistic cousins.

The same applies to Taiwan.

Language, other than when it reflects the culture it comes from, is nothing more than an instrument for communication.

Undue focus on language when a culture or a country faces invasion, moreover, carries the risk of sapping limited resources that could be put to better use elsewhere.

A second aspect of language that must be taken into consideration is that its usefulness changes over time. There is no arguing that Hoklo, as a carrier of Taiwanese traditions, is of great value and therefore must be kept alive.

But the reality is that outside of Taiwan, Hoklo's worth as an instrument for communication is diminished. Whether Taiwanese like it or not, the lingua franca in the region is Chinese and, to a lesser extent, Japanese and English, just as English is the rule of the game in North America, regardless of what hardcore separatists would have us believe.

The appeal of and value for expatriates learning Hoklo is therefore mitigated by the reality of the times, as well as geography. Whether Quebec becomes independent or not, the desire in the US to learn French will not increase and English will continue to be the preferred instrument for conducting business. Hence most immigrants in the US send their children to English schools.

To believe, therefore, that Taiwan can hold the Chinese threat at bay by promoting Hoklo is to lend unwarranted value to small differences.

The true defenders of Taiwanese independence would be better served putting their energy into aspects of Taiwanese society -- its emphasis on democratic values, for instance -- that truly differentiate Taiwan from China.

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