Mon, Jun 08, 2009 - Page 8 News List

Power plays that cut out tongues

By Cheng Cheng-yu 鄭正煜

Ten years ago, curriculum standards for elementary and high schools were redrafted and expanded into nine-year guidelines for compulsory education. Under pressure from people active in promoting indigenous culture, the Ministry of Education was compelled to include Hoklo, Hakka and Aboriginal languages alongside Mandarin under the category of national languages.

One day I went to observe meetings of the drafting committee.

To my consternation, I saw that that the three conveners who were native speakers of the non-Mandarin languages were absent.

After further enquiries, I found out that these committee members thought the meetings were a waste of time.

Their reasoning was that Taiwanese mother tongues had been defined as “optional” subjects within the national language category and therefore few would choose to study them.

In response, the Taiwan Southern Society mobilized 12 legislators and 25 academics for a meeting with then minister of education Kirby Yang (楊朝祥), asking for two hours of compulsory native language classes per week to be included in the curriculum for grades one to nine.

Finally, thanks mostly to the efforts of five members of our team, including professor Yang Wei-zhe (楊維哲) and pastor John Tin (鄭兒玉), the native language group chaired by convener Chen Po-chang (陳伯璋) passed a motion requiring one hour of mandatory native language classes to be included in the curriculum for grades one to nine.

But when the proposals were sent to the general program drafting group for discussion, we were surprised to see that our decision had not been placed on the agenda.

I asked the executive secretary of the group what had happened, and the reply was that “politics is politics and education is education.”

It seems that in the minds of bureaucrats, learning languages other than Mandarin in the school system is a matter of political privilege, not a right.

After much wrangling, one hour of native language classes per week was included in the final version of curriculum outlines, mandatory for elementary schools but optional for high schools.

As it turned out, very few high school students chose to take these classes, so they ended up as an extra-curricular social activity — or were dropped altogether.

At this point, Chen stepped in again. Now director of the Preparatory Office for the National Academy for Educational Research, Chen said that education policy on languages was determined by power plays rather than specialist knowledge.

He also said that determining whether a language course would be optional or compulsory was based not on educational considerations but politics.

Chen’s observations back up rumors circulating about how Ministry of Education committees treat native language courses in elementary school, namely that provisions for native language acquisition shall be “flexible” and that students must choose between studying a native language or English. Inevitably, therefore, everyone would choose English.

The outcome of all this would be precisely what Premier Liu Chao-shiuan (劉兆玄) once suggested when answering legislators’ questions: that children are perfectly capable of learning their mother tongue at home.

The survival of native language teaching in elementary school is now in question, and there is talk that a final decision will be made on the issue within weeks.

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