Sat, Jun 13, 2009 - Page 8 News List

On native-language rights and rewards

By Tiu Hak-khiam 張學謙

An Academia Sinica report entitled Social Ambitions of the Taiwanese Public, 2004 found that 65 percent of Taiwanese support mother-tongue education in schools. The ethnic group most in favor were the Hakka, whose support reached 74 percent.

Despite this strong support for native language training, the issue is frequently distorted by ideological concerns, the most common claim being that the call for native language training itself is ideologically motivated.

Even Chen Po-chang (陳伯璋), director of the Preparatory Office of the National Academy for Educational Research, has expressed criticism, saying that a recent decision to make native languages an elective subject in a compulsory language course that also offers English was a political decision and not based on expertise.

There is concern in education circles that this set-up will encourage students to choose English and that native language training will disappear from the elementary school curriculum.

So, is Chen’s position based on expertise or is it just partisan argument?

Jim Cummins, a professor at the University of Toronto, is an internationally renowned expert on bilingual education. He has proposed a theory of mutual interdependence of languages that claims the acquisition of second-language proficiency is built on the foundation of the mother tongue.

The mother tongue is not argued to be an obstacle to learning, but a resource for the acquisition of other languages. Cummins argues that educational institutions should provide children with a bilingual environment so that the two languages can feed off each other.

Cummins alerts us to the importance of native language training in stating that the mother tongue is the best educational medium. This point was also made by UNESCO in 1953 when it said the mother tongue was universally recognized as the best medium for educating children.

Another expert on bilingual education, James Crawford, has said the main reason it is so difficult to promote bilingual education is not that academic theory is lacking, but that information presented to the general public often consists of myths or prejudice disseminated by groups with a political agenda.

Taiwan needs to realize that the coexistence of several languages is a positive feature of society and not a justification for linguistic prejudice. The relationship between languages does not have to become a zero-sum game: We don’t need a diminished bilingual environment in which a mother tongue is abandoned to obtain a second language. Instead, the relationship between languages is additive; maintaining one’s mother tongue assists in the acquisition of other languages.

Language education planning today stands on the side of civic rights, not nationalism. Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights signed by President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) on May 15 states: “In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language.”

This shows that native language training not only coincides with the modern ideal of a state built on human rights, but also that it coincides in practice with the national interest. Blocking children from developing their mother tongue is not only a waste of national resources, it also violates the rights of the child.

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