Sat, May 29, 2010 - Page 8 News List

Language prejudice a growing issue

By Su Fu-hsing 蘇復興

National Taiwan University professor Chen Yu-wen (陳毓文) has conducted extensive research into the academic achievements of the offspring of mixed-race couples — where one of the partners is a non-native speaker — in Taiwan. She discovered that on the whole, these children performed well academically and some were quite outstanding. Her research is a reminder that although the majority of foreign spouses come from developing nations, their children can and do still do well at school and that people should never be judged on the basis of appearance.

In the field of psycholinguistics, it is accepted that the minds and intellects of children born into bilingual or multilingual families are more flexible than those of their peers. Parts of Chen’s research broadly agreed with this view and her work indirectly proved that the offspring of new immigrants are capable of impressive academic achievements, which makes it doubly important that they do not lose confidence in themselves.

However, the study also found that the children of new immigrants face social obstacles. In particular, it was found that classmates often teased them by calling them names like “Thai laborer” (tailao, 泰勞) and “Filipino maid” (feiyong, 菲傭). Children sometimes tease their mixed-race classmates, saying: “Teacher, he will only understand you if you speak to him in Indonesian.”

Such comments are hurtful and can traumatize students on the receiving end. These incidents demonstrate that in many cases students in elementary and high schools have already developed negative perceptions of the children of new immigrants and come to the conclusion that the languages their foreign parents speak are not in the same class as Mandarin or other Chinese dialects.

Unfortunately, this is not the only case of this sort. There was an incident in which a Taiwanese employer in Taipei County forced a female Indonesian worker to work overtime and demanded that the employee, a Muslim, eat pork, which led to a debate about human rights violations. The occurrence of such incidents have made me realize that some Taiwanese lack respect for people from certain racial groups and for the cultures of certain nations and that these psychological inclinations are closely related to subconscious linguistic prejudice.

Jonathan Green, an academic from the UK and an expert in racial issues in the US and the UK, is well known for his ideas on the subject. Green believes linguistic prejudice stems from stereotypical ideas about races and nations.

While these stereotypes are unfortunate, they do exist and they elevate racial language to a new level that is grayer and more obscure than outright racial maliciousness. Green has noted that while linguistic prejudice is not always easy to identify, language can hurt people.

The experience of the US and major immigrant countries in Europe has shown that linguistic prejudice often leads to racial and cultural disharmony. These experiences also show that three factors — linguistic prejudice, race and culture — sometimes reinforce each other in ways that often result in social conflict.

In essence, Taiwanese society is tolerant and integrative, but as the number of immigrants and the number of children born to interracial couples increases, Taiwan’s population structure will inevitably change. Under these circumstances, racial and cultural differences are sure to increase and language barriers are unavoidable.

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