Thursday last week was International Mother Language Day, which aims to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity. The event is of particular significance to Taiwan, where some communities’ mother tongues are facing decline or are threatened with extinction.
To mark the day, civic groups organized artistic and cultural activities aimed at raising interest in, and awareness of, mother languages. Some shops also played their part, for example by offering special discounts.
The Greater Kaohsiung City Government made posters and held a drama contest to encourage city residents to talk to each other in their mother tongues, and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairman Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) said that to respect mother languages was to respect different communities’ cultures.
What these groups and enlightened individuals who care about Taiwan’s mother tongues have in common is that they stress that the most important place for a mother tongue to be handed down is in the home. It is very valuable for parents to speak to their children in their own languages, so that the next generation has greater exposure to and knowledge of it. That is how mother languages can be preserved, not just in Taiwan, but throughout the world.
UNESCO chose Feb. 21 to celebrate International Mother Language Day each year and its purpose is to show the world the importance of preserving linguistic assets. It serves not only to promote the dissemination of mother tongues and cherish plurality in languages and culture, as a way to prevent the disappearance of most of the world’s languages, but also to encourage new thinking and promote mutual understanding through exchanges of ideas and opinions.
It is important for the nation to cherish its mother tongues, because in 2001, UNESCO listed Taiwan as a place where some mother languages are on the verge of extinction.
According to internationally accepted standards, the nation’s dozen or so Aboriginal languages are all threatened. Apart from these, two other important mother tongues — Hoklo (commonly known as Taiwanese) and Hakka are also in decline and approaching a critical state whereby they may finally disappear.
Former vice premier Yeh Chu-lan (葉菊蘭), who was born in a Hakka village, once aptly described the crisis faced by mother tongues in Taiwan, saying that Aboriginal languages were already in intensive care, Hakka was in the emergency department and Hoklo was registering for treatment.
Mother languages in Taiwan are in critical condition, and outsider regimes that have ruled over the nation are the main culprits. The blame lies above all with the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) authorities that exercised authoritarian rule over the nation for a long period following the end of World War II.
During this period, the KMT authorities gave sole recognition to the “national language” — Mandarin Chinese — while the spoken and written languages of all other communities were labeled as “dialects” and suppressed. The use of languages other than Mandarin at public events and in the media was severely restricted, and Taiwan’s community languages were completely banned on school campuses.
Notably, the Romanized Hoklo Bible that was in use before the 1895 to 1945 half-century of Japanese rule, was banned, as was religious preaching in Hoklo.