Wed, Jan 18, 2017 - Page 8 News List

Language: A tool for messages or identity

By Liu Chien-kuo, Chen Ting-fei, Kuan Bi-ling, Cheng Pao-chin

An alliance of pro-localization groups, formed to oppose the exclusive use of Hanyu pinyin to translate station names into English on the Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) line, protested outside the Ministry of Education in Taipei on Tuesday last week.

“The romanization used on road signs and public transport is intended for foreigners. Every foreigner learning Mandarin learns Hanyu pinyin, because it is the international standard. The decision has nothing to do with the nation’s self-determination or any ideologies, because the point is to ensure that foreigners can read the signs,” an official from the ministry said, responding to the protest.

The use of Hanyu pinyin for place names and street signs is nothing more than a tool to aid understanding and has nothing to do with politics, according to the ministry.

Following this logic, since only a minority of the world’s “foreigners” speak Chinese, only a minority learn Hanyu pinyin, which is somewhat different from English phonetics. For example, in Hanyu pinyin the letter “x” is used to pronounce the Chinese character 西 (xi), rather than “si,” which is closer to how it sounds in English.

The romanized names on the Taoyuan airport MRT are there for the benefit of all foreigners, not just those who understand Chinese. If a foreigner understands Chinese, they are able to read Chinese characters and therefore probably do not need to read any form of pinyn.

Since Taiwan’s Tongyong pinyin is closer to how English is actually pronounced and spoken around the world, — it uses “si” instead of “xi” — the new MRT line should use Tongyong pinyin. Kaohsiung’s MRT has used Tongyong pinyin for many years, yet foreign visitors and residents have no problem navigating the system.

If we follow the logic of the ministry, it should recommend to China that its airport metro systems use Tongyong pinyin, since the romanization of station names on China’s metro systems is for the benefit of all foreigners around the world, not just those who understand Chinese.

One suspects that the Chinese government would have something to say about that.

It would probably state unequivocally that Hanyu pinyin forms a part of the official language of China, it is a sovereign matter and that Chinese metro systems will not be using Tongyong pinyin.

Calling on Chinese metro systems to adopt Tongyong pinyin, based on the notion that the romanization of place names and street names has nothing to do with politics would — quite rightly — be seen as political interference in China’s internal affairs — and a violation of basic international norms.

A sound language policy should strike a balance between the competing arguments of language as identity and language as a tool.

In 2002 then-premier Yu Shyi-kun approved the use of Tongyong pinyin. Why does the ministry still insist on rolling out the extreme and highly ideological argument of Hanyu pinyin as “purely a linguistic tool”?

Liu Chien-kuo, Chen Ting-fei, Kuan Bi-ling and Cheng Pao-ching are Democratic Progressive Party legislators.

Translated by Edward Jones

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