Wed, Jul 26, 2017 - Page 8 News List

EDITORIAL: Linguistic preservation complications

There has been much buzz about Taiwan’s languages lately. As per the Aboriginal Language Development Act (原住民族語言發展法), passed in May, local governments last week began to issue official documents entirely or partially in Aboriginal languages.

President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) posted a photograph of the first such document, entirely in the Amis language, on Facebook on Wednesday last week.

Other languages are also clamoring for attention. Late last month the first national Hakka radio station hit the airwaves, while civic groups in Kaohsiung on Saturday called for the government to establish a Hoklo (commonly known as Taiwanese) public television station.

Speakers of Hakka, Hoklo and Aboriginal languages say their languages have suffered for decades under the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) aggressive Mandarin-only policy, and fear that their languages could become extinct in the near future.

While Aboriginal languages are the most endangered, we should not forget that Hakka and Hoklo also need to be preserved. Government measures can go a long way in raising the prestige of these languages — especially since it was once considered shameful (and even punishable) to speak them. It would also provide incentives for people to learn the languages, as well as having them taught in schools.

However, teaching them at school is a complicated affair, as classes might be comprised of students from various ethnicities, as well as those with mixed parentage. Taiwan is not like Switzerland, where speakers of the four official languages each more or less neatly occupy a portion of the country. It is also not like Singapore, where, despite the official language being English, each person is expected to be proficient in their “mother tongue.”

In Taiwan, the “mother tongue” is more like a foreign language to the majority of local children, whose parents and even grandparents are used to speaking to them in Mandarin. Changing this situation is crucial and the most difficult part. All Taiwanese students learn English in school, but that does not result in an across-the-board proficiency in English. There is also the risk that these languages might become a hated subject, making students even more averse to speaking them.

It is great that the government is addressing this language decline, but, like learning English, ultimately it boils down to how motivated the speakers are, as well as how often they use the language with their family members and within the community. How to encourage parents to speak in their “mother tongue” with their children is something that linguistic preservationists around the world struggle with, and there are few successful cases to date.

There is also the issue of practicality. Languages are crucial for identity and culture, but purely from a practical standpoint, would it not be more useful to learn the much more widely spoken Hoklo, as many Aborigines have already done? Unfortunately, being proud of one’s culture and identity does not put food on the table. There will be Aborigines who learn their languages to enjoy the benefits of the proposed Aboriginal language certificate, but that would not mean much if they still speak Mandarin with their family.

The issue is further complicated by young people leaving their communities to work in bigger cities that might not have the cultural environment and educational resources available in their hometowns, but what incentive do they have to not leave?

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