A holistic language policy
Taiwan is a multilingual country in a multilingual ASEAN context. It deserves a holistic language policy that respects this fact.
The “official bilingualism” advanced by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration would be as damaging and alienating as the Mandarin “official unilingualism” imposed by the Chinese National Party (KMT) for decades. It would work against the natural linguistic diversity of Taiwan.
First, the facts. Contrary to the claim of Lee Po-Chih (李博志) (“Bilingualism beneficial for Taiwan,” Dec. 13, page 8), Singapore is not “bilingual,” but has four official languages: English, Mandarin, Tamil and Malay — with the last constitutionally enshrined as the national language. Most of the other countries he listed as “bilingual” — the Philippines, Malaysia, India, Pakistan and Nepal — legally recognize several languages.
Take legal matters as an example of the potential damage: Rushed implementation of official bilingualism risks introducing unintended side effects in Taiwan’s legal system, which already has enough problems. Translators for the legal texts, to be deemed as equally authentic, would be hard pressed to hastily reproduce the delicate compromises obtained years ago in the legislature.
The textbook lesson is the Stauder v City of Ulm case (1969), in which the European Court of Justice had to interpret four-language versions of the same law whose plain reading did not match one another.
Are Taiwanese lawyers ready for such jurisprudence as soon as 2030? Not if the “criminal bulletin board” I spotted recently in front of a Tainan courthouse is any indication (read: “bulletin board for criminal cases”).
It took a decade of work before the 1997 handover to prepare the Chinese text of the Hong Kong statute book. Singapore statutes are only available in English. The city-state also stifled its own linguistic diversity through the Speak Mandarin Campaign.
National Development Council Minister Chen Mei-ling (陳美伶) said in her interview (“Minister outlines blueprint for bilingual nation,” Dec. 17, page 16) that the colonial background of Singapore and Hong Kong “help[ed]” their bilingualism.
Is colonialism or the geopolitical status of Hong Kong seriously what the DPP wishes for Taiwan?
Likewise, it is difficult to understand why the DPP administration is competing with Kaohsiung mayor-elect Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) by promoting official bilingualism in this fad-chasing way. All this at the expense of tongues like Hoklo (commonly known as Taiwanese), Hakka and the Aboriginal languages — alienating these communities.
Hoklo has especially been left by the wayside: Even though it is the mother tongue of a majority of Taiwanese, there is still no state-funded public service television station for it, unlike the other native tongues.
Every time this is raised, cries of “Hoklo chauvinism” resound, but such an accusation is never directed at policies to force-feed Mandarin or English.
Chen’s response to the question “Will the bilingual policy suppress efforts to preserve mother-tongue culture?” was shockingly cavalier.
She simply told us: “No need to worry about that,” changed the subject to talk about “digital technology,” and went on reading from her press briefing.
Instead of piecemeal “official bilingualism,” let me repeat my exhortation for the third time in two decades: Taiwan needs a holistic language policy (Letters, Jan. 12, 2000, page 8; Jan. 21, 2017, page 8). The best way to proceed is a national languages development act, as proposed by the Ministry of Culture (“Hakka group slams caucus whip’s comments,” Nov. 15, 2017, page 3).
There are university professors with expertise: Tiunn Hak-khiam (張學謙) and Shih Cheng-Feng (施正鋒) in Hualien, and Wi-Vun Taiffalo Chiung (蔣為文) in Tainan. They could help develop a holistic policy respecting Taiwan’s multilingual diversity, including the use of English and Mandarin.
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