Saving Hoklo needs action
If I were to give an example of one of the bigger differences in schools between now and in the past, I would have to say the use of Taiwanese language, or Hoklo.
In the 1980s, the government prohibited the speaking of Taiwanese in schools. Anyone found breaking this rule would be placed in front of the class with a sign hanging from their neck and fined NT$5.
I myself was caught on more than a few occasions. For me, Taiwanese was my primary language; nobody spoke Mandarin at home.
There is no mystery as to why I am so fluent in Taiwanese; kids back then were raised in an immersive Taiwanese-speaking environment.
Children nowadays — not only in the north; in south Taiwan, too — rarely hear Taiwanese spoken at school. I sometimes use Taiwanese while teaching and there are invariably students who do not understand what I am saying.
On such occasions, I have to revert to Mandarin, or say the phrase in both languages. Those who can speak Taiwanese mix up the tones.
However, what I find strangest of all is that I mostly speak Taiwanese at home, and yet my own daughter can hardly speak the language.
When she was in elementary school I corrected her pronunciation a few times: she mangled the tones like a foreigner mangles Mandarin pronunciation. They do have Hoklo classes in elementary schools, in which my daughter, who only speaks broken Taiwanese, can get grades of 90. To me, that does not make a lot of sense.
Lee Chia-fen (李佳芬), wife of Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜), the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) presidential candidate, recently said that mother tongues should be taught at home, not at schools, patronizingly suggesting that teaching them in schools would be a “waste of resources.”
She is partly right: of course mother tongues should be taught in the home. The problem is, the predominant family structure within Taiwanese households is parents and children: gone are the days of the extended family under one roof.
Many young parents speak very little Taiwanese, so it is not spoken at home. If it is not taught in schools, children will lack that immersive environment at home, too. If nothing changes, before long these non-Taiwanese-speaking children will grow up and become parents themselves, and this mother tongue will die out.
The Hoklo courses taught in schools are more symbolic than useful, like the signs emblazoned in the mother tongue posted in school stairwells, having teachers using Taiwanese for the entire morning assembly on International Mother Language Day or encouraging teachers to teach class in Taiwanese for one day every week.
When students hear their teacher talking in Taiwanese without going into Mandarin, they still occasionally snicker.
With the exception of the aforementioned International Mother Language Day, you really do not hear Taiwanese being used in schools by teachers during class and the students certainly do not need to speak it. When they chat with their friends, it is all in Mandarin.
Another reason children do not speak Taiwanese today is the TV programs they watch. In the past there were only three main channels, and the puppet dramas and Taiwanese opera shows, as well as many of the soap operas, were in Taiwanese.
Compare this with today, with the hundreds of channels available, in addition to online streaming content allowing young people to binge-watch popular shows, and there simply are not the same cultural stimuli we used to have.
This, coupled with Taiwanese not being spoken at home, means that, if the mother tongue is to be saved, it is going to take a multipronged approach and cannot be left solely up to the schools.
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