The beautifully-named Orchid Island (蘭嶼) belies a sad truth. Like the fragrant tropical flower that lent this tiny outcrop of land its name, the local language — Yami — is facing extinction. Surrounded by the entirety of the vast Pacific Ocean the increasingly weather-battered island, and its Yami speakers, are now struggling to fend off global forces which could swallow them up whole.
Liao Hui-ling, 37, one of Orchid Island’s only nurses and a member of the indigenous Tao (達悟族) people (known also as the Yami, 雅美族), is sensitive about the loss of her mother tongue.
“Without my language it’s like I don’t have water, and I’m thirsty,” Liao says.
Liao Hui-ling is just one of three names the married mother of two uses in daily life. To her parents she remains Sinan Matopush, her Aboriginal name. At work she uses her Chinese name and when dealing with the dozens of curious English-speaking tourists she hosts every year on the island, she uses the moniker Teresa. It is a multilingual existence that Liao leads — like many of her compatriots — but it comes at a cost.
“I can speak my own language, but I can’t speak it well. My English is better than my Yami,” concedes Liao.----
However, it is the influence of Mandarin Chinese that poses the greatest threat to her endangered mother tongue, Liao says.
“When kids go to school they learn Chinese. When they study books it’s in Chinese. When they deal with the government it’s in Chinese. How can my language continue to the next generation like this?” she says.
Critically endangered languages
In fact, in Taiwan today all the country’s Aboriginal languages are facing grave threats to their future survival. Many of the spoken forms of the 14 recognized indigenous groups — whose languages and dialects gave birth to the collection of Austronesian languages that are now spoken worldwide by about 300 million people — are at a point of almost total collapse.
When the UN’s global cultural arm UNESCO undertook an evaluation of 24 Taiwanese Aboriginal languages in 2009, it found that nine of them were already extinct. Particularly hard hit are those communities located on the nation’s west coast, including Siraya and Babuza. A further six languages — including Kavalan which is spoken in and around Hualien County and Thao which heralds from Nantou County — are critically endangered. In some cases only dozens of speakers remain.
Even Amis, Puyuma and Paiwan — numerically some of the stronger Aboriginal languages — are struggling and are now listed by the UN body as vulnerable.
language of identity
“There is an idea of a person’s identity and ethnicity in their language,” says Truku-speaking Apay Yuki who is a member of the Taroko tribe. “If you don’t speak it then you don’t know who you are … Language contributes to a person’s identity.”
Yuki, an assistant professor with the Department of Indigenous Languages at National Dong Hwa University (國立東華大學), recently returned to her native homeland to carry out research into the health of her mother tongue. The findings, she says, are distressing.
“You could see that the younger group are showing serious and ongoing language attrition and the local language is being seriously damaged. When people who speak Taroko fluently, generally those aged above 50, are gone then the language is gone,” she says.