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Thu, Jan 06, 2000 - Page 9 News List

Identity is what you can speak

Who you are and what you speak are inextricably interwoven. This fact has led to much colonial linguistic oppression. Taiwan, like many other countries around the world, is now striving to balance the claims of linguistically distinct communities with the need to have a common medium of communication

By Matthew Ward 吳馬-*

Illustration: Mountain People

Identity has become one of the most burning issues of this age. As paradoxical as it may seem, in a time of much-hyped globalization, the number of independent states in the world is growing steadily. And, even countries which are not breaking up often contain regions which are moving towards greater political and cultural autonomy.

This phenomenon has been particularly widely felt in the area of language policy. From Wales to East Asia, from the Mayan societies of Central America to the former Soviet Union, regions and former colonies have been declaring linguistic independence from the language policies of larger nation-states or former colonial masters. This is not surprising; language, after all, is one of the most crucial elements of cultural identity. And, in an age of widespread minority-language loss, many cultures face a do-or-die situation in terms of preserving, developing, and maintaining linguistic identity.

There are several ways in which linguistic identity is asserted. In cases where a dominant local language exists, it is often made into a new official language. In other cases, countries develop a multilingual policy, in order to give all ethnic groups a place at the linguistic table. In still other instances, especially in situations where no local language is spoken by a majority, a former colonial or even foreign language may remain or become official, but a distinctively local variety of that language may be developed. In surprisingly many countries, India and the Philippines being notable examples, all three policies are to an extent pursued together.

One reason why many countries follow a multifaceted language policy is that all of the policies outlined above have disadvantages. Promoting a local variety of a former colonial language over local languages puts the latter in mortal danger, and can be argued to be a continuation of linguistic colonialism. Raising the status of a dominant local language can anger minorities, and ignores the fact that many former colonial languages have become part of the societies that they have been transplanted into. Multilingual policies without a common language are often claimed to produce disunity, and at least, can create practical barriers to inter-ethnic communication.

Taiwan faces many of these issues, and with democratization, a trend towards developing and supporting Taiwan's distinctive multi-lingual identity has arisen. The strengthening of Taiwanese Hokkien, which is easily the most spoken non-Mandarin Taiwanese language, the increasing acceptance of the local Mandarin dialect often called "Taiwanese Mandarin (台灣國語)," and movements to preserve Hakka (客家) and Aboriginal tongues are all manifestations of this trend.

In Taiwan, all three of the linguistic policies discussed above are being followed to an extent, unofficially at least, although Taiwan is still a long way from truly recognizing and promoting Taiwanese Hokkien and other traditionally local languages. As with many other societies facing issues of linguistic identity, Taiwan seems to be evolving towards linguistic inclusiveness, though it remains to be seen whether this will happen fast enough to counter the worldwide trend of minority-language loss. At this point, the future remains anybody's guess, with anything being imaginable from becoming monolingual in either Mandarin or Taiwanese Hokkien to managing to remain fully multilingual.

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