While most Taiwanese parents are awash in English fever and want their children to learn the language, members of a small Aboriginal group believe this priority is wrong and are trying to reverse the trend.
More efforts should be made to preserve languages that are less widely spoken and on the verge of disappearing, said Yiwan Buting, an elder of the Sakizaya tribe.
As a 60-year-old father to a three-year-old girl, Buting said his most important responsibility is not to look for the best English cram school in his area, but to devise ways to pass on the endangered Sakizaya language to his daughter.
“My ancestors would be greatly disappointed if the language disappears,” Buting said.
The Sakizaya, who number just 600 people, live mostly in Hualien County. They were officially recognized as Taiwan’s 13th Aboriginal tribe in 2007.
As with many of Taiwan’s indigenous people, assimilation over the past 100 years has led to a decline in the use of the Sakizaya language. This has alarmed the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
In 2009, the body said only 20 people spoke the language and listed it as “critically endangered.”
“There are still people who use Sakizaya, but the problem is that they are very old and are dying,” said Buting, who quit his counseling job at the local church a year ago to teach the tribe’s language to elementary-school children.
“Without a language, there will be no culture. And without a culture, we will be wiped out,” he said.
To keep the Sakizaya spirit alive, Buting joined a new project aimed at passing on the language and preserving the culture in the family.
In the project’s initial stage, five sets of parents, including Buting, will be trained to create an environment friendly to language-learning at home, including the hanging of posters, according to the Council of Indigenous Peoples.
Toko Sayion, the council official who created the project, said the program’s goal is to “turn parents into teachers.”
The scheme is expected to not only increase children’s chances of practicing their native language, but also to reduce the need to hire and pay professional teachers for after-class lessons, he said.
Other projects under way include the collection and study of historical information about tribal elders, mythologies and songs. Young volunteers are also being recruited to participate in various language preservation events.
"If we don’t start taking this seriously, we could be left with nothing in the end," Buting said, urging parents with ethnic minority origins to shoulder the responsibility of culture preservation.
Asked the secret to language learning, Buting, who picked up Sakizaya from his illiterate grandmother, said "practice makes perfect, [it’s] no secret."
Buting said that after rounds of practice his daughter can now say haymauhantu, instead of the Chinese word for goodbye — zai jian — when seeing off guests.
"We dare not think about what we can achieve through this, but at least we know that if we don’t take action, we will never accomplish anything," Buting said.