Linguistics researcher Lee Tai-yuan (李台元) has won a national award for his more than two-decage-long study documenting and analyzing 40 Austronesian languages and dialects spoken by the nation’s 14 recognized Aboriginal groups.
At this year’s Siyuan Doctoral Dissertation Awards ceremony, Lee received the top award for having completed the best academic research in the social and humanities disciplines.
The competition, sponsored by National Chengchi University in Taipei, is open to outstanding doctoral papers from Taiwan, China, Hong Kong and Macau.
Lee’s dissertation, The Literation of Taiwanese Aboriginal Languages, required extensive fieldwork to record and document material for a linguistic database, including personal visits to many remote communities around the nation.
His research led to the creation of a national ethno-cultural and linguistic map and documented the process of literation — the development of writing systems by transcribing spoken words as characters — which began in the Japanese colonial era and continues today.
“Studies of linguistics and ethnology are not popular in academic circles. However, I have always been interested in history and the humanities, so in school I pursued these fields, which resulted in this research,” Lee said. “This will not be the end of my work. I hope to continue making contributions to research of Aboriginal cultures.”
Lee was part of a Ministry of Education team that developed textbooks for teaching Aboriginal languages and is also a member of the university’s Center for Aboriginal Studies, which is led by professor Lim Siu-theh (林修澈).
“My work has led me to focus on the government’s education policies for Aboriginal languages. Several of the languages are facing extinction, including the language of the Thao and the two Tsou dialects, Kanakanavu and Saaroa,” Lee said.
Lee said that in earlier times, translation of the Bible by missionaries and clergy was important in the literation process, along with the compilation of dictionaries in later times, as the efforts have united the efforts of native speakers and linguists.
The main conclusion of Lee’s thesis is that through collaboration between native speakers, academics, the government and education providers to preserve, document and the develop Aboriginal teaching materials, the literation process is sustainable and a firm foundation for indigenous language development can be set.
Lee, 38, comes from a Hakka family in Taoyuan County.
“My passion for studying Aboriginal linguistics started when I was a freshman in university. I used to take trains around the nation, making visits to Taiwan’s 14 [official] Aboriginal groups,” he said. “During my trips, I recorded the 40 Austronesian languages and dialects in Taiwan. I had to go to many villages and speak to elders and ask them to record the word pronunciations on audiotape.”
“For example, the Amis on the east coast have five different dialects,” he said.
Lee’s dissertation had citations and references to 642 language textbooks and 264 academic papers, all of which Lee read and incorporated into the study, a member of the judging panel said.
The panel member said the dissertation was comprehensive and it is a great contribution to the linguistics field.