Two Pazeh Aboriginal writers were honored by the Ministry of Education with awards at an event in Hualien County on Friday for their efforts to revive and preserve their critically endangered language, which they said has been a very difficult task because the government does not officially recognize their people.
Award recipients Pan Ying-chieh (潘英傑) and Wang Pan Mei-yu (王潘美玉) are relatives from the Pazeh family clan, from the Ailan area (愛蘭) of Nantou County’s Puli (埔里).
Pazeh is one of Taiwan’s 10 Pingpu Aborigine groups, also known as lowland Aborigines. They say their language, culture and ethnic identity are disappearing because they are excluded from the benefits of official government recognition enjoyed by the nation’s 14 Aboriginal peoples.
Pan Ying-chieh said the Pazeh family clans in Puli have organized an association to promote their culture and to resuscitate the language, with seminars and classes being held at the local Ailan Presbyterian Church on weekends and during holidays.
“Our people decided that we must do this, because our mother tongue is nearing extinction, with just a few elderly speakers still using the language. It is like a patient dying in a hospital emergency ward, with doctors and families trying their best to save its life,” he said.
Pan, 66, said Pazeh is listed by the UN as one of 18 critically endangered languages in the world, with only a few native speakers.
He said he is very disappointed at the government’s continual denial of the existence of the Pazeh Aboriginal people and their language, which belongs to the Austronesian linguistic family of the Pacific Islands and Southeast Asian regions.
Wang Pan, 81, has lived in Puli’s Ailan area for most of her life. The town is one of only three remaining towns in Taiwan with a native Pazeh population. There are only a few thousand Pazeh Aborigines left.
“I learned the Pazeh language during my childhood, but most of the time I spoke Hoklo [also known as Taiwanese]. This is because in those times Taiwanese society was prejudiced and looked down on us Pingpu Aborigines. Other people called us “fan” [番, a derogatory label for Aborigines]. Because of this discrimination, I did not learn our Pazeh language well,” she said.
She again started learning the language in 2007, when Pazeh elders organized weekly seminars and classes in order to preserve their culture, save their mother tongue from dying out and passing their customs on to the younger generations.
Due to her childhood familiarity with the language, Wang Pan advanced rapidly and became a Pazeh language teacher herself. She now presents classes to young people.
Wang Pan said the main reason for writing in Pazeh and competing for the ministry’s language awards is to make the government and the public aware of the Pazeh people’s determined efforts to revive their culture, and to save their dying language.
Pan Ying-chieh said that several members of their Pazeh community are writing literature, poems and narrative stories in the Pazeh language, using the romanized alphabet system that is used by all of Taiwan’s Aboriginal writers.
“This year we had five members eligible for the ministry’s awards for Aboriginal literature. We were excluded from participating last year, because the government does not recognize the existence of the Pazeh language,” Pan said.