FEATURE: Hakka language proficiency grows

By Loa Iok-sin  /  STAFF REPORTER

Tue, May 27, 2008 - Page 2

It came as a surprise to many when Chen Jou-an (陳柔安) — a 10-year-old fourth-grader born and raised in Taipei — passed the medium-high level Hakka proficiency exam this month.

This year marks the first time the medium and medium-high level Hakka proficiency exams were held.

Since the Hakka proficiency exams first started in 2005, only beginner’s level exams were offered.

“The medium and medium-high level exams differ from the beginner’s level in having semantics and composition,” said Gu Guo-shun (古國順), a Taiwanese literature professor at National Hsinchu University of Education, who served as an examiner.

“The composition part is especially difficult because many test-takers are not used to writing in Hakka even though they are all fluent in it,” he said. “Besides, you need to use a lot of Hakka idioms to score highly.”

An indicator of the difficulty is that only 2,637 test-takers out of the 11,254 who signed up for the medium-high level exam passed, making the passing rate 33.09 percent

Although even the examiner considered the composition the hardest section of the exam, Chen Jou-an didn’t think so.

“I loved taking the exam — the composition was the easiest section and the oral test was the most fun,” she told the Taipei Times in a telephone call.

Chen Jou-an added that she would definitely teach Hakka to her own children and wouldn’t mind becoming a Hakka teacher.

In fact, Chen Jou-an’s parents have also taken the exam and both passed at the medium-high level.

Although the Chens live in Taipei — a city where Mandarin is the dominant language and many people have lost the ability to speak their mother tongues fluently — they have no special tricks in keeping their native tongue alive at home.

“[My wife and I] are both Hakkas, and we talk to our children in Hakka at home,” said Chen Yen-ching (陳炎清), Chen Jou-an’s father. “For me, it’s important to pass on the language, and speaking it at home is the easiest way to keep it alive.”

Besides speaking it at home, Chen Yen-ching said that he has bought many books on Hakka idioms and written Hakka.

“I never forced my kids to read them, but I encourage them to read books just for fun,” he said. “And when Jou-an comes across some questions in Hakka classes at school, she’d come home and ask me.”

However, Chen Jou-an’s case does not mean that the Hakka language can be removed from the endangered list.

“The number of Hakka speakers has increased over the past few years due to promotional efforts by the Council for Hakka Affairs, but it’s still worrisome,” Huang Yu-chen (黃玉振), the new council chairman told reporters at his inaugural reception on Friday.

“The percentage of children under the age of 13 who are able to speak Hakka fluently rose from 11 percent [in 2002] to 18 percent last year,” Huang said. “But it’s still quite scary to think that less than 20 percent of children under 13 are able to speak fluent Hakka.”

“If we don’t do anything about it, the number of Hakka speakers is estimated to fall to under 1 percent within the next 40 years,” he said.

Despite the success in preserving the Hakka language in his family, Chen Yen-ching also has the same concern.

“Whenever I go back to my parents’ house in Miaoli, I find that most kids speak half Hakka and half Mandarin, even to their grandparents,” he said. “What’s even worse is that there seems to be an increasing number of grandparents talking to their grandchildren in Mandarin.”

In Touwu Township (頭屋) where Chen Yen-ching’s parents live, nearly 94 percent of the residents are Hakkas.

The council has exerted a lot of effort to save the Hakka language from extinction.

Besides the Hakka proficiency exam, there are Hakka life schools.

“The idea behind Hakka life schools is to increase the use of Hakka at schools,” said Chung Wan-mei (鍾萬梅), director of the council’s Culture and Education Department.

Elementary and junior high level schools are encouraged the join the program voluntarily.

In these Hakka life schools, signs are posted on objects around the school telling students how everything is said in Hakka.

“In addition, they may have a Hakka day or Hakka week when only Hakka can be spoken,” Chung said, adding that Hakka may become the language of instruction in certain selected classes on a regular basis in the future.

Since last year, there are all-Hakka kindergartens in townships with a Hakka majority in Pingtung.

“Surprisingly, all-Hakka kindergartens are quite popular,” Chung said. “Last year, there were only three such kindergartens. This year, two more applied to join the project.”

Huang is planning to set up Hakka cultural regions in townships with more than a 40 percent Hakka population.

In such cultural regions, Hakka will be promoted as the main language in the public domain.

“Even though we still have a long way to go, Hakka’s decline has at least been halted and its rise seems to have begun,” Lee Yung-te (李永得), the former council chairman who initiated the Hakka proficiency exam, said during a press conference to announce the exam results before he stepped down.

“Hopefully, in 10 or 20 years, Hakka will become a language that everyone in Taiwan can at least understand,” he said.