Recipients of the Ministry of Education’s (MOE) award for special contribution to local languages on UNESCO’s International Mother Language Day yesterday warned that Hoklo — also known as Taiwanese — Hakka, and Aboriginal languages face a grim future.
“Local languages are truly on the decline,” said Gu Guo-shun (古國順), a senior linguist and a long-time teacher of Hakka, after he received this year’s award. “Hoklo is the most dominant of all local languages, but younger speakers still find pronunciation and vocabulary difficult. The situation is worse for Hakka.”
He said that of the 7 million Hakka in the country, less than 50 percent are able to speak their language at all.
Gu said that 50 years ago when he was in his 20s, “You could get by with speaking only Hakka when you traveled through the country.”
“I remember I was in Chaojhou [潮州] once. I asked for directions from a local shopkeeper in Hakka,” he said. “The shopkeeper wasn’t Hakka, but he understood and told me the directions in Hakka.”
Chaojhou is a predominantly Hoklo township in Pingtung County that is surrounded on three sides by Hakka townships.
“But today, you barely hear Hakka in the Hakka city of Jhongli [中壢], Taoyuan County,” he said.
Gu said that creating a environment friendly to local languages and enhancing the teaching of local languages were key to saving Taiwan’s native languages.
“A good education in one’s local tongue is very important,” Gu said. “I had high expectations when the education ministry first started to teach local languages at school — but I was very disappointed.”
“But how are students supposed to learn Mandarin, English and their mother language in such a short time?” Gu asked, adding that since 1996, 240 minutes per week have been allocated to language education.
Equally disappointed at education in local languages was Watan Taya, an Atayal language teacher and a researcher of Atayal history and culture.
“The Ministry of Education says that it values local dialect education, but they haven’t turned their words into action,” Wantan said.
For one, teachers of local dialects are not paid enough.
“It’s hard to live as a teacher of local dialects,” Wantan said. “We’re paid NT$320 for each elementary school class, and NT$360 for each junior high school class.”
Wantan teaches 20 classes a week at seven schools — six elementary and one junior high school — in Dasi Township (大溪) and Bade City (八德) in Taoyuan County, making his monthly income around NT$25,000.
However, the beginning salary for a regular elementary or junior high school teacher is somewhere around NT$40,000.
Despite the low income and having to travel between different schools all the time, Wantan still gave up a stable job as a dormitory manager and part-time Atayal language teacher at a local school to become a full-time teacher because he wanted to preserve his native culture.
“The Atayal language is the Atayal culture, when our language disappears, our culture will soon follow,” he said.
Watan said he worried that many Atayal parents were unaware of the importance of their native language and that tribal elders who speak the language fluently were quickly thinning in numbers.
A UNESCO report released earlier this week classified all Taiwanese Aboriginal languages as “unsafe” or “endangered.”
“In my experience as a teacher, I found that a lot of Atayal kids were actually quite interested in their language, but their parents tend to think that learning to speak Atayal is ‘useless’, and would rather send their kids to learn English instead,” Watan said. “It’s sad, because we’re racing against time.”
Another award recipient, Huang Nien (黃年), who owns a kindergarten in Kaohsiung that teaches Hoklo, was not as pessimistic about the future of her mother language.
“Native languages are at the root of Taiwanese culture, but I’ve observed a gap in the continuation of the languages,” Huang said, as she explained why she first started teaching Hoklo at her kindergarten in 2006.
“Because my kindergarten is located in Zuoying District [左營], which is an area in Kaohsiung City where a lot of residents are Mainlanders and their descendants, I ran into some protests from my students’ parents.”
Instead of giving up, Huang invited those parents to join in on the school’s classes or events.
“I told stories, we sang and we did a lot of fun activities. So, gradually, parents began to accept our language policy,” Huang said. “Many kids from Mainlander families in my kindergarten are now able to speak fluent Hoklo, and some of their parents are even learning to speak it.”
Lately, Huang has made Tuesday the kindergarten’s “Hoklo day,” on which all students and teachers try to speak only Hoklo.