India is a democratic multi-ethnic, multicultural, multilingual and multi-religious country. It has about 400 different languages, 22 of which are recognized as languages by the Indian government.
Despite the conflict over definition/identification of languages, India has still been able to expand the scope of recognized languages by offering official status to languages from different ethnic groups.
The Indian experience offers a valuable reference for Taiwan.
As of today, there are no stipulations in Taiwan's Constitution concerning language. This is a sharp contrast to the language stipulations in India's Constitution.
India's Constitution is not perfect, but it is capable of regulating the status and function of federal and state languages as well as protecting minority language rights. In Taiwan, legislation only provides the languages of the different ethnic groups with passive protection against language discrimination, but it does not offer positive rights.
The government should take steps towards language recognition and positive language rights.
There are lessons to be learned from India's language politics. Taiwan's proposed Language Equality Law (語言平等法) lists 14 national languages.
The draft law has been opposed by those who say that official multilingualism will lead to ethnic conflict, social unrest, and communication problems. They therefore advocate linguistic assimilation.
The Indian experience shows that language assimilation policies and non-recognition of minority languages will neither be able to build a feeling of community nor prevent social conflict, but rather will create alienation and dissatisfaction among minority groups.
Recognizing the status of the languages of the different ethnic groups will promote ethnic reconciliation and linguistic harmony. In fact, about a quarter of countries have more than one official language. For example, South Africa's Constitution recognizes 11 official languages, and Switzerland recognizes French, German, Italian and Romansh as their official languages.
That kind of multilingual policy based on diversity is the kind of language recognition model that Taiwan should pursue.
Taiwan needs a language movement modeled on India's active approach to obtaining language recognition. All ethnic groups in Taiwan should unite in their pursuit of recognition. Taiwan's past rulers have taken a divide-and-rule approach, which has led to suspicion and distrust between the different groups and made it impossible for them to unite. As a result, the linguistic dominance of Mandarin continues and the status of local languages continues to be unimportant.
Ethnic groups must build mutual trust and work together in their quest for official language status.
Tiu Hak-khiam is an associate professor in the department of Chinese literature at National Taitung University.
Translated by Lin Ya-ti
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