According to recent media reports, local languages — Hoklo (also known as Taiwanese), Hakka and Aboriginal languages — will be made compulsory courses in the 12-year national education program starting in 2016. However, media reports have also pointed to a serious shortage of qualified teachers and mixed the discussion of Aboriginal languages with the discussion of other native languages, like Taiwanese and Hakka. These reports all have certain shortcomings, so here are some differing views and observations on the issue.
In the meetings I have attended on the serious shortage of Aboriginal language teachers, the Council of Indigenous Peoples, which is responsible for training such teachers, has repeatedly stressed that there is an adequate number of teachers and that supplying qualified teachers is not a problem. As far as I know, approximately 4,500 teachers have passed the council’s training and can take on teaching work. Of these, almost 1,000 are already involved in teaching and about 3,500 are waiting for job openings. It is obvious that the lack of teachers mentioned in the news is not in line with the real situation.
It will of course be harder to hire qualified Aboriginal-language teachers in some urban areas.
Perhaps this problem is caused by the low hourly pay and low transport subsidies that are not proportionate to the hard work teachers put in, lowering their willingness to teach. Another possibility is that it is a problem of poor scheduling, which also makes it hard for teachers.
So the problem is not the number of available teachers, but rather the overall system design and policy implementation.
Furthermore, to combine the discussion of Aboriginal language classes with other native language courses and to not acknowledge the uniqueness of the issue based on the rights and interests of Aboriginal people presents the risk of harming students’ rights to language equality and equal access to higher education. There are at least two reasons for this.
First, the transmission of Aboriginal languages is a legally guaranteed right. Whether the issue is seen from the new amendments to the Constitution, the Indigenous Peoples Basic Act (原住民族基本法) or the Education Act for Indigenous Peoples (原住民族教育法), schools at every level of the compulsory education system are obliged to provide Aboriginal students with the opportunity to study Aboriginal languages. This legal right and status does not pertain to other native languages.
Second, from the perspective of the regulations for access to higher education, if an Aboriginal student wishes to use their ethnicity to guarantee access to higher education, the main educational institutions will demand that they provide proof of their Aboriginal language proficiency before they can obtain more comprehensive guarantees of access to higher education.
For Aboriginal students, their native Aboriginal language becomes a test subject for gaining entry to higher levels of education. If they are not made compulsory, the rights and interests of Aboriginal students to higher education will be put at risk. This systemic peculiarity which makes Aboriginal languages part of the exams for gaining access to higher levels of education do not apply to other native languages.
Some people say that offering Aboriginal languages as electives during junior-high school will also satisfy the needs of language transmission or guaranteeing access to higher education. However, experience from actual school environments shows that making classes elective rather than compulsory exerts less of a binding force on schools, making it difficult to ensure that those in charge will not, for certain reasons, demand that Aboriginal students do not choose to study their own languages, which would ultimately affect students’ rights and interests.
When it comes to whether Aboriginal language studies should be made compulsory for Aboriginal students, society at large should realize the special nature of these courses and treat them in an appropriately different way from other native languages.
In addition, a greater understanding of the ideas and opinions that exist within indigenous societies, the hard work they have done and the results they have achieved are needed to discuss the legitimacy and feasibility of this new education policy in a more comprehensive way.
Tunkan Tansikian is an assistant professor in the Department of Indigenous Development and Social Work at National Dong Hwa University.
Translated by Drew Cameron
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