When Public Television Service’s Taigi channel began broadcasting on July 1, it became the latest Taiwanese mother-language TV station, following the establishments of Hakka TV and Taiwan Indigenous Television.
The newly established Hoklo (also known as Taiwanese) channel is a milestone on the road toward promoting and reinvigorating Taiwanese languages and cultures.
Now Taiwanese can watch programs broadcast in their own tongue, which will hopefully help integrate these languages into daily life; allow the public to better understand and appreciate Taiwan’s culture, history and arts; and cultivate a collective affinity for the land and its people.
Taiwan is a multiethnic, multilingual and multicultural society. The Aboriginal languages, given their ancient origins and diversity, are considered a valuable cultural asset for the world’s Austronesian peoples.
Taiwanese languages such as Hoklo, Hakka and the Aboriginal languages have been suppressed by foreign regimes and become minority languages, gradually withering away. Some of these languages are even classified by UNESCO as extinct.
Language is the root of culture. When one becomes extinct, a culture loses its roots and there will be nothing to be passed down to future generations, making it difficult for people to understand, appreciate and inherit the wisdom of their ancestors. It is a truism that when a language dies out, a culture dies with it.
This problem involves more than just Aboriginal languages. Hakka and Hoklo are also in crisis. A survey found that young people generally cannot understand or use their mother tongues; half of schoolchildren in Taipei, in particular, are unable to speak Hoklo.
In the Internet age, the ability to use an extra language brings an edge and there is no reason for people not be fluent in their own mother tongue.
In addition, English proficiency among young people is deteriorating and the vast majority of young Taiwanese can only use Mandarin to communicate and understand the outside world.
People who grew up during the Japanese colonial era — also known as the “Doosan” generation (多桑世代) — are generally fluent in their mother languages, Japanese and Mandarin. It is evident that Taiwanese young people do not perform as well in general language competence.
Ongoing anti-extradition bill protests in Hong Kong are food for thought for Taiwanese. Footage shows young Hong Kongers taking to the streets and Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥) giving their opinions in Cantonese or in English.
Which Taiwanese politician can use their mother tongue to communicate with the public without mingling in Mandarin phrases in front of cameras?
Twenty-two years have passed since Hong Kong’s sovereignty was “returned” to China, but Hong Kongers have not forgotten their mother language, even as they continue to make the territory more international. Taiwan should take a page out of Hong Kongers’ book.
Education is a crucial factor in this. Taiwanese languages survived 50 years of Japanese colonial rule, despite a “national language movement” promoting Japanese.
The foreign Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) regime that ruled Taiwan after World War II forcefully implemented a policy of prioritizing only Mandarin. During the years when Sinicization dominated the nation’s education and culture, speaking a mother tongue became taboo in school. Whenever schoolchildren were found speaking the languages of their places of birth or non-Mandarin dialects, they would receive demerits, be fined or forced to wear a sign around their necks with the phrase: “I must speak Chinese.”
These humiliating and painful experiences continue to haunt members of older generations.
Another kind of language suppression can be found in a prohibition against using mother tongues in TV and radio broadcasts. TV programs are watched by the whole family and have a significant effect on households.
To prioritize Mandarin, government authorities imposed restrictions or bans on mother-tongue programs, causing use of the languages to decline and reducing mother-language competence among people younger than 45. The ban even resulted in the farcical situation in which traditional budaixi (布袋戲), or glove puppetry, was dubbed and aired in Mandarin.
Another disastrous consequence is the belittling of, and discrimination against, non-Mandarin languages, which in TV dramas were only spoken by ridiculous characters or those of low social classes.
“Speaking Mandarin is a noble deed” became a catchphrase in government agencies, schools and workplaces, as well as at official and public events. Non-Mandarin languages in Taiwan were teetering on the brink of extinction.
The National Taiwan University Cooperative Shop’s board of directors has passed a resolution that board meetings should be conducted in Mandarin. The decision caused an uproar, because it effectively showed that discrimination against Taiwanese mother tongues still exists.
The National Languages Development Act (國家語言發展法) stipulates that all national languages — including Taiwanese mother tongues — are equal, and that people using national languages should be free from discrimination or restriction.
Establishing a rule to conduct meetings “in Mandarin only” not only contravenes the law, but also underlines the continuation of the mindset that “prioritizes Mandarin and prohibits speaking dialects.”
Following procedural irregularities in electing its president, the resolution is yet another incident that damages the university’s reputation.
Relevant government authorities — including the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Education and the Control Yuan — should do something about this state of affairs.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has announced that citizens are allowed to have their Romanized names transliterated from Taiwanese mother languages for their passports. This is what people should do to show respect and tolerance toward mother tongues.
The launch of the Hoklo channel means there are now three Taiwanese mother-language TV stations, but much work still needs to be done in terms of the revival and reinvigoration of mother tongues after years of suppression.
Nevertheless, TV channels in mother tongues undeniably provide a platform or incubator for transitional justice for Taiwanese languages and cultures.
As mass media, TV stations can serve the maximum number of people by making the best use of mother languages and integrating them into daily life.
Since its launch, the Hoklo channel’s content has mainly consisted of news, dramas and educational game programs. There is still room for improvement in terms of proper expression, pronunciation and subtitles, among other aspects.
While its programs are trying hard to appeal to all tastes, from the common to the more refined, the station should also try to attract children and young viewers. After all, the future of mother languages lies in young people’s willingness to use them. In this sense, cartoons and music programs broadcast in Hoklo are indispensable.
For government departments, there is a long way to go toward the reinvigoration of mother tongues, as legislation and the establishment of TV stations are only the beginning. Taiwanese languages have suffered from suppression and neglect for many years, and the situation requires a determined approach to turn the tide.
Translated by Chang Ho-ming.
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