Three years ago, former Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Legislator Yeh Yi-jin (葉宜津) raised quite a few eyebrows when she proposed abolishing Taiwan’s zhuyin fuhao (注音符號, Mandarin phonetic symbols commonly known as “Bopomofo”) system in her bid to become Tainan mayor.
Yeh did not make it onto the ballot, and it was not clear how she would have begun to implement such a gargantuan change locally. Not only is Bopomofo learned by all schoolchildren in Taiwan, it is the most popular system for typing Chinese in the nation, despite being considered one of the least efficient input methods. Bopomofo has also become an integral part of the nation’s youth culture — to the chagrin of many older people and linguistic purists — with teenagers creating new Internet slang and abbreviations using the script.
Sunday was International Mother Language Day, which promotes awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity, and the Ministry of Education honored eight people and two groups for promoting Taiwan’s bentu (本土, “local” or “native”) languages, which have lost ground over the decades to Mandarin. While Bopomofo was introduced by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), which along with Japanese colonialism was responsible for the decline of bentu languages, it is now a script unique to Taiwan and a part of its cultural identity, just like the nation’s use of traditional Chinese characters.
Responding to the occasion, Tainan City Councilor Lee Chi-wei (李啟維) revisited the issue of using Romanization instead of Bopomofo to teach schoolchildren. Lee said that the use of Bopomofo makes it difficult to promote interest in, or recognition of, the nation’s dialects and languages, as it is not commonly used outside of Taiwan.
Lee obviously cares about saving Taiwan’s bentu languages, but what does Bopomofo have to do with it? It is almost exclusively used for typing and teaching Mandarin to schoolchildren, and would never be used to write any substantial text. All of Taiwan’s languages are already written in either Chinese characters or the Latin alphabet.
Lee might be referring to a modified Bopomofo system seen in some Hoklo (commonly known as Taiwanese) textbooks along with the Latin alphabet, and while its practicality is debatable, it is not clear what exactly he is arguing against, as the Latin alphabet is also commonly taught.
It seems that there is a different agenda here, as Lee and Yeh espouse the idea that using the Latin alphabet to teach Taiwan’s languages would help the nation connect more with the world. Yeh’s reasoning does not make sense at all, as elementary-school children learn the Latin alphabet in English class anyway. Lee echoed this point, adding that many older people cannot read their license plates because they never learned the Latin alphabet. That has absolutely nothing to do with Bopomofo, and is completely irrelevant today.
Lee is right that it is important to continue making Taiwan a more globalized nation, but again, promoting Taiwan’s bentu languages to outsiders has little to do with this when the urgent problem is that they are declining in Taiwan.
The whole point of the government’s language policy is to encourage more people to speak bentu languages, and the focus should be on the most efficient and practical way for Taiwan’s children to learn them. If Romanization is best, then it should be used, not because it makes Taiwan more globalized.
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