When much-maligned Taiwan Statebuilding Party Legislator Chen Po-wei (陳柏惟) last week insisted on questioning Minister of National Defense Chiu Kuo-cheng (邱國正) in Hoklo (commonly known as Taiwanese), Chiu appeared annoyed.
Before answering the question, Chiu told Chen: “Language is a communication tool, if everyone can use the same tools, it will make things more convenient. If you insist on going through an interpreter, then I will follow the rules and have your question interpreted before speaking.”
Things got heated from there, as Chen asked why Chiu was questioning his use of his mother tongue, which he is working hard to protect.
“Would you ask a French person to speak Mandarin?” he asked, before accusing Chiu of being overbearing.
Chen was not forcing Chiu to respond in Hoklo, as he had requested an interpreter to be in attendance.
Chiu stood his ground and said that he was not being disrespectful; he was just making a suggestion so that the communication process could be smoother and faster.
Chen issued a public apology that evening for causing a stir, but continued to defend his right to use his mother language, and called for more communication and discussion on the matter.
This was sad to see, as Taiwan’s various languages suffered for so long under Japanese rule and then the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) regime, and when they are finally allowed to be used in official situations like this, they are met with such disdain.
It is even sadder to see that many Internet users actually supported Chiu, arguing that not everyone speaks Hoklo in Taiwan.
That is not the point.
Chiu was not expected to understand or respond in Hoklo, that is what the interpreter was for, but one should not have their right to speak in their mother tongue questioned; whether Chiu asked nicely or not is irrelevant.
This much should be apparent after the government enacted the Development of National Languages Act (國家語言發展法) in 2018, but people are still not getting the message.
Yes, Chen is controversial — a recall vote against him is to take place later this month — but there is a larger problem here.
It is true that Mandarin is everyone’s common language in the nation and using it is technically the most efficient way to conduct a discussion without potential misunderstanding, and Chiu was not as rude as the National Taiwan University professors who shut down a student representative who spoke in Hoklo at a 2019 board meeting.
Not only did the professors insist that anyone using any language other than Mandarin would not be allowed to speak, the remarks they made were blatant cultural bullying.
However, Chiu still subscribed to one of the biggest misconceptions surrounding the language issue: that language is just a communication tool.
Language is much more than that: It is an important marker of one’s identity and culture. Throughout human history, no matter in what region of the world, one of the first things a new ruler would do to subjugate a conquered people was to forcefully suppress their language — often violently.
Before it is too late, Taiwanese need to do everything they can to reclaim their endangered mother tongues — even if it means taking a little more time to have their message translated. Looking at the big picture, what is a little inconvenience after more than half a century of linguistic oppression?
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