Living Through Language

The children of immigrant mothers at a Vietnamese language class in their middle school. Photo: CNA

The government is making a strong effort to preserve Taiwan’s endangered languages so as to maintain a multicultural society. 

Taiwan has long been a place of linguistic diversity. Besides the Chinese languages of Mandarin, Hokkien (Taiwanese), and Hakka, the various indigenous tribes have each had their own version of an Austronesian language, and many senior citizens are still fluent in Japanese due to Japan’s previous colonial rule over the island.

Today many of Taiwan’s languages are in decline despite government revitalization campaigns begun in the 1990s. Over the past few years, the authorities have redoubled efforts, including programs that are part of the public education system, to prevent the disappearance of endangered languages.

Although evidence of a human presence in Taiwan dates back 20,000 to 30,000 years, the ancestors of the present-day aboriginal groups are believed to have come to the island from the Asian mainland starting about 5,000 years ago. The first Chinese-speaking settlers were mainly from Guangdong and Fujian, the provinces closest to Taiwan, through waves of immigration beginning in the 17th century. Neither the Dutch nor the Spanish, who both sought to colonize Taiwan in the 1600s, left any lasting linguistic impression.

Over the next several centuries, immigrants from China continued to pour in, establishing Hokkien, the southern Fukien dialect (Minnan yu), as the main language in Taiwan.

After the Qing Dynasty’s defeat in the 1895 Sino-Japanese War led to Taiwan’s cessation to Japan, strict language policies were imposed on the colony. Use of Taiwanese language in the press was banned, and Japanese generally replaced Taiwanese as the language of instruction in the schools.

The controls were a source of resentment and occasional pushback. For example, troupes putting on local forms of entertainment such as puppet shows would often begin the performance in Japanese for the benefit of the local authorities, and then slip into Taiwanese once the Japanese censors had left.

The end of World War II in 1945 brought the departure of the Japanese presence and Taiwan’s return to the Republic of China. After losing a civil war to the Communists in 1949, the ROC government under Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) retreated from the mainland to Taiwan.

By most accounts, Taiwan’s local languages fared little better under the new administration than under the Japanese. Mandarin was made the official language and language of instruction. Again, other languages were banned from public broadcast or restricted in their use.

“In school, if you spoke in dialect or an indigenous language, you would be punished,” Lo Mei-ching, senior executive officer in the government’s Council of Indigenous Peoples, says of the Chiang era. “We couldn’t use our own language in public either – we would also be punished. So naturally you wouldn’t use it at home as well. These are the reasons our languages are disappearing.”

The policies of that period have had a deep, lasting impact on current language use in Taiwan. Today, fluency in Mandarin is almost universal, and the numbers of speakers of Taiwanese, Hakka, and indigenous languages are all declining. According to data from the Taiwan Statistics Bureau, in the case of 69.7% of children aged 6 to 14, some Taiwanese is spoken at home, while that is true for 83.6% of those aged 25 to 44. In contrast, 96% of all children aged six to 14 in Taiwan speak Mandarin at home.

Even those children who hear Taiwanese or other languages at home often learn them incompletely, preferring to communicate in Mandarin. When they in turn have children, the non-Mandarin language is unlikely to be passed on to the next generation.

The rapid aging of the population serves to exacerbate the issue. Says Liu Yue-lan, a Hakka woman who runs a convenience store in the Hakka Cultural Park in Taipei: “The young people move to the north, to the big cities. In the villages, it’s all older people, and when we have celebrations with songs, it’s only the old people who have the time to go sing. The biggest problem that Taiwanese society is currently facing is there are many, many old people.”

In most of the large cities, Mandarin is predominant and serves as a lingua franca when members of different ethnic or language groups communicate. The lack of consistent contact with a language causes proficiency to erode, and many of those who have become used to speaking Mandarin outside the home may gradually find themselves also speaking it at home.

Still, Taiwan’s local languages continue to have their cultural and political significance, as becomes evident during election season. For example, Presidents Ma Ying-Jeou and Tsai Ing-wen, neither of whom is a native speaker of Taiwanese, have both made great efforts to speak in Hokkien when campaigning. In Taiwan’s political landscape, it is vital to show oneself to be a member of the community.

The first attempts to preserve language diversity in Taiwan followed the ending of martial law in 1987. “In school, people could study their own language,” Lo says of the programs that were introduced in the 1990s. “If you were Amis, you would have an Amis teacher to teach the Amis language. But you’d only have one hour of class a week.”

The more formal, most heavily subsidized programs tend to target the less frequently spoken languages, including the indigenous tongues and Hakka. Out of the seven government-operated television stations, one is dedicated to content in Hakka and one to the indigenous languages. None of the seven broadcasts exclusively in Taiwanese.

According to Zhang Tang-bing, an active member of the Hakka community, the government has long earmarked funds to promote Hakka culture. Every county, he notes, has its own Hakka Association where members of the Hakka minority can gather, spend time together, and practice the language by engaging in activities such as singing traditional Hakka folk songs.

Despite the efforts of these organizations, many young Hakkas lack a complete grasp of the language, instead preferring to communicate in Taiwanese or Mandarin. Though many are generally able to understand when spoken to in Hakka, they are unable to pass the language on to their own children, leading to a shift away from Hakka and towards Mandarin. In a 2012-2013 study, only 16% of Hakka teenagers were found to speak the language fluently.

It seems that while the past governmental efforts have slowed language disappearance, they have not succeeded in rejuvenating Taiwan’s secondary languages. In a survey organized by the Council of Indigenous People and administered by Shih Hsin University, less than 40% of aboriginal children under 10 years of age reported using an indigenous language on a regular basis, and the proportion of adult respondents who teach their children indigenous tongues is around 30%. “These low numbers “hinder the generational flow of language,” the study concluded.

Redoubled Efforts

In response to the limited success of the earlier language reforms, the government has sought to deepen and broaden the efforts, and significant progress has been achieved over the past several years. The motivation behind these efforts has been the fact that multiculturalism is now seen as an integral part of the Taiwanese experience. Preserving it is therefore regarded as vital to maintaining Taiwan’s identity.

Few of the reform programs have focused on Taiwanese. Though use of the language is in decline, it is still spoken by more than 80% of the population and remains a language in everyday use. For the moment, the focus is on languages in more imminent need of aid, such as Hakka.

The Hakka Basic Act, passed in 2013, stipulates that “people’s right to use [the Hakka language] for public services, dissemination of resources, and as a language of learning shall be guaranteed.”

In December 2017, the Legislative Yuan passed an amendment further stipulating that Hakka be considered a “national language” of Taiwan. Legally, Taiwan has no official language, though the de facto national language remains Mandarin.

The Hakka Basic Act also provides that the government will fund and provide support for Hakka cultural development, including the use of Hakka in schools and kindergartens as well as Hakka-language radio and television broadcasts.

Legislation has also been enacted to target indigenous language loss, notably the Indigenous Languages Development Act passed in June 2017. Although indigenous people represent 2.3% of Taiwan’s population, reportedly only 1.4% of the population speak any form of indigenous language. Citing a study conducted by the Council on Indigenous People in 2012, Lo says that “in everyday exchanges, more than 89% of indigenous people usually use Mandarin to talk to each other.”

In addition, that 1.4% is shared among 16 languages and 42 subdivisions and dialects recognized by the Taiwan government. “The study found that of our languages and dialects, each is facing a dire predicament. Of those 42 subdivisions, 10 are facing imminent extinction,” says Lo. “Among the Thao people, for example, there are only around 300 remaining speakers. And there aren’t even 10 left who speak the language fluently.”

As the push to preserve Taiwan’s linguistic diversity continues, the budget of the Council of Indigenous Peoples has grown considerably. Besides administering programs directly, it also gives grants and subsidies to NGOs to establish community centers and schools to create a language-learning environment.

For the 10 indigenous languages with the highest risk of extinction, the Council has created a “babysitter program” in which speakers of indigenous tongues care for children up to 2 years of age. From the ages of 2 to 5, children can attend indigenous language daycare centers. The goal is to immerse children in the language from birth and provide a stable foundation to continue learning the languages later in life. To ensure the speaking abilities of the child caretakers, applicants must pass a language ability test administered by the Indigenous Peoples Department of each county.

Moreover, the Legislative Yuan is currently considering a proposal for a National Languages Development Act, which is expected to pass.  “The legislative spirit of the National Language Development Law is to respect Taiwan’s multiculturalism, and language is often the core of culture,” says Chang Liao Wan-chien, the lawmaker who proposed the bill. “The death of language is the demise of culture. The inheritance of language through legislation guarantees the sustainable development of culture.”

The bill calls for a regular conference on the status of Taiwan’s national languages, requires a census mechanism and database system to keep track of language use, and provides additional resources for research and development. Instruction in one of Taiwan’s “national” languages – meaning Hokkien, Hakka, and the indigenous languages – will be guaranteed as a part of a basic education, and subsidies will be given to radio and television broadcasters who produce content in the national languages. The bill goes as far as to make Taiwanese Sign Language (TSL) a national language of Taiwan.

In June this year the Council of Indigenous Peoples announced a new program aimed at indigenous university students. For those interested in continuing their education in indigenous languages, seven universities have been designated as “language learning centers” for indigenous languages. At several of those universities, college students already proficient in one of the languages can tutor interested young children, restoring the cycle of passing language on.

This program is in addition to the Ministry of Education’s policy of funding 10 tuition-free study-abroad opportunities for indigenous students. As another incentive to learn indigenous languages, applicants for those spots must first pass the Indigenous Language Special Examination.

Although the future of Taiwan’s linguistic diversity remains uncertain, clearly the political will exists to preserve the languages of this multiethnic and multicultural country. Taiwan is still at the beginning stage of what will need to be a long-term, dedicated effort.

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