Mother-tongue education off to rocky start

P. Kerim Friedman kerim.list at
Wed Nov 5 12:21:03 UTC 2003

There are a few inaccuracies in this article, but it is a good overview
of what is happening in Taiwan:

- kerim

Mother-tongue education off to rocky start

Publish Date:10/31/2003
Story Type:Issues;
Byline:Cecilia Fanchiang

         Language policies under former Japanese colonial and
Kuomintang authorities have caused a withering of Taiwan's native
languages. Staff writer Cecilia Fanchiang takes a look at efforts to
preserve the island's linguistic heritage.

         Growing concern about the decline of native-Taiwanese
linguistic traditions has in recent years become a focus of educational
and other social reform efforts aimed at linguistic preservation and
equality. On the educational front, a noteworthy step in this direction
is the institution of native-language education at the elementary and
junior high school levels. It is the hope of the Ministry of Education
(MOE) that its 1st-9th Grade Curriculum Alignment program, launched in
2001, can go a long way toward helping young people master their native
tongues and nurturing cultural diversity.

        This and other efforts are aimed at breaking the
six-decade-long stranglehold of reverence for the Mandarin Chinese
language. After China's Kuomintang took over Taiwan in 1945, it
enforced exclusive use of Mandarin as the medium for education,
official functions and most radio and television programming.

        Over the past decade and a half of democratization since the
lifting of four-decade-long martial law in 1987, there have been
increasingly forceful demands among the country's native ethnic
groups--defined as those whose ancestors came to Taiwan centuries or
even millennia ago--for equal treatment of their languages. "Language
is much more than a tool for communication; it is the soul of an ethnic
group and speaks for that people's social identity," said William Lo of
the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan.

        Languages officially designated as native Taiwanese include the
Hoklo and Hakka languages--those spoken by the descendants of Hans who
immigrated a few centuries ago from southern Fujian province and
Guangdong province, respectively--and languages spoken by the 11
Austronesian tribal groups whose ancestors arrived in Taiwan long
before the Hans.

        Official statistics show that of the country's 23 million
people, nearly 70 percent speak Hoklo, about 17 percent belong to the
Hakka linguistic group, and approximately 2 percent belong to the Ami,
Atayal, Bunun, Kavalan, Paiwan, Puyuma, Rukai, Saisiyat, Yami, Thao and
Tsou aboriginal groups, each with its own distinctive language. The
remainder consist of post-World War II immigrants from diverse
locations in China and their descendants, whose various tongues are not
considered to be native-Taiwanese.

        Calls for linguistic equality are part of a broader movement
aimed at encouraging Taiwanese society to place as much importance on
cultural development as it does on economic development. Many observers
are of the conviction that, given Taiwan's diversity of ethnic groups,
the key to development of Taiwanese culture as a whole, while fostering
social harmony and solidarity, is mutual respect for each other's
cultural traditions--including their linguistic identities, of course.
"The problem Taiwan has encountered is that after so many years under
the oppression of Mandarin, its society has lost the ability to
appreciate a multilingual environment," opined one social observer.

        Taiwan's mother-tongue education movement also reflects a
worldwide trend toward emphasis on linguistic preservation. According
to a study conducted by the United Nations, at least 3,000 languages
are either endangered or on the verge of extinction. A number of
countries have passed laws regarding special minority-group curricula
in an attempt to preserve cultural diversity and establish ethnic
equality and autonomy while dissolving ethnic barriers.

        In view of growing sensitivity to the need for mutual respect
between ethnic groups as well as appreciation of the desirability of
cultural diversity, the Council of Indigenous Peoples (CIP) has been
pushing for measures to promote aboriginal mother-tongue education as
part of its 2001-2004 plan for indigenous autonomy. Meanwhile, the
Council for Hakka Affairs was established in June 2001 with the aim of
bolstering Hakka linguistic-preservation and cultural-rejuvenation

        In accordance with the MOE's Curriculum Alignment program,
since September 2001 primary and junior high students throughout the
nation have been required to elect a course in at least one of the
aforementioned 13 native languages, while Mandarin has remained the
mandatory medium for the rest of their curricula.

         Ideals vs. realities The task force responsible for steering
mother-tongue curriculum design has placed top priority on developing
students' verbal and comprehension skills, to be followed by training
in reading and writing. To ensure the ease of absorption, the content
of teaching materials broadly focuses on traditional festivals, tales,
legends and literatures that embody key aspects of native cultures.
"The goal of such courses is to enable younger generations to achieve
competency in their mother tongues for daily communications and, later,
for use in political, economic, religious and educational activities,"
said Chen Pa-chang of the National Hualien Teacher's College.

        Government regulations stipulate that teachers of Hakka and
Hoklo must undergo training and certification programs run by the MOE.
Those wishing to qualify as teachers of indigenous tribal languages
must pass the CIP's Aboriginal Language Skill Certification Test. The
government also supports schools' mother-tongue programs with various
levels of funding for the compilation and publication of teaching
materials and teachers' handbooks, teaching seminars and teacher

        Article 19 of the Aboriginal Peoples Education Law, enacted in
1998, stipulates that national education shall provide aboriginal youth
with equal opportunity to learn their mother tongues and study their
people's histories and cultural traditions. In practice, however, this
goal has been problematic. Lang Mei-hwa, a professor at National
Chengchi University's Department of Ethnology, pointed out that tribal
language promotion involves intractable social realities. "While some
indigenous people feel a strong attachment to their tribal identities
and a desire to master their mother tongue, others prefer to learn
other native languages such as Hoklo because of their popularity," said
Lang. She concluded that the emotional connection people have for their
mother tongues varies widely from person to person, and this has
impacted seriously on language-preservation efforts.

        Among indigenous minority groups the world over, maintenance of
a distinctive identity is rendered difficult by the desire to enjoy the
same economic and technological advantages as the dominant majority. In
order to do so, the younger generation feel pressured to devote their
energies to assimilating the dominant culture and seeking educational
and employment opportunities away from their tribal homelands.

        Given the exodus of Taiwanese aboriginal communities' young
people, together with their poverty, remoteness and general lack of
educational resources, it is difficult for them to recruit and retain
dedicated aboriginal teachers. Indeed, few teachers currently teaching
tribal languages grew up speaking them. Moreover, teaching materials
are criticized as being dominated by Chinese perspectives, failing to
reflect indigenous values and realities.

         Obstacles to overcome Clearly, there exists an immense gap
between language-policy reforms and their implementation, leaving
unresolved several issues common to mother-tongue education programs in
general. A major bone of contention is the fact that, despite the
shortfall of qualified teachers, few teachers' colleges have instituted
curricula for training them. Other challenges include the need for
development of more creative curricula, for nurturing a more open
social environment for linguistic diversity, for winning greater
support from parents for native-language education, and for
high-quality dictionaries for each language.

        Another fundamental problem is the inadequacy of teaching
materials. In the case of some aboriginal languages, there exists no
recognized writing or phonetic system. Although most words in the Hoklo
and Hakka languages have definite Chinese-character correlates, there
remain some that have no standard orthographic rendering, and there are
ongoing debates over appropriate phonetic scripts for indicating
correct pronunciation. Moreover, presently available textbooks are
poorly conceived, failing to convey the beauty of the various languages
and consequently dampening the enthusiasm of teachers and students
alike. Some critics are of the view that these and other problems
should have been worked out before mother-tongue courses were launched.

        Several additional factors have cooled students' ardor for
mother-tongue education. For one thing, the offspring of increasingly
common interethnic marriages commonly lack any clear sense of being
heirs to this or that particular ethnic tradition. And those students
who do have a desire to carry on their ancestors' linguistic traditions
are often forced to elect some other language due to the unavailability
of teachers of their chosen languages.

        Not the least of factors making students reluctant to devote
energy to studying native-Taiwanese languages are practical
considerations concerning their future academic and professional
careers. Doing so, they realize, is not going to give them any
competitive advantage in entrance exams for high schools and colleges,
which have no native-language curricula. Nor is there any indication
that mastery of such languages will enhance their chances of obtaining
good employment.

        Indeed, as pointed out by Professor Ang Uijin of Yuan-Ze
University's Department of Chinese Linguistics and Literature, "It is
most common for indigenous and Han peoples to prefer learning English,
the international language, instead of learning mother tongues
considered to add no value to their global competitiveness." Ang argued
that the importance of English has been overstated in Taiwan and that
this poses a major obstacle to the development of native languages.

        As one way of alleviating problems, with the help of National
Taiwan Normal University, the Taipei City Government initiated the
Aboriginal Language Nest program in July 2001. Under the program,
"language nests" have been set up in every district of Taipei to
provide teachers of aboriginal languages with resources relating to
native culture, language and history.

        In response to calls by school administrators for the
establishment of a body dedicated to overseeing the quality of
mother-tongue education, Education Minister Huang Jong-tsun has
promised that the National Institute for Compilation and Translation
will undertake a review of mother-tongue teaching materials and will
publish its findings and recommendations in June 2004. In the meantime,
the ministry has also adopted flexible measures to allow members of the
general public who do not have conventional teaching credentials but
who have passed the ministry's certification procedure to teach native
languages in public schools.


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