Teachers try to revive dying language

P. Kerim Friedman kerim.list at oxus.net
Fri Jan 16 04:37:38 UTC 2004



Teachers try to revive dying language
By Martin Williams
Friday, Jan 02, 2004,Page 3

The Tsou Aboriginal village of Loyeh (樂野) sits on a hillside just a few
hundred meters down from the Han Chinese village of Shihchuo (石桌), a
stop on the main road that services Alishan, Chiayi County's prime
tourist destination.

Loyeh is of no interest to tourists, however. It has no song-and-dance
shows for the weekend crowds. No gift shops filled with kitsch
novelties or Aboriginal handicrafts. It is where Aboriginal people
live, not perform.

Most people would be hard-pressed to have heard of the community.

But at the beginning of Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) rule in Taiwan,
Loyeh played an intriguing historical role.

During the February 28 Incident in 1947, the village was a launching
pad for an assault on KMT forces stationed at Chiayi's airport by an
Aboriginal unit incensed at the bestial conduct of the new authorities.

For the Tsou tribesmen, that conflict was resolved relatively
peacefully. But a few years later, communist agents, attracted by the
remoteness of Alishan and the headstrong Aborigines who lived there,
targeted the village as one of several potential bases for future
military operations against the KMT.

The KMT's security apparatus got wind of the operation and in 1951
seized a cache of weapons, arrested a number of important figures from
around the country and eventually tortured and executed six Aborigines
in 1954. Four of those killed were from Alishan, and one of these was
the alleged ringleader, Tang Shou-jen (湯守仁), a native of Loyeh.

These stories are largely forgotten now, except among a handful of
academics and those in the community, who lived under tight
surveillance, constant intimidation and strict application of
assimilation policies over succeeding decades.


According to newspaper reports of the time, the headquarters of the
insurgency, which planned to link up with a communist attack on Taiwan,
was the local public school, now called Loyeh Elementary.

"[The teacher's] very encouraging and doesn't get fierce with us. But
it's hard to learn the Romanized stuff because it's the same as
English. Sometimes it's pronounced differently."

An Shih-yuan, student
It was this same school that the Taipei Times visited during a recent
inspection tour hosted by the Ministry of Education.

The ministry was promoting its attempt to stem another form of
forgetting -- language death -- which particularly threatens to rob the
relatively small, Tsou ethnolinguistic group, no more than
7,000-strong, of its cultural heritage.

Many factors have contributed to the loss of culture, especially
language, in Aboriginal communities: Japanese and KMT assimilation
policies, initial missionary hostility to and destruction of material
culture and "idolatrous" religious practices and so on.

The public school, however, was the primary mechanism for this process.
Children in Aboriginal townships were, like their Han counterparts,
beaten or humiliated in the classroom if they dared utter native words
within earshot of teachers.

But in recent years the government has begun to use the school system
to reverse the process.

The school itself is small by national standards, with a main building
and additional classrooms surrounding the sports track. But the main
building is a pleasing and unusual dark reddish color, evoking the
clothing that Tsou men wear during tribal ceremonies. It offers a very
different sight from the tile-and-concrete fortresses that pass for
educational architecture elsewhere.

The school has 95 students from kindergarten to the sixth grade, a tiny
number compared to schools in urban centers, but Loyeh Elementary is
still the second-largest school in Alishan Township. Ninety percent of
its students are Aboriginal, and its 12 teachers include four
Aborigines. The principal, Wu Chih-ming (武志明), is Aboriginal too.

In introducing the school, officials were proud to show off the school
choir, which sang traditional songs, with piano accompaniment, as well
as the unpretentious 14-room teachers' residence at the rear of the
school, equipped with a library and connection to the Internet.


The Tsou-language class is presided over by Cheng I-chung (鄭義重), 49,
one of two Tsou specialist teachers employed at the school. He is a
handsome and slightly rugged-looking man, and he is gentle with the
children. He writes a mixture of Chinese and Romanized Tsou on the
blackboard, alternating his questions between the class as a whole and
individual students. Then the students attempt conversation with one

Occasionally he picks up a prop with cultural significance -- a sickle
called a tu'u, or a basket carried on the back called ayungku -- and in
the best show-and-tell tradition, brandishes it theatrically while
explaining its use in the Tsou tongue.

Cheng is one of a new breed of teacher in the public school system. As
part of the Democratic Progressive Party's (DPP) new multicultural
focus in education, native speakers of languages other than Mandarin of
all ages have been fast-tracked into the classrooms, undergoing a few
months of pedagogical training and examinations without having to go
through years of study at university.

And like his fellow language teacher Wang Hui-en (汪惠恩), 33, a mother of
three, Cheng is a local. These teachers know the kids, their parents
and the community intimately. It is a privilege few schools enjoy.


One of Cheng's students who spoke to the Taipei Times, An Shih-yuan
(安士元), or "Avai" in the Tsou language, was a pleasant, friendly
12-year-old with an uncommon background.

For several years he lived in the city -- in Taichung -- expressly
because his father "wanted me to be able to compete with my Han
[Chinese] classmates there."

But unfortunate family circumstances compelled him to return to Loyeh.
And upon his return, the difference between the two classroom
environments was very noticeable.

"Up here, they [the classmates] are always yelling at each other," he
said, half-jokingly.

And what about learning the Tsou language at school?

"It's fun, but it's kind of embarrassing," he said, alluding to the
different levels of ability in the classroom, and the need to learn
Romanized script for the language.

And the teacher?

"He's very encouraging and doesn't get fierce with us," Avai said.

"But it's hard to learn the Romanized stuff because it's the same as
English. Sometimes it's pronounced differently," he said.

Yet Avai was quite fortunate in that he was able to continue speaking
Tsou at home with his family. Not all children at the school have this
opportunity, and there are saddening stories from elsewhere of children
being unable to communicate with their oldest relatives at all because
there was no common language in which to do so.

Avai was enthusiastic about the prospect of studying the Tsou language
in high school. The problem for Avai and his like-minded classmates,
however, is that, multicultural rhetoric notwithstanding, there is no
guarantee there will be a syllabus waiting for them.


The government provides funding for language teaching at all of Alishan
Township's elementary schools that have Aboriginal pupils, but,
according to Loyeh Elementary's director of teaching and choirmistress,
Cheng Pei-chien (鄭佩茜), the inclusion of a Tsou-language course in high
school is entirely at the discretion of those schools' principals.

Because of the strongly centralized nature of curriculum content, it
seems that the Tsou children have little chance of learning about the
role of their own village, their own school and their own people in the
modern history of the nation.

The dispiriting implication was that few of these students would be
able to build on whatever indigenous cultural base they had acquired in
their elementary school years.

Even in the time of a DPP administration, it was clear that teachers at
the school were reluctant to bite the hand that feeds them -- to openly
lobby their masters for more resources and admit to room for

One teacher who spoke privately to the Taipei Times, however, said
there were several areas that needed more work but which attracted
little interest from the county authorities.

One of these was that, for all of the publicity that mother-language
teaching was attracting -- not least this media throng from faraway
Taipei -- students were still only being taught one lesson per week, a
manifestly inadequate amount of time to devote to the subject if the
system is serious about preserving indigenous languages.

There are other classes that reinforce language learning -- the school
choir sings almost exclusively traditional music and there are audio
tapes to listen to, in addition to extracurricular activities.

But the top priority remains Mandarin, with English next in line. And,
ironically, Tsou students had recently topped the county in English
thanks to the efforts of an Australian man who had married into the

That is to say, the children were speaking better English, a language
precious few will need to use after leaving school, than their
indigenous tongue.

The mother-tongue program seemed more consistent with what Chiayi
County Bureau of Education chief Su Te-hsiang (蘇德祥) described as an
appreciation of culture rather than its strict inculcation.

This, the teacher said, was why the community and the entire Tsou
people had to mobilize, to rally together, to make the most of the
resources it received.

The teacher suggested that the contribution of families was as crucial
to the program as government funding and time allocation and that
attempts were being made to encourage parents and guardians to
communicate with the children in the Tsou language at home, which was
not always an easy task.

And budget realities take their toll. In an almost plaintive tone,
bureau chief Su asked a few reporters to do what they could to promote
Chiayi County generally, because county revenue was quite limited.

"After you take away the land that is administered by the Yushan
National Park Headquarters, the Tourism Bureau, the Taiwan Forestry
Bureau, the port authorities and Taisugar, there isn't much left for us
to draw revenue from," he said.

When asked for his impressions of the Tsou-language syllabus, Tsan-Der
Chou (周燦德), the normally jovial director of the education ministry's
Department of Technological and Vocational Education, became somewhat

"It's OK. There are parts that could be improved," he said, without
specifying what those parts were.


The chairman of Loyeh Elementary's Parents and Teachers Committee is
Tang Chih-chieh (湯智杰), 30, who is also the grandson of Tang Shou-jen,
the Tsou figurehead executed in 1954.

Fifty years after being caught in the middle of the Chinese civil war,
the Tang family had reclaimed an influential role at their school and
in their community.

The straight-talking, highly traditionalist Tang is also a local
liaison officer for Kao Chin Su-mei (高金素梅), the flamboyant, unorthodox
Aboriginal legislator and actress in films such as The Wedding Banquet.

All this creates a sense that there has been a recovery from the fear
and violence of the past, a reclaiming of territorial pride.

Speaking on school matters, Tang mentioned a recent exchange program
that Loyeh had forged with a school in Taipei City.

"Some kids from Choumei Elementary School (洲美國小) came here on an
exchange recently. They had a great time, and said they really envied
the kids who go to school here," Tang said.

Soon, a group of Tsou students will embark upon a return visit to the
city. Tang agreed that the Tsou children would probably be equally
envious of their city counterparts. But to him, the mountain home
provides children with something special.

"Living up here in the mountains has its good and bad sides. There is a
real lack of resources, and the educational standards are lower. But
there is an excellent community spirit, and the environment here is
unbeatable for the kids," he said.


Many locals hope that one day -- if the practice of a post-election DPP
administration can catch up with its rhetoric -- the name of the
village can revert to its evocative Tsou name, Lalawuya, or "Maple
Grove." The village is also scheduled to become the new administrative
center of Alishan Township, replacing the more remote Tapangu Village
(達邦), which lies on the banks of the Tsengwen River, further down the

With these changes pending, a sense of optimism, rejuvenation and
pragmatism is washing over the community and in the school, despite
their disadvantages and the residue of past sorrow, which can surely
only benefit the children of Loyeh Elementary, whatever the fate of
their mother tongue.

Tang Chih-chieh's father, Tang Chin-hsien (湯進賢), a KMT Chiayi County
councilor and the son of Tang Shou-jen, later joined reporters for a
leisurely lunch of mountain cuisine. Away from the others, a reporter
from the Liberty Timesasked Tang privately how he could possibly join
the organization that killed his father.

"It's not about me and it's not about the party," he said.

"It's about doing what you can for the community. It doesn't matter
what party you join, as long as you get things done," he said.

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