Talking Taiwanese: Flemish reflections on Taiwanese language education

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Fri Aug 3 14:39:46 UTC 2007

  Talking Taiwanese <>

Flemish reflections on Taiwanese language education
 8/02/2007 Taiwan and Spain: a language

We might want to pay closer attention to European regions applying mother
tongue immersion education. Research conducted in Galicia (see map) has
shown that bilingually-instructed children (in the Galician "dialect" as
well as in the Spanish language) achieved higher scores in the tested
subjects, including Spanish. A surprising result, considering that their
exposure to Spanish was much less than in the traditional Spanish-only
classrooms (Lecours 2001). More recent evaluations of Galicia's mother
tongue and immersion language programs illustrate that the gains of the
bilingually-educated children continue to hold, but only when the program is
well implemented (Mercator).

>>From 1939 until 1975, the use of Galician was forbidden in schools and it
took Galicia no more than eight years to put the Galician language on equal
(50/50) footing with Spanish in primary schools. Research also shows that
when the teacher speaks and uses the native language of the children, has
received training in bilingual teaching methodologies, and has adequate
materials, the children clearly outperform Spanish-only educated children in
both mathematics and Spanish (Mercator).

Should we, in Taiwan, care about a far-away region somewhere in the
northwest of Spain? I believe the following brief comparison provides the
answer to this question and might also illustrate why I am convinced we are
not safeguarding the Taiwanese language. I have done an effort to keep this
comparison relatively short. For those interested, send me an email and I
will forward you a more detailed chart.


Population Galicia: 3.2 million
Population Taiwan: 22.8 million

1. Taiwanese and Galician are languages of the home. 42% of Galicians claim
to use Galician as their first language used at home. This compares with
over 70% for Taiwanese.

2. Taiwanese and Galician are spoken mostly by bilinguals
(Taiwanese/Mandarin and Galician/Spanish); Mandarin and Spanish are both
major world languages.

3. Taiwanese and Galician were officially prohibited up to the late
seventies, but everyday use was allowed in the home and the marketplace.
Under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco (1939-1975) even in private,
using Galician was a punishable offence. As a result, very few children born
during this era grew up using Galician. Interestingly, a 1997 study at the
University of Vigo shows that Galician students have fewer difficulties to
speak Galician in comparison with the University's teaching and
administrative staff.

4. Both languages are stigmatized: especially the poor and the rich believe
that speaking Taiwanese and Galician implies a lack of education, lower
socioeconomic status, and a rural upbringing (Baran 2005). The middle
classes tend stigmatize Taiwanese / Galician less. The poorer and richer
Galicians / Taiwanese are still influenced by the mistaken belief,
popularized by Franco and the old KMT respectively, that their mother
tongues were "only" a dialect of Spanish / Mandarin, while in fact, Spanish
(Castilian) itself is a dialect of Hispanic languages, and Mandarin one
dialect of the Han languages.

5. Both Galician and Taiwanese people lack familiarity with the Galician and
Taiwanese written systems. Galician can be written by using the Portuguese
writing system with some adaptations; Taiwanese can be written by using
Mandarin characters with some adaptations. Recently, a Romanized system for
writing Taiwanese has been officially endorsed.

6. In Galician society, English is thought to have as much prestige as (the
official language) Spanish. In Taiwanese society, English is thought to have
even higher prestige as (the official language) Mandarin. Galician and
Taiwanese have considerably less prestige than English in Galicia and Taiwan
respectively. In Galicia, this perception is countered by the importance
attached to Galicia in education. In Taiwan, this perception is strengthened
by the relative insignificance of Taiwanese in education (when comparing
mother tongue education in both societies).

7. Students in Taiwan believe only Mandarin and English to be really
essential to compete for a job; students in Galicia believe that only
Spanish and English are useful for this purpose. In Galicia, more people
believe that English will help in finding a job than the Galician language
will. Galician people are split evenly over the question whether knowing
Galician has an impact on finding a job. This is surprising considering the
fact that Galician, apart from being the official language in Galicia, has a
compulsory presence in education and administration. It should therefore be
perceived as essential to many jobs in Galicia. Students in Taiwan also
consider that only Mandarin and English to be useful in finding a job. But
the Taiwan public is quite unanimous on the question whether proficiency in
Taiwanese has an impact on finding work: they do not believe so. The
all-important difference is that the government in Taiwan follows the
conviction of the people by not giving urgency to Taiwanese mother tongue
education; in Galicia, notwithstanding the people's belief that their mother
tongue is inferior to Spanish and English, the government is implementing
fully bilingual Galician/Spanish language programs.

8. Over three quarters of Galicians say they believe that the Spanish
central government is quite negative toward the Galician language (with 33%
saying the Madrid government to be "very negative"). Despite Galicia's high
degree of autonomy from Madrid, it is difficult to divide the access to
power of Galician and Spanish (Castilian) speakers. Despite the current
situation in Taiwan (which has a pro-Taiwan government), it remains
difficult to clearly divide the access to power of Taiwanese and Mandarin
speakers. In Galicia, the pro-autonomous (pro-Galicia) movement has made the
local Galician language a top priority in its dealings with Madrid. The
Taiwanese language, as well as other indigenous languages on Taiwan, are not
the top priority of the Taiwan government.

9. The Galician public does not believe that their official institutions,
whether social, financial or political, score very high in the amount of
support they provide for the Galician language. The highest support,
Galicians perceive, comes from the autonomous government of Galicia (with
just over 50%). The Spanish government is seen as providing very little
support (16%), which is not surprising considering the historically strong
tensions over language issues between Galicia and Madrid. Similar figures
for Taiwan are unavailable, but there is widespread frustration (albeit for
various reasons and by different groups) about the Taipei government
handling of mother tongue education. Whether people are more satisfied with
local government support for mother tongue education has yet to be

10. In Galicia, Galician is the second or third (behind English) language of
choice after Spanish; in Taiwan, Taiwanese is the third or fourth (behind a
second foreign) language of choice after Mandarin and English. In Galicia,
research shows that the students start showing some concern over Galicia
"only" being a third language. Further data also show that English has made
powerful inroads into Galician society and economy. One must therefore
wonder what potential impact the rise of English as the second language of
choice will have on the acquisition and use of Galician. In Taiwan, no such
concern is voiced by neither public nor academics: everyone seems willing to
jump on the "English second language" bandwagon without asking the relevant
questions, and willing to offer money, time, and probably their own cultural
identity to do so.

11. The Galician society shows little acknowledgment of the responsibility
it should shoulder in improving the low status of the Galician language.
People here do not consider this their responsibility, rather that of the
autonomous Galician government and, at the international level, the European
Union – from which Galicia receives substantial financial support. The
situation in Taiwan is identical: four out of five students judge that it is
the national government in Taipei which is responsible for the maintenance
of Taiwanese. The remaining twenty percent expressed not to have any
opinion, rather than to recognize that supporting a mother tongue has to
start of at grass-roots level, the home and the local communities and
schools. Even if Taipei had a workable plan to save Taiwan's indigenous
languages, the Taiwan public must recognize that the government itself will
never be able to single-handedly rescue Taiwanese and Taiwan's other mother
tongues. The most Taipei will ever be able to do is to provide a foundation
of legal and financial support for Taiwan's minority languages, and to help
foster the conditions for its use within Taiwan. The local communities
themselves will be responsible for language planning from the bottom-up, for
creating native speakers and for providing social networks whose existence
will depend on the use of Taiwanese and other mother tongues.

12. Galician has been recognized as an "exceptional linguistic situation"
within Spain as a result of its particularly pronounced diglossia, in which
Galician is the language of the home for a majority of Galicians, while
Spanish (Castilian) is used almost exclusively in the public sphere. Spain
hereby allows the "territory principle" to govern Galicia (as well as
Catalonia and the Basque Country). This principle is equally applied in
countries like Switzerland (where it originated from) and Belgium (where it
part and parcel of a federal governing system). Within Taiwan, voices are
heard asking for such system to be applied to certain regions, in particular
in central and southern Taiwan. The problem, however, is that Taiwan's
linguistic situation is different from those regions applying the territory
principle. Research has shown that linguistically, the Taiwan public is
bilingual rather than diglossic (Gijsen et al. 2004). A further obstacle to
implementing the territory principle to one or several "special" regions
within Taiwan would be the resistance by native language speakers (e.g.
Taiwanese, Hakka) within those regions. The public here might consider such
policy to be counterproductive to, for example, children learning English or
Mandarin. After all, if their local government would make the local
"dialect" compulsory in schools, as is the case in European regions applying
the territory principle, people might consider the extra pressure on their
children as "unfair". Time would be, according to many, much better spent on
the study of English. The Galicians, Catalonians, and other European
communities have been activists (at times not without violence) in demanding
to be subjected to the territory principle. Such demands are far and between
in Taiwan, with the exception of academics familiar with and hopeful for the
same European system for Taiwan. A handful of Hakka activists demonstrating
in front of the Taipei legislature is still a far cry from mobilizing most
Hakka to be active in first trying to change their language situation at
home or in their local community – which is where all European
linguistically autonomous regions started their campaign. The broader Taiwan
public simply does not crave for more mother tongue education.

13. In 1981 Galicia gained its "Autonomy Statute" from the Madrid
Government. This Statute declared Galician to be "Galicia's own language"
and gave it the status of an official language alongside Spanish
(Castilian). The Statute furthermore granted all citizens the right to know
and use Galician, and stipulated that the Galician Government must guarantee
its use in all areas of activity and promote the knowledge of it. In Taiwan,
Taiwanese is spoken in most parts of the island, with the exception of the
central mountain range, as well as Hsinchu county and the central-western
seaboard. Any Statute similar to that of Galicia seems, arguably, not
feasible for Taiwan: within the predominantly Taiwanese-speaking areas, the
population is not linguistically homogenous. As for an "own language",
modeled on the Galician model: Taiwan has apparently adopted what is known
as the "personality principle", bestowing each person with the "right to use
his or her language". This falls far short of full official status for
Taiwanese or other indigenous languages. No mechanism exists to ensure the
use of Taiwanese in all areas; neither is the Government obliged to promote
the knowledge of Taiwanese – disregarding on purpose its ineffective weekly
hour in "homeland education".

14. In 1983, the Galician Linguistic Standardization Act of 1983 declared
Galician to be the official language of the regional administration and its
associated bodies. This granted citizens the right to fall back on laws to
safeguard their linguistic rights. It contained provisions relating to the
promotion of Galician culture, to the media, to the use of Galician in
dealings between the regional administration and the public, to its use in
the judicial system and within local authorities and with regard to place
names. It also stipulated that Galician must be taught as a compulsory
subject at all levels of education. The number of hours given to the study
of Galician had to be equal to those given to the study of Spanish
(Castilian), with the aim of making pupils equally competent in both
languages by the end of their studies. Unlike the Galician Autonomy Statute,
a Linguistic Standardization Act for Taiwanese, the mother tongue of over 70
percent of people on Taiwan, is feasible. The two most significant hurdles
to overcome, however, would be: a. the Government showing sufficient urgency
and political courage to implement the Act, and b. people at grassroots
level, together with the local institutions as well the national Government
taking concrete action (e.g. information campaigns in local communities,
national media) to convince the public of the medium- to long-term
advantages of mother tongue education. Shortly after its introduction, polls
in Galicia showed that over 30% of the public (most of whom were
Spanish-only speakers) stood "very skeptical" toward the Linguistic
Standardization Act. Some thirty years later, even Spanish (Castilian)-only
speaking parents are sending their children to Galician schools to receive
even (immersion) language education in both official languages. It remains
to be seen whether any Government (whether the reigns of power would change
or not) will have the needed audacity and insight to take similar steps. The
most outspoken opponents, it might be expected, would be Mandarin-only
speaking parents and pupils, politically fervent nationalists, "mandarized"
Taiwanese who have been raised bilingually with the emphasis strongly on
Mandarin Chinese, and – significantly – those Taiwanese who consider their
mother tongue to be inferior and who therefore opt for a Mandarin/English
bilingual education. I believe most members of the Government, principally
the Ministry of Education, to fall under the latter category.
Notwithstanding numerous statements, merely backed up by unproductive
language education guidelines and statements of good intent toward Taiwan's
indigenous languages, the Government's language policy has failed.

15. Galician and Taiwanese are spoken outside Spain and Taiwan respectively:
Galician in Argentina, Taiwanese in Southern China and Singapore


Lecours, A. (2001). Regionalism, Cultural Diversity and the State in Spain.
Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development (3) 22, 210-226.

NSC-project 92-2411-H-214-001; Gijsen, Liu, Tsai

Language Ideologies and Education in Taiwan . Journal Article for a special
issue of the International Journal of the Sociology of Language . Editor:
Robert Cheng . 2005

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