Taiwan: Learning from India's policies on language

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Mon Jan 8 14:20:59 UTC 2007

Published on Taipei Times

Learning from India's policies on language

By Tiu Hak-khiam

Sunday, Jan 07, 2007, Page 8

"Taiwan needs a language movement modeled on India's active approach to
obtaining language recognition."

India is a democratic multi-ethnic, multicultural, multilingual and
multi-religious country. It has about 400 different languages, 22 of which
are recognized as languages by the Indian government. Despite the conflict
over definition/identification of languages, India has still been able to
expand the scope of recognized languages by offering official status to
languages from different ethnic groups. The Indian experience offers a
valuable reference for Taiwan. As of today, there are no stipulations in
Taiwan's Constitution concerning language. This is a sharp contrast to the
language stipulations in India's Constitution.

India's Constitution is not perfect, but it is capable of regulating the
status and function of federal and state languages as well as protecting
minority language rights. In Taiwan, legislation only provides the
languages of the different ethnic groups with passive protection against
language discrimination, but it does not offer positive rights. The
government should take steps towards language recognition and positive
language rights. There are lessons to be learned from India's language
politics. Taiwan's proposed Language Equality Law (yk) lists 14 national

The draft law has been opposed by those who say that official
multilingualism will lead to ethnic conflict, social unrest, and
communication problems. They therefore advocate linguistic assimilation.
The Indian experience shows that language assimilation policies and
non-recognition of minority languages will neither be able to build a
feeling of community nor prevent social conflict, but rather will create
alienation and dissatisfaction among minority groups. Recognizing the
status of the languages of the different ethnic groups will promote ethnic
reconciliation and linguistic harmony. In fact, about a quarter of
countries have more than one official language. For example, South
Africa's Constitution recognizes 11 official languages, and Switzerland
recognizes French, German, Italian and Romansh as their official
languages. That kind of multilingual policy based on diversity is the kind
of language recognition model that Taiwan should pursue.

Taiwan needs a language movement modeled on India's active approach to
obtaining language recognition. All ethnic groups in Taiwan should unite
in their pursuit of recognition. Taiwan's past rulers have taken a
divide-and-rule approach, which has led to suspicion and distrust between
the different groups and made it impossible for them to unite. As a
result, the linguistic dominance of Mandarin continues and the status of
local languages continues to be unimportant. Ethnic groups must build
mutual trust and work together in their quest for official language

Tiu Hak-khiam is an associate professor in the department of Chinese
literature at National Taitung University.

Translated by Lin Ya-ti

Copyright  1999-2007 The Taipei Times. All rights reserved.


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