Taiwan: A Misguided Attempt at Modernity?

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Mon Sep 22 13:46:29 UTC 2008

A Misguided Attempt at Modernity?


Somewhat belatedly, I came across a study by Chu-Hsia Wu and Andrew
Hung from National Chen-Kung University. They found that a mere 6% of
teenagers in National Tainan First Senior High School still use
Taiwanese in their daily life. The number for Mandarin stands at 76%.
Eight percent of respondents in the survey regarded their Taiwanese as
'very fluent', compared with 62% for Mandarin. At home, 42% of
respondents reported using Taiwanese, with 56% using Mandarin. Even
though 42% is higher than the accepted threshold of 30% for a language
to survive, the percentage is far below the 70% level to maintain a

Although the study was limited in scope (50 valid questionnaires from
two classes), it confirms findings reported upon on in some of my
previous posts:

1. Mandarin has invaded and is dominating Taiwanese language communities.
2. Taiwanese is fast giving up its last stronghold, i.e. that of the home.

Significantly however, 68% of teenagers feel a 'sense of intimacy'
when they talk to friends or relatives in Taiwanese, compared with
only 34% in Mandarin. Respondents' attitudes to Taiwanese in our own
surveys was equally positive. Wu and Hung point out that this fact
alone might be helpful in maintaining the vitality of Taiwanese. Yet,
I agree with my colleagues in Tainan when they warn that, if there is
no economic (read: $$) or political factor intervening in Taiwan's
language market, Taiwanese will cease to be spoken, except in personal
activities as counting, praying, and dreaming.


Educators recognizing the link between these three acknowledge that
Taiwan's language-in-education policies which they have been relying
on to usher in economic and social progress have simply not worked.
Parents wonder why they are investing so heavily in an education that
yields poor employment prospects. Teachers spend their careers
attempting to communicate knowledge in an international language
(English, but also Mandarin) to students who cannot assimilate it.
Education officers in Taiwan's poorest rural areas despair of ever
improving the standing of their schools when many of their students
fail to pass exams. Education authorities in Taipei (now as during the
past eight years) dig their ostrich heads deep into the sand and point
out that ineffective schooling exists in other Asian nations as well.

And what about Taipei's commitment to the goals of Education for All?
Means, goals and outcomes are dubious at best. Education for All
implies more than throwing school doors wide open and giving
underprivileged students an equally wide smile upon arrival. Improved
quality of education and expanded educational opportunities for the
marginalized and underserved ('rural') Taiwanese has, undoubtedly, not
been sufficient and fast enough.

I believe that these concerns can be addressed by explicitly including
the child's mother tongue in formal education. And since I'm not alone
in believing so, I state this confidently. The research today is clear
that using the learners' mother tongue is crucial to effective
learning. My personal experience as a pupil in Belgium only reinforces
my conviction in this matter. Although in Taiwan a mere 32% of boys
and 28% of girls aged 16-29 use Taiwanese-only at home (Gijsen et al.
2008), the island will only achieve true Education for All if the
language of instruction is also those youngsters' mother tongue. At
least three out of ten children in Taiwan have no choice but to follow
classes in a language their parents hardly speak to them. Papua New
Guinea, a country with 820 indigenous languages does better than that!
Or to put it in the words of Vigdis Finnbogadditor, Former President
of Ireland and UNESCO's Goodwill Ambassador for Languages:

Everyone loses if one language is lost because then a nation and
culture lose their memory, and so does the complex tapestry from which
the nation is woven and which makes it an exciting place.

It is also against this backdrop that I can wryly say that even
China's language researchers are doing more to keep their country "an
exciting place" than their counterparts in Taiwan (no, this blogger
does not consider Taiwan to be part of China).

Taiwan's education officials want to prepare their students for
globalization. Ok. But globalization and democratic ideals strongly
suggest that students must be proficient in international AND regional
languages to gain access to a broader society and to participate
meaningfully in their world. In Taiwan, this means no more than being
proficient in English and Mandarin (often in that order), with no
economic role for Taiwanese or Taiwan's indigenous languages. Our
education offers instruction in national and international languages
only, with no place for the home language of over thirty percent of

Some linguistic findings (not 'theories') pointing out the unfairness
toward Taiwanese mother tongue children:

1. Primary school education in the child's home language (MTE or
mother tongue education) improves overall performance in school
subjects. In New Zealand, a recent (major) study showed that Maori
children who received basic education in their own language performed
better than those educated in English only;

2. MTE early on in school gives students an (even) greater ability in
solving mathematical problems. Imagine a child hearing Mandarin all
day at school but only hearing and speaking Taiwanese with parents and
grandparents. If that child would not increasingly switch to Mandarin
(which unfortunately is the case in Taiwan), his or her math results
would be better than the Mandarin-only speaking pupil. This has been
proven to be the case in, to name one example, UNESCO-funded research
in multilingual countries such as Mali, Peru, South Africa and New
Zealand – with their respective indigenous languages of course;

3. MTE gives students greater assurance in speaking Mandarin. As
stated above, Wu and Hung's study found that 62% of teenagers said
they spoke Mandarin 'very fluently'. A 2004 study we did in Flanders
(for Dutch), Germany (for German), France (for French) and Japan (for
Japanese) showed the following respective results for the same
question: 86%, 93%, 90%, 89% (age group: 14-18). Fact: Taiwan's
primary and high school education is even failing to teach youngsters
their 'national' language;

4. MTE creates fewer disparities in learning outcomes between girls
and boys and between urban and rural students. I will get back to this
point a bit later on;

5. MTE generates greater self-esteem among students. And self-esteem =
confidence = 6.

6. MTE generates more active participation in, especially, primary and
secondary (high) schools.

Add to this that an increasing number of studies are comparing
education in the national language (only) with bilingual education in
both the mother tongue and the national language. Again, those
students receiving primary education in the mother tongue obtain
better overall results in identical tests to those of national
language-only education – including in the national language. This is
quite an achievement since the bilingual students spend less time
learning the national language than their peers (they start two to
four years later). Unlike their peers, however, they acquire
additional mother tongue language competencies, with its cognitive


Taiwanese children having Taiwanese as mother tongue must be allowed
(as in: they have a right) to receive education in both the mother
tongue and Mandarin. They will obtain better results and their
capacity to learn will improve. Learning in the mother tongue also has
an important emotional value. Taiwanese mother tongue children who can
freely use their language in class will feel more respected when their
home language is also used by their teachers. My parents never spoke
Dutch at home, neither with me nor among themselves. Dutch was (and
still is) the official language in Flanders. But over half of my
teachers constantly used Flemish in primary school to explain
otherwise Dutch textbook content (about three quarters of the class
consisted of Flemish mother tongue speakers). That was before language
research (and the Belgian press) started reporting on the advantages
of mother tongue education. (And as far as I recall, my teachers'
Dutch was equally perfect!). This practice does occur in Taiwan, but
only as a far cry from what language research suggests should happen
to encourage the pupil's learning and class participation process.

Meanwhile, the public has a right to be properly informed about the
advantages of bilingual education (e.g. how mother tongue education
will help the child in speaking better English – yes, English). How I
always found it odd, for instance, that English teachers from one
country are basically shunned in Taiwan, although that country is one
of the world leaders in the development of multilingual education
systems and in preparing teachers to use bilingual education. That
country is India, and it has about 80 languages currently being used
to teach children at different levels of schooling. Yet, an English
teacher from India is frowned upon by parents in Taiwan because of his
or her 'accent'.

This situation is even more bizarre since if one considers that Taiwan
imports often monolingual native English speakers with no exposure to
bilingual education except for what they have learned in their
MA-textbooks. Linguistically, Taiwan is therefore more similar to
Africa or South America, where the languages of the former colonial
powers – English, French, Spanish and Portuguese – still dominate
education systems. What political friendship with one country and a
blind fascination with that people's accent (and culture) can do in
determining a nation's entire language education! And what it can do
to stifle one's own identity..

Simply put, children who speak Taiwanese at home but who have to use
Mandarin in school get three messages:

1. that if they want to succeed intellectually it won't be by using
their mother tongue.
2. that their mother tongue is useless.
3. that the culture linked to their mother tongue is inferior.


As stated by French author Louis-Jean Calvet in his fascinating book
La Guerre des langues et les politiques linguistiques (The language
war and language policy), the war of languages is always part of a
wider war. That wider war in Taiwan is a political one, one of
associating linguistic and cultural (identity) aspirations with either
the KMT or DPP. Taiwanese-speaking parents are made to believe that
it's English and Mandarin that will bring 1001 blessing to their
children, not 'international standard' (my punch at a favorite local
expression) bilingual education.

Also, many Taiwanese believe the myth that mother tongue education in
Taiwanese equals separatism in a thinly veiled disguise. Although
started as criticism from the KMT for its political opponents, the DPP
is also to blame for this perception. For eight years they have used
the Taiwanese language to promote their political agenda, while
efforts to uplift Taiwanese itself were mostly symbolic. In
particular, the opportunity to develop and implement a workable
written system for the Taiwanese language – a prerequisite for fully
implementing bilingual education - was largely (and I'm afraid
purposefully) missed. Furthermore, extreme political dichotomy and a
lack of linguistic common sense still prevents both parties to – at
least – agree on an innovative (as in: less outdated) educational
language policy. Taiwanese mother tongue speakers as well mother
tongue speakers of Taiwan's indigenous languages deserve better than
this. (note: no, this blogger is not a KMT supporter)

Uplifting a language is huge and costly, as Peru discovered in 1975
when it declared Quecha an official language. It involved translating
(and often transcribing) all official documents and teaching it in
schools (50/50 at primary school level). Since the Peruvian government
estimated it needed 200.000 teachers to do this, they gradually
abandoned the scheme. But then pressure for widespread bilingual
(mother tongue, Quecha + national language, Spanish) started coming
from the indigenous people themselves; they became increasingly aware
of their rights and demanded recognition of their culture. Now,
Spanish and Quecha both co-exist as Peru's official languages. And
although problems persist (lack of teachers, quality of education),
bilingual Quecha/Spanish education is becoming ever more popular.


Language and identity are linked – as the term 'mother tongue'
implies. A community expresses part of its identity in the languages
it teaches. A healthy society chooses languages that promote
harmonious communities and confident individuals. Years of research
have shown that children who begin their education in their mother
tongue make a better start, and continue to perform better, than those
for whom school starts with a new language. The same applies to adults
seeking to become literate. This conclusion is now widely implemented,
although Taiwan insists on imposing not one, but two foreign languages
of instruction (Mandarin and English) on the 3 out of 10 young
children who only hear and speak Taiwanese at home. This is, at best,
a misguided attempt at modernity. At its worst, it is the expression
of the pre-eminence of a dominant Anglo-American culture, as well as
that of a single Chinese culture.


Wu, Chu-Hsia & Hung, Andrew 2006. A case study of teenagers' use of
Southern Min and attitudes toward the language. In: Papers from the
30th Annual Meeting of the Atlantic Provinces Linguistic Association.
Halifax, Canada.

UNESCO documents and publications: http://unesdoc.unesco.org/ulis/

Calvet, Louis-Jean 1999. La Guerre des langues et les politiques
linguistiques. Hachette. Paris.


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