[lg policy] Taiwan: The soft power of openness to other languages

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Fri May 18 10:29:54 EDT 2018

The soft power of openness to other languages

Taiwan has begun to officially recognize its various languages, a sign of
its values of openness and tolerance – and independence from China and its
imposed language policy.

May 17, 2018

   - By the Monitor's Editorial Board

A country’s attractiveness to the rest of the world can come in many forms,
such as cultural exports, foreign aid, high-tech inventions, or its degree
of freedom. One type of “soft power,” however, is often overlooked: a
generosity toward languages.

In recent months, the island nation of Taiwan, which has been conquered by
several foreign forces in recent history, is moving fast to embrace its
language diversity. Last year, it gave “national status” to the mother
tongues of minority indigenous groups, many of whom live in the mountains.
And soon legislators are expected to define Taiwanese, which is widely
spoken, as a national language.

The move may seem strange, but it is an effort to free Taiwan of a language
imposed on it – Mandarin Chinese – in 1949 when the army of Chiang Kai-shek
fled from the mainland to escape the takeover of China by the Communist
Party. Chiang tried to end the use of Taiwanese and other languages,
enforcing Mandarin in schools and official documents on the assumption that
his Nationalist Party would eventually rule the mainland again.
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If anything, it is now Beijing’s ruling party that is bearing down on
Taiwan and its 22 million people, claiming the island is simply a renegade
province. In recent months, China has sent war planes and naval ships
closer to the island’s maritime border.

Taiwan has never officially declared independence out of fear of
retribution from China. Yet it has effectively claimed independence in
other ways. Since 1987, it has moved steadily toward democracy. It
maintains diplomatic ties with many nations. And now it has broadened its
official languages beyond Mandarin.

Its language policy is in sharp contrast with that in China, where a law
enacted in 2000 requires Mandarin as the sole national language – despite
the presence of more than 100 local languages. Beijing has imposed the
language in the classrooms of ethnic minorities and has jailed at least one
activist, in Tibet, who campaigned to maintain the local language. And the
policy has caused a backlash in Hong Kong, whose identity is embedded in
the Cantonese language.

Many nations, such as Canada and India, have learned how to tolerate
different languages while still finding a way to conduct business and the
work of government. Their openness to other tongues is an attraction more
than a nuisance, especially in a global economy.


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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