[lg policy] Living Through Language

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Sat Nov 24 11:19:06 EST 2018

Living Through Language
by Ben Parker <https://topics.amcham.com.tw/author/benparker/>on November
21, 2018 <https://topics.amcham.com.tw/2018/11/living-through-language/>
The children of immigrant mothers at a Vietnamese language class in their
middle school. Photo: CNA
<https://www.woodpeckerlearning.com>Click to Translate is Off
*The government is making a strong effort to preserve Taiwan’s endangered
languages so as to maintain a multicultural society.  *

Taiwan has long been a place of linguistic diversity. Besides the Chinese
languages of Mandarin, Hokkien (Taiwanese), and Hakka, the various
indigenous tribes have each had their own version of an Austronesian
language, and many senior citizens are still fluent in Japanese due to
Japan’s previous colonial rule over the island.

Today many of Taiwan’s languages are in decline despite government
revitalization campaigns begun in the 1990s. Over the past few years, the
authorities have redoubled efforts, including programs that are part of the
public education system, to prevent the disappearance of endangered

Although evidence of a human presence in Taiwan dates back 20,000 to 30,000
years, the ancestors of the present-day aboriginal groups are believed to
have come to the island from the Asian mainland starting about 5,000 years
ago. The first Chinese-speaking settlers were mainly from Guangdong and
Fujian, the provinces closest to Taiwan, through waves of immigration
beginning in the 17th century. Neither the Dutch nor the Spanish, who both
sought to colonize Taiwan in the 1600s, left any lasting linguistic

Over the next several centuries, immigrants from China continued to pour
in, establishing Hokkien, the southern Fukien dialect (Minnan yu), as the
main language in Taiwan.

After the Qing Dynasty’s defeat in the 1895 Sino-Japanese War led to
Taiwan’s cessation to Japan, strict language policies were imposed on the
colony. Use of Taiwanese language in the press was banned, and Japanese
generally replaced Taiwanese as the language of instruction in the schools.

The controls were a source of resentment and occasional pushback. For
example, troupes putting on local forms of entertainment such as puppet
shows would often begin the performance in Japanese for the benefit of the
local authorities, and then slip into Taiwanese once the Japanese censors
had left.

The end of World War II in 1945 brought the departure of the Japanese
presence and Taiwan’s return to the Republic of China. After losing a civil
war to the Communists in 1949, the ROC government under Chiang Kai-shek and
his Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) retreated from the mainland to Taiwan.

By most accounts, Taiwan’s local languages fared little better under the
new administration than under the Japanese. Mandarin was made the official
language and language of instruction. Again, other languages were banned
from public broadcast or restricted in their use.

“In school, if you spoke in dialect or an indigenous language, you would be
punished,” Lo Mei-ching, senior executive officer in the government’s
Council of Indigenous Peoples, says of the Chiang era. “We couldn’t use our
own language in public either – we would also be punished. So naturally you
wouldn’t use it at home as well. These are the reasons our languages are

The policies of that period have had a deep, lasting impact on current
language use in Taiwan. Today, fluency in Mandarin is almost universal, and
the numbers of speakers of Taiwanese, Hakka, and indigenous languages are
all declining. According to data from the Taiwan Statistics Bureau, in the
case of 69.7% of children aged 6 to 14, some Taiwanese is spoken at home,
while that is true for 83.6% of those aged 25 to 44. In contrast, 96% of
all children aged six to 14 in Taiwan speak Mandarin at home.

Even those children who hear Taiwanese or other languages at home often
learn them incompletely, preferring to communicate in Mandarin. When they
in turn have children, the non-Mandarin language is unlikely to be passed
on to the next generation.

The rapid aging of the population serves to exacerbate the issue. Says Liu
Yue-lan, a Hakka woman who runs a convenience store in the Hakka Cultural
Park in Taipei: “The young people move to the north, to the big cities. In
the villages, it’s all older people, and when we have celebrations with
songs, it’s only the old people who have the time to go sing. The biggest
problem that Taiwanese society is currently facing is there are many, many
old people.”

In most of the large cities, Mandarin is predominant and serves as a lingua
franca when members of different ethnic or language groups communicate. The
lack of consistent contact with a language causes proficiency to erode, and
many of those who have become used to speaking Mandarin outside the home
may gradually find themselves also speaking it at home.

Still, Taiwan’s local languages continue to have their cultural and
political significance, as becomes evident during election season. For
example, Presidents Ma Ying-Jeou and Tsai Ing-wen, neither of whom is a
native speaker of Taiwanese, have both made great efforts to speak in
Hokkien when campaigning. In Taiwan’s political landscape, it is vital to
show oneself to be a member of the community.

The first attempts to preserve language diversity in Taiwan followed the
ending of martial law in 1987. “In school, people could study their own
language,” Lo says of the programs that were introduced in the 1990s. “If
you were Amis, you would have an Amis teacher to teach the Amis language.
But you’d only have one hour of class a week.”

The more formal, most heavily subsidized programs tend to target the less
frequently spoken languages, including the indigenous tongues and Hakka.
Out of the seven government-operated television stations, one is dedicated
to content in Hakka and one to the indigenous languages. None of the seven
broadcasts exclusively in Taiwanese.

According to Zhang Tang-bing, an active member of the Hakka community, the
government has long earmarked funds to promote Hakka culture. Every county,
he notes, has its own Hakka Association where members of the Hakka minority
can gather, spend time together, and practice the language by engaging in
activities such as singing traditional Hakka folk songs.

Despite the efforts of these organizations, many young Hakkas lack a
complete grasp of the language, instead preferring to communicate in
Taiwanese or Mandarin. Though many are generally able to understand when
spoken to in Hakka, they are unable to pass the language on to their own
children, leading to a shift away from Hakka and towards Mandarin. In a
2012-2013 study, only 16% of Hakka teenagers were found to speak the
language fluently.

It seems that while the past govern-mental efforts have slowed language
disappearance, they have not succeeded in rejuvenating Taiwan’s secondary
languages. In a survey organized by the Council of Indigenous People and
administered by Shih Hsin University, less than 40% of aboriginal children
under 10 years of age reported using an indigenous language on a regular
basis, and the proportion of adult respondents who teach their children
indigenous tongues is around 30%. “These low numbers “hinder the
generational flow of language,” the study concluded.
*Redoubled Efforts*

In response to the limited success of the earlier language reforms, the
government has sought to deepen and broaden the efforts, and significant
progress has been achieved over the past several years. The motivation
behind these efforts has been the fact that multiculturalism is now seen as
an integral part of the Taiwanese experience. Preserving it is therefore
regarded as vital to maintaining Taiwan’s identity.

Few of the reform programs have focused on Taiwanese. Though use of the
language is in decline, it is still spoken by more than 80% of the
population and remains a language in everyday use. For the moment, the
focus is on languages in more imminent need of aid, such as Hakka.

The Hakka Basic Act, passed in 2013, stipulates that “people’s right to use
[the Hakka language] for public services, dissemination of resources, and
as a language of learning shall be guaranteed.”

In December 2017, the Legislative Yuan passed an amendment further
stipulating that Hakka be considered a “national language” of Taiwan.
Legally, Taiwan has no official language, though the de facto national
language remains Mandarin.

The Hakka Basic Act also pro-vides that the government will fund and
provide support for Hakka cultural development, including the use of Hakka
in schools and kindergartens as well as Hakka-language radio and television

Legislation has also been enacted to target indigenous language loss,
notably the Indigenous Languages Development Act passed in June 2017.
Although indigenous people represent 2.3% of Taiwan’s population,
reportedly only 1.4% of the population speak any form of indigenous
language. Citing a study conducted by the Council on Indigenous People in
2012, Lo says that “in everyday exchanges, more than 89% of indigenous
people usually use Mandarin to talk to each other.”

In addition, that 1.4% is shared among 16 languages and 42 subdivisions and
dialects recognized by the Taiwan government. “The study found that of our
languages and dialects, each is facing a dire predicament. Of those 42
subdivisions, 10 are facing imminent extinction,” says Lo. “Among the Thao
people, for example, there are only around 300 remaining speakers. And
there aren’t even 10 left who speak the language fluently.”

As the push to preserve Taiwan’s linguistic diversity continues, the budget
of the Council of Indigenous Peoples has grown considerably. Besides
administering programs directly, it also gives grants and subsidies to NGOs
to establish community centers and schools to create a language-learning

For the 10 indigenous languages with the highest risk of extinction, the
Council has created a “babysitter pro-gram” in which speakers of indigenous
tongues care for children up to 2 years of age. From the ages of 2 to 5,
children can attend indigenous language daycare centers. The goal is to
immerse children in the language from birth and provide a stable foundation
to continue learning the languages later in life. To ensure the speaking
abilities of the child caretakers, applicants must pass a language ability
test administered by the Indigenous Peoples Department of each county.

Moreover, the Legislative Yuan is currently considering a proposal for a
National Languages Development Act, which is expected to pass.  “The
legislative spirit of the National Language Development Law is to respect
Taiwan’s multiculturalism, and language is often the core of culture,” says
Chang Liao Wan-chien, the lawmaker who proposed the bill. “The death of
language is the demise of culture. The inheritance of language through
legislation guarantees the sustainable development of culture.”

The bill calls for a regular conference on the status of Taiwan’s national
languages, requires a census mechanism and database system to keep track of
language use, and provides additional resources for research and
development. Instruction in one of Taiwan’s “national” languages – meaning
Hokkien, Hakka, and the indigenous languages – will be guaranteed as a part
of a basic education, and subsidies will be given to radio and television
broadcasters who pro-duce content in the national languages. The bill goes
as far as to make Taiwanese Sign Language (TSL) a national language of

In June this year the Council of Indigenous Peoples announced a new program
aimed at indigenous university students. For those interested in continuing
their education in indigenous languages, seven universities have been
designated as “language learning centers” for indigenous languages. At
several of those universities, college students already proficient in one
of the languages can tutor interested young children, restoring the cycle
of passing language on.

This program is in addition to the Ministry of Education’s policy of
funding 10 tuition-free study-abroad opportunities for indigenous students.
As another incentive to learn indigenous languages, applicants for those
spots must first pass the Indigenous Language Special Examination.

Although the future of Taiwan’s linguistic diversity remains uncertain,
clearly the political will exists to preserve the languages of this
multiethnic and multicultural country. Taiwan is still at the beginning
stage of what will need to be a long-term, dedicated effort.


 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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