Taiwanese support government's plan to promote languages at risk of disappearing

Databases will be built for the various languages, with the ambitious aim of devising standardised writing systems. PHOTO: NYTIMES

TAIPEI - After a pledge to make the Taiwanese fluent in English by 2030 drew concern from academics that English would be given undue priority over indigenous languages, the island's Cabinet this month approved an NT$30 billion (S$1.4 billion) budget plan to develop languages used by Taiwan's various ethnic groups.

The proposal was put together by the Ministry of Culture, the Council of Indigenous Peoples, the Hakka Affairs Council, and the Ministry of Education, with the ultimate goal of revitalising, preserving and developing the use of spoken and sign languages used by ethnic groups in Taiwan.

According to the Culture Ministry, Taiwanese Hokkien, Taiwan's sign languages, Hakka, Matsu, and indigenous languages, are all at risk of disappearing.

Many Taiwanese have applauded the decision.

"I tried to speak as much Taiwanese (Hokkien) to my children as possible, but as they grew up they gradually spoke only Mandarin," said housewife Lin Shu-huei, 59.

While Mandarin is now the official language used by all Taiwanese, Ms Lin had grown up speaking Taiwanese with her family, and considered the language a crucial part of her identity, something she wanted to pass down to her two daughters.

"I spoke Taiwanese less and less because I was ashamed of how unfamiliar I am with the language, but the government's plan might help younger people like me," said Ms Jie-hsin Chen, Ms Lin's 26-year-old daughter, who works in a bank.

"I think it's right to give this plan priority over the 'Bilingual by 2030' plan, to prevent English from encroaching on languages used every day by the Taiwanese people," said Mr Eric Yang, 43, an English-language education adviser.

The Culture Ministry said education policies would be established for Taiwanese Hokkien, Matsu and Taiwan's sign languages, all of which are currently not managed by any government agency.

These would include developing teaching resources and test systems that allow learners to earn language proficiency certificates.

Databases will be built for the various languages, with the ambitious aim of devising standardised writing systems. Taiwanese, Hakka and Matsu, which is akin to the Fuzhou dialect, are regarded as spoken languages and lack a written form.

"(The plan) will tackle the issue at family, school and society levels, to stimulate the use of national languages in daily life and foster native-speaking households and communities," said Premier Su Tseng-chang, who promised Taiwan will ensure that "national" languages are passed on to future generations.

Cabinet spokesman Lo Ping-cheng quoted Mr Su as also saying at the Cabinet meeting on May 12 that while the government will not designate English as Taiwan's second official language, it aims to raise the level of English proficiency in the island to improve its overall competitiveness.

Mr Mayaw Biho, 43, the founder of two indigenous language schools in Hualien and Pingtung, said: "Having a system would mean indigenous children have more learning resources in school, instead of struggling to learn a language that is not their own."

Amis elders crowning children with lilies at a preschool's commencement ceremony. PHOTO: MAYAW BIHO

All public elementary schools in Taiwan offer classes in mother tongues to students, but indigenous students often are faced with a shortage of teachers who are able to teach the specific language spoken by their tribes.

In addition to having qualified teachers, Mr Mayaw Biho, who is of the Amis tribe, has recruited the help of Amis elders who can teach youngsters the tribe's traditions.

The government is aiming to do the same - the Culture Ministry says that data and information used to preserve these languages will be collected through interviews with older Taiwanese and language experts.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.