Taiwan's language diversity in danger of erosion

As a country that experienced successive waves of colonization against a diverse Indigenous population, Taiwan is a multilingual society, but power relations among languages are far from equal.

Originally inhabited by Austronesian tribes, of whom 16 are recognized today, Taiwan initially spoke Formosan languages, part of the Austronesian family. Successive Dutch, Spanish, and Japanese colonization imposed other languages. Massive migration from mainland China in the 17th century brought Min Chinese languages, followed by Mandarin Chinese after the Kuomintang (KMT) forces sought refuge on the island in 1949 and imposed the language as the sole official one. Today, Taiwan recognizes a multiplicity of Indigenous and Chinese languages as part of Taiwanese society.

Yet according to a recent poll released by the Professor Huang Kun-huei Education Foundation, 68.4 percent of those surveyed viewed “native” languages as in danger of disappearing. This referred to both Min Chinese languages, such as Taiwanese Hokkien, Hakka, and to Taiwan's Indigenous languages. Moreover, only 37.2 percent of the surveyed viewed the Ministry of Education’s policies as effective in preserving native languages.

According to Huang Kun-heui, the chair of the foundation, the use of Taiwanese Hokkien has decreased by 60 percent in the last three generations, the use of Hakka by 70 percent, and Indigenous languages by 90 percent. Huang was citing statistics from the Ministry of Education.

Identity conflicts

Poll after poll shows that more people identified with their Taiwanese identity in recent years while fewer feel a sense of Chinese identity, particularly among young people. At the same time, rising identity trends have not resulted in a turn toward language revitalization among young people.

This may be due to several factors. Contemporary Taiwanese young people have increasingly embraced a civic form of national identity in the wake of the 2014 Sunflower Movement that rejects the “benshengren” ethno-nationalism of the 2000s. Likewise, as compared to Hong Kong, say, the fear of “mainlandization” — wherein they may be reincorporated into mainland China like Hong Kong and Macao were in the 20th century — in Taiwan is not a direct threat, in that threats from China occur from without, and Taiwan no longer sees the large influx of Chinese tourists that it did in past years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Still, in spite of such apparent concerns from the Taiwanese public, the concerns of the government have sometimes been elsewhere. In 2022, there was pushback from academics against the current Tsai Ing-wen administration’s Bilingual 2030 policy, with criticisms that English has been focused on at the expense of local languages. As such, a petition was launched by the Taiwan Languages and Literature Society, quickly gaining 1,700 signatories. This includes 400 educators who teach on college campuses and 400 elementary and middle school teachers.

To this extent, the petition pointed to Taiwan’s history of colonization and the imposition of linguistic hegemony by colonizers and claimed there as evidence of an ongoing campaign targeting local languages. The petition took aim at what it perceives as the Tsai administration’s fixation on becoming similar to Singapore in terms of language policy.

As such, the petition argued that not only are plans for bilingual policy inclusive of English likely to fail, but that this also disregards Taiwan’s existing linguistic diversity. The petition thus instead calls for a “Multilingual Taiwan” that is also “English friendly,” rather than an agenda that tries to pass Taiwan off as an English-speaking country.

Indeed, as a result of the Tsai administration’s educational policy, a number of schools have sought to rebrand themselves as bilingual in order to try and attract students in past years. This occurs at a time in which a declining birthrate means fewer students than ever, but as with the excessively larger number of unregulated educational systems in Taiwan, one expects that this may create issues down the line.

Moreover, there has long been political contestation about government resources dedicated to promoting local languages, such as conflicts in the past about whether to establish a Taiwanese Hokkien public television network. Funding for Indigenous or Hakka programming also remains tenuous at times. Official statements by the government on the importance of Indigenous issues have not been followed up by action in many cases, as seen in challenges for Indigenous name recognition on official IDs.

The pro-Kuomintang camp has continued, in many cases, to be hostile towards efforts to preserve native languages. This returns to the pan-Chinese nationalism of the KMT. For example, the KMT has attacked the Tsai administration as attempting cultural “de-Sinicization” in the past because of efforts to reduce the percentage of classical Chinese that is taught in schools. As such, the issue of calling for the preservation of native languages remains a contested issue. This is ironic when the reason for the decline of such languages was the KMT's attempt to stamp out the speaking of other languages with bans and punishments so as to promote Mandarin. Yet even decades after democratization and close to a century after the KMT’s retreat to Taiwan following the Chinese Civil War, the KMT continues to act to try and defend Mandarin hegemony in Taiwan at the expense of other languages.

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