ROC Taiwan 2002

ROC Yearbook 2002


Languages in Taiwan Today

The Native Languages

For many years, native languages like Southern Fujianese (often called Taiwanese 臺灣話, spoken natively by perhaps 70 percent of the people of Taiwan) and Hakka, as well as the aborigine languages, were not given much official attention in Taiwan. In the process of making sure everyone mastered the common national language, the importance of other dialects and languages was played down. For example, Taiwanese dialect pop songs tended in the past to be stereotyped and relegated to a subordinate position in the market. In recent years, however, Southern Fujianese has entered the mainstream of popular culture. Singers are often expected to produce at least a few songs or an album in Southern Fujianese. Use of Southern Fujianese in advertising and business--from TV commercials to restaurant names--is considered fashionable. Bookstores now offer entire sections of literature written in a style reflecting spoken Southern Fujianese. Hakka, on the other hand, is being spoken less by younger generations who favor Mandarin and Southern Fujianese.

There are nearly four million Hakka people in Taiwan, but many of the young generation can no longer speak their mother tongue well. Therefore, the Council for Hakka Affairs (CHA) 客家委員會 was formally established on June 14, 2001. The top priority of the CHA is to preserve the Hakka language and revitalize Hakka culture. Following the CHA, the Research and Development Association on Formosan Language and Culture 福爾摩莎語言文化研究發展協會 became operational on June 17, 2001, in Hsinchu County, which has a high concentration of ethnic Hakka. Headed by Professor Ku Kuo-shun 古國順, who is also the director of the Institute of Applied Linguistics at National Taipei Teachers' College, the association works on projects such as compiling Hakka language textbooks, training Hakka language teachers, operating Hakka broadcasting study centers, and hosting various Hakka arts and cultural events.

Distribution of Regional Dialects in Taiwan

Many aboriginal people are bilingual and have been assimilated into mainstream society. Although more people today are willing to identify with their aboriginal ancestry than in the past, the new generation who grew up in cities can no longer converse in their ancestral tongues. To rectify this, in June 2001, the Taipei City Government's Council of Aboriginal Affairs (CAA) 原住民事務委員會 cosponsored two aboriginal radio programs--one on the Taipei Broadcasting Station and the other on the Broadcasting Corp. of China--to introduce aboriginal languages, cultures, activities, as well as the latest policies and welfare packages to the aborigines in Taipei. Around the same time, the first program to combine the concept of local language education and childcare was also launched by the Taipei City Government, which has 632 Taiwanese-, 86 Hakka-, one Ami- 阿美, and two Ataya- 泰雅 speaking nannies. The aim was to expose children to native languages during their preschool years, as this is believed to be the critical stage for language learning.

Although the majority of the aborigines in Taipei's primary schools are either Ami, Ataya, Paiwan 排灣, or Bunun 布農 (500, 164, 92, and 67 students respectively), most are scattered throughout different schools. Therefore, in July 2001, the CAA adapted New Zealand's Kohanga Reo programme for the Maoris and implemented the Scheme of Aboriginal Language Networks 原住民語言巢方案 in its 12 districts to provide total immersion education. This scheme facilitates aboriginal tutors and parents to build up the best approaches and curriculum for their own particular groups. As only one Yami 雅美 student studied in Taipei City, the CAA invited one Yami tutor and two from each of the other tribes to work with the children.

The Taipei Bureau of Education's statistics only include children who are formally registered as aborigine. Many children with maternal aborigine heritage were thus excluded, in accordance with the Aborigine Identification Law 原住民身分法 implemented in January 2001. Such children would need to change their surname to their mothers' in order to obtain formal recognition. The CAA's scheme, however, not only welcomes aboriginal children who were formerly excluded by the above law, but also embraces all non-aborigine family members of registered aborigine children. Nonetheless, only aboriginal students who obtain a Certification of Aboriginal Language Proficiency will be able to apply for a 25 percent increase in school entrance examination scores beginning in 2005.

Language Education

To encourage research on Southern Fujianese, Hakka, other Chinese dialects, and non-Han languages, the MOE offers various levels of financial support in the form of awards for scholarly publications in these areas. Taiwan society is a rich mixture of diverse cultures, and more people on the island are becoming aware of the importance of preserving various languages and dialects. This awareness has become the propelling force behind government efforts to promote "nativist" education 鄉土教育 in elementary and secondary schools. The goal of nativist education is to teach students about the natural history, geography, environment, dialects, arts, and culture of Taiwan, and thus cultivate an affection for Taiwan and respect for the island's different cultures and ethnic groups. Under initial plans adopted by the MOE in 1997 for promoting nativist education, bilingual education is a primary focus.

Bilingual education has been introduced in the Taiwan area as a way of reversing the previous neglect of Chinese dialects other than Mandarin. The central government has been lagging behind several steps in its proponents for bilingual education; thus, the magistrates of three counties, making good on campaign promises, chose to "jump the gun" and institute programs in the areas under their jurisdiction prior to any decision by the central authorities.

Main Chinese Language Centers in Taiwan
Language Center Address E-mail
Center for Chinese Language and Culture Studies, National Taiwan Normal University 162 Hoping East Rd., Sec. 1
Taipei 10610, Taiwan
Mandarin Studies Program, Language Center, National Chengchi University 64 Chihnan Rd., Sec. 2, Wenshan, Taipei 116, Taiwan
Language Center, Fu Jen Catholic University

510 Chungcheng Rd., Hsinchuang, Taipei 242, Taiwan
Mandarin Learning Center, Chinese Culture University

B1, 231 Chienkuo South Rd., Sec. 2, Taipei 106, Taiwan
International Chinese Language Program, National Taiwan University P.O. Box 13-204
Taipei 106, Taiwan
Chinese Language Center, Tunghai University Campus Box 898, Tunghai Univ., Taichung 407, Taiwan

Ilan County was the first to initiate Southern Fujianese courses in elementary and junior high schools. The program was heralded by a county order in June 1990. Pingtung County followed suit in September 1991, and elective courses in Southern Fujianese, Hakka, and the Paiwan and Rukai 魯凱 aboriginal languages are now taught in county schools. Additional activities, such as speech and singing contests, have also been held to further motivate students.

Extracurricular Atayal language lessons made their debut in 1990 at Taipei County's Wulai elementary and junior high schools, where the majority of students are Atayal aborigines. In the absence of ready-made teaching materials, teachers depended almost solely on a blackboard and their own ingenuity. Some were not very fluent in their ancestral language, and had to learn it themselves as they went along. Materials were compiled as courses were developed. In 1992, the Taipei County Government commissioned its Bureau of Education and the Taipei County Cultural Center to compile teaching materials for the two most prevalent Chinese dialects in Taiwan, Southern Fujianese and Hakka, and two aboriginal languages, Ami and Atayal.

However, the promotion of bilingual education by local governments has faced many obstacles. One of the obstacles comes from parents who do not support bilingual instruction programs. Some parents worry that instruction time spent gaining competence in a chosen Chinese dialect or aboriginal language might negatively affect a student's ability to compose in standard written Chinese, and possibly result in lower scores on college entrance exams. Other parents feel that the usefulness of their native language is limited. "Wouldn't it be better to teach English or Japanese instead?" they reason. For aborigines who are less well off, economic and social advancement is a much more urgent concern; bilingual education may be a luxury they feel they cannot afford.

To remedy the situation, the MOE revised guidelines and amended curriculum standards for elementary and junior high schools. Started in September 2001, primary school students are required to take at least one course on a local language, such as Southern Fujianese, Hakka, or an aboriginal language. For junior high school students, however, such language courses remain an elective. Furthermore, the revised guidelines clearly stipulate that schools may teach in dialects. The government supports such courses with various levels of funding for compiling teaching materials, publishing teacher handbooks, holding teacher workshops, producing audio and video cassettes, and collecting teaching materials.

Another obstacle is the absence of generally agreed-upon standard written forms for each of the Chinese dialects and aboriginal languages. Different phonetic systems have been proposed and tried. The choices for representing aboriginal languages in the written content of textbooks range from a number of romanization schemes to a phonetic symbol-based system similar to that for Mandarin. For Southern Fujianese and Hakka, the use of Chinese characters with no phonetic alphabet is a third option. However, simply using standard Chinese characters is problematic, since they may only indirectly indicate pronunciation, and some dialects lack widely known, written characters for some of their words.

Mandarin Phonetic Symbols (MPS) have sometimes been adapted to represent Chinese dialects and aboriginal languages. But because MPS is a part-alphabet, part-syllabary system created primarily for the language's relatively simple phonological and tonal structure, they are not particularly well-adapted for use with other local languages. This is especially true with multisyllabic Austronesian languages like Taiwan's aboriginal tongues.

Romanization systems are perhaps the most flexible and precise and are well suited to serve as the primary writing system for aboriginal languages. In addition, they can serve as an auxiliary system for teaching Chinese dialects. For example, the romanization system developed by missionaries for Southern Fujianese has a long history and is currently in widespread use, so it would seem a natural candidate as a standard phonetic alphabet. As things stand, each method tends to start from scratch and contribute yet another idiosyncratic system to the existing jumble. Thus, progress is often held back simply due to indecision about which system to adopt in education. Nonetheless, a new system must be decided to accommodate both localization and globalization.

In view of the need for globalization, all fifth and sixth grade students in Taiwan have been required to study English as part of their formal education since September 2001.
In August 1994, the MOE established a task force, composed of experts from the Institute of History and Philology of Academia Sinica, to research dialects and aboriginal languages and establish guidelines for teaching them. A guidebook of auxiliary teaching materials for dialects in secondary schools which proposed a Taiwan language phonetic system was published by the task force in March 1995. The project also involves developing materials for aboriginal languages, including Atayal, Ami, Yami, Paiwan, Rukai, Puyuma 卑南, Tsou 鄒, Bunun, Saisiyat 賽夏, Kavalan 噶瑪蘭, and Sedeka 賽德克. Moreover, the Legislative Yuan passed the Aboriginal Education Act 原住民教育法 in 1998, which stipulates that the government should provide aborigines with opportunities to learn their native languages, history and culture at preschools and elementary schools in their hometowns.

In order to promote the internationalization of the ROC, on the other hand, the MOE has extended the teaching of foreign languages to the primary-school level. The MOE has focused on English as its first target in foreign language education and has scheduled the teaching of English to fifth and sixth grade students from September 2001. In view of the need for globalization, the MOE also promotes the Second Foreign Language Education Five-year Program for Senior High Schools 高級中學第二外語教育五年計畫 (July 1999-December 2004), in addition to the compulsory English courses scheduled for primary school students. Although other languages are not excluded from the program, the focus is on Japanese, French, German and Spanish. Under the multitrack admission policy (see Chapter 17, Education), students attending these classes will have the advantage of gaining admission to related language departments in universities.

A Cross-Strait Comparison

Although Mandarin is standardized, each region speaks its own local version of it, usually reflecting influence from the native dialects of the area. These regional variations of Mandarin are perhaps not even as great as the differences between British and American English, but are definable. The typical Taiwan Mandarin exhibits four major differences from the Mandarin spoken in Beijing:
  • The retroflex series of initials ts-, ts', s- has generally merged with the dental sibilants ts-, ts', s-.
  • The retroflex - suffix common in Beijing is rarely used in Taiwan.
  • The neutral tone is used much less often than in Beijing.
  • The third tone, which in Beijing falls sharply and then rises back up, tends in Taiwan to conclude in the speaker's lowest voice pitch, without rising.

These characteristics are likely attributable, at least in part, to influence from the Southern Fujianese dialect widely spoken throughout the Taiwan area. Apart from these four major differences, there are also some relatively minor vocabulary and grammatical differences between the Mandarin spoken in Taiwan and on the Chinese mainland.

In October 2000, the Chen Mao-pang Cultural and Educational Foundation 陳茂榜文教基金會 invited Tianjin and Suzhou college students and educational committee representatives to Taiwan to discuss commonly used colloquialisms with Taiwanese counterparts. During the seminar, which was hosted by Associate Professor Wei Hsiu-ming 魏岫明 of National Taiwan University's Chinese literature department, the participants summarized the different methods of creating slangs into the following five categories:

  • Metaphor: the most common type of slang, such as using kung lung (恐龍 "dinosaur") to describe unattractive girls and kuei mao (龜毛 "turtle hair" in Taiwanese) to characterize a picky person;
  • Homonym: often used between Mandarin and English words or Mandarin and Taiwanese words, such as cha bao (茶包 "tea bag") for "trouble" and yao bai (搖擺 "swinging") for "arrogance" or "domineering" (based on its Taiwanese pronunciation);
  • Abbreviation: the most convenient way to produce slang terms, such as liao bu liao? for liao bu liao chieh? (瞭不瞭解 "understood?") or "LKK" for lao ko ko, the Taiwanese pronunciation for "oldie";
  • Affix: usually used for emphasis, such as bi le (斃了 "dead") becoming ku bi le (酷斃了 "deadly cool") and or dai le (呆了 "dumbstruck") becoming shuai dai le (帥呆了 "stunningly hunky"); and
  • Internet usage: more and more specialized usages are being created in Chinese-language Internet chat rooms by young web surfers, such as "c.u.l." for "see you later" and "dd" for di di (弟弟 "younger brother").

These are just some of the terms commonly used by young people in both Taiwan and on the Chinese mainland, according to university students who attended the seminar. However, not all slang terms created are used by youths on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Communication among Chinese-language Internet users, which is the fourth largest language group in cyberspace, is occasionally obstructed by dialect differences, such as terms only known to Southern Fujianese, Cantonese, or other dialect speakers. The former two groups were developed mainly in Taiwan and Hong Kong, while the latter, which consists of overseas Chinese and Chinese mainland web surfers, are at a disadvantage in developing dialect slang due to their relatively smaller numbers online.

From a sociolinguistic point of view, slang is a valid dialect. Slang that is prevalent today could some day be absorbed into the written system and formalized. For example, dictionaries published by Taiwan's Mandarin Daily News Publishing Company have already incorporated several "new" phrases that have been widely used for a considerable period of time. However, the process is arbitrary and cannot be regulated by any particular language policy.

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