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Feb 25, 2009

Holo Taiwanese proficiency issue

Li Khin-huann (李勤岸) writes on the targeted attacks on mother tongue education in Taiwan, specifically on (unnecessary) efforts to stem the strength of Holo Taiwanese.

The 2001 UNESCO report on mother languages around the world noted that languages in Taiwan, except for Mandarin, are dying. Although these languages, including Hoklo (commonly known as Taiwanese), Hakka and the many indigenous languages, continue to be widely spoken in some cases, they are all in need of preservation efforts...

We all thought that Taiwan had become a democratic state full of cultural diversity and multilingualism. The savage neglect of language and oppression of mother tongues should have passed into history.

Who would have thought that several days before Lunar New Year, Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱) would propose scrapping the entire budget of NT$40 million (US$1.2 million) allotted to the Ministry of Education’s National Languages Committee for developing a Hoklo language proficiency certification system.

Did the NT$40 million make up a substantial part of the national budget of NT$1.8 trillion or the budget of NT$60 billion allocated to the ministry?

The committee asked the legislature not to cancel its budget or at least not entirely because the proficiency test has been in preparation for a year, and said the government should leave some money for completing the project.

But in the end, the entire budget was cut....

Taiwan has a proficiency certification system for every language, including Mandarin, Hakka and indigenous languages, but not Hoklo. What message does this send? That Taiwan has a barbarous government that is trying to eliminate Hoklo.
Hong Hsiu-chu, who happens to be my least favorite female KMT legislator, and who has in the past made completely ignorant statements regarding both Mandarin and Holo education (especially in regards to the standardization of the Holo spelling system), sent an editorial to the Apple Daily on the 21st to respond to the fury of the Holo language protection advocates. Below is a rushed translation of most of that editorial, titled "Of course I want to save the people money." It is full of factual errors and distortions I will point out when I get the time in a follow up post.
Language is an important tool of transmitting culture, and knowledge of every native language is worth preserving. For many years people have been encouraging people to speak their "mother tongue," to speak "the language their mother spoke," and this is something I encourage and have never opposed. But what language does mother speak? For example right now there are already more than 100 thousand children of mainland Chinese and foreign brides in our middle schools (mainland Chinese, Vietnamese and Indonesians are the largest groups). If Taiwan's new immigrants wanted to insist that "the mother language is a human right," than please tell me if the Ministry of Education would be able to implement [necessary protection measures]? The mother tongue is not the same as native tongues, and for this reason I have never opposed promoting our native tongues, if not mother tongues, in our school education system.

In the final analysis, 70% or more of people in Taiwan can use Southern Min [Holo Taiwanese], and Southern Min is a strong language in Taiwanese Society [A-gu: not for long]. Being able to speak and understand Southern Min makes life more convenient in many ways and allows for creation of more social relationships, and learning any language is always a good thing. But we cannot force people to learn native languages, and we certainly cannot increase the burdon on our children, and this is a view I am sure most parents and teachers share with me.

Sadly, since native language education started in on our schools in 2001, it has suffered from a lack of qualified teachers, poor and varied textbooks, and lack of a unified writing and spelling system. This made learning the languages difficult. And when former Education Minister Du decided to unify Southern Min's writing and spelling system, he forced through a mixed character & romanization system. He also wanted first grade to learn the Southern Min spelling system and fifth grade children to use Southern Min in composition. These sorts of policies drove children crazy, and invited a lot of criticism [A-gu: how is it that she finds the idea of writing in a language you've been studying for five years to be preposterous?]. Further, there were too many textbooks, a few newly created "Taiwanese characters," the use of characters and romanization together and other bizarre orthography. Most people not only couldn't understand but couldn't even guess the meaning [of the written Taiwanese], and some students at Taipei Municipal Jianguo High School joked that the writing system "was more difficult than Martian." These policies were long ago labeled by experts to be an unnecessary burden on the students.

Former Minister Du in 2008 started to research holding a Southern Min proficiency test. The budget for that year was NT$8million, and was slated to be NT$50million in 2009 (NT$40 million of which the ministry said it would create the proficiency test for teachers ). After flipping through the Education Ministry's budget, the Department of Elementary Education and Department of Social Education already had a large budget for language related fees (the Department of Elementary Education was slated to have NT$90 million). This seemed suspiciously redundant, and that is why I proposed to cut the Southern Min proficiency budget while at the same time asking the Ministry to please present a more complete, well organized budget. But the more important reason this: holding a Southern Min proficiency test would cost NT$40 million. Doesn't that leave one speechless? And half of that money was going to be spent before anyone had signed up for the test or a test had been held. Why was so much being alloted before there was even a test? Isn't the planning for this test too careless?

Further, at this time native language education uses four writing systems -- bopomofo, torroba (?), Tongyong Pinyin and Church Romanization [aka Peh-oe-ji]. I asked the ministry which system would be used on the test? The official could not respond. After this I got to thinking, last year the ministry held a practice test for research purposes, which revealed problems. In other words, the whole testing plan is still not mature. If the budget were allowed to pass now, it would be a most wasteful, lazy and irresponsible act.


Taiwan Echo said...

IMO, this is part of a grand conspiracy of KMT to systematically annihilate Taiwanese identity. The other approach includes opening the chance of brain washing through the thought control starting from the elementary schools.

Dixteel said...

Shameful to say, I am one of the victim of this. I didn't learn to speak Holo Taiwanese properly when I am young, so although I can understand it I can't speak it. This makes me unable to communicate with my grand parents properly.

I am trying to learn to speak Holo Taiwanese now. I hope we can still keep this language alive.

Johan said...

One of the links in your post is inactive - mea culpa, since I took my blog offline for the time being.
If I may point out two things:

1. Two out of three Taiwanese believe "Taiwanese is doing fine" (2008 data). So, that Apple Daily editorial by Hong could have been written by over 60% of Taiwanese.

Question: what does it take/how long does it take for the general public to start believing Taiwanese is "not doing fine"?

2. And something one could see coming years ago: the utter debacle of devising a publicly accepted writing system for Taiwanese (by academics commissioned by a DPP administration) would become an obvious and easy target.

Still, the "Taiwanese proficiency issue" is not, per se, a political issue. Much more than this, it's an issue about the public's attitudes and personal priorities.

Classes teaching European minority languages have been happening for over 30 years - - with little or no money coming from the central governments. Spain's government, for example, only started funding Galician and Basque education when there were already first language classes (with money from business sponsers and the communities themselves) in place.

Upholding the use of Taiwanese should not always be considered as a "top-down" process. Yet, considering the "Taipei orders, we academics comply" nature of education here, Taiwanese language maintenance is, most probably, in dire straits.

Taiwan Echo said...

"Classes teaching European minority languages have been happening for over 30 years

I wonder if this is a good analog to Taiwanese, Johan. Is Taiwanese considered a "minority language" in Taiwan ?

My old memory is that 75% of the people living Taiwanese are Taiwanese. But I don't have statics how many % of them do speak Taiwanese though.

Johan said...

In the 10-29 age group (Dec. 2007-Jan. 2008, 675 respondents):

- 30% used Taiwanese "at home"
- 7% used Taiwanese "at the marketplace"
- 5% used Taiwanese "with friends"

To contrast: In the 50-70 age group (242 respondents):

- 69% used Taiwanese at home
- 67% used Taiwanese at the marketplace
- 56% used Taiwanese with friends

87% of respondents considered themselves to be "Taiwanese", 5% "Chinese". But I'm afraid this will not save the Taiwanese language.

Taiwan Echo said...



The info is not quite complete (missing a main age group), so I don't know what impression I should get from that.

But, 87% Taiwanese would rather speak a language that 5% people speak, this does sound an alarm.

Johan said...

Weird observation, Taiwan Echo.
38% “with family”, 19% “marketplace”, 18% “with friends”.

Taiwanese youngsters do not consider Mandarin as “ideologically encumbered”, meaning they don’t equate it with “being Chinese” versus “being Taiwanese”. Much like an Indian youngster speaking English has stopped associating the latter with its colonial past. I doubt politics has any bearing on this.

Taiwan Echo said...

I tend to agree with you, Johan. Thanks.

阿牛 said...

Thanks for the input everybody. Johan, I hope you reactivate your blog soon -- I needed that data! :)

I don't know how or if Taiwanese will be saved. I doubt that there is time to alter the attitudes and environment. We can only hope.