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Taiwan Struggles to Save Indigenous Languages

Aboriginal men of the Tao tribe take a newly launched fishing boat on a maiden voyage during a fishing boat launching ceremony on Orchid Island, Taiwan, June 14, 2008.
Aboriginal men of the Tao tribe take a newly launched fishing boat on a maiden voyage during a fishing boat launching ceremony on Orchid Island, Taiwan, June 14, 2008.
TAIPEI — Taiwan’s government sounded a cultural emergency this summer. The native language of a village of aboriginal Rukai people is in danger of dying out. So the cabinet has begun collecting records that could save that dialect and eight others from being overtaken by the dominant Mandarin Chinese.

Long history

Aborigines were dominant in Taiwan for some 8,000 years. Then four centuries ago migrants began to arrive by sea from nearby China, and Chinese now make up 98 percent of the population. In the 1960s, former Taiwan leader Chiang Kai-shek ordered an assimilation of the aboriginals, requiring that they use Mandarin Chinese.

Of Taiwan’s 42 indigenous languages, nine are considered endangered. One of them is used by just 10 people. Almost all aborigines but the oldest speak Mandarin, Taiwan’s official language.

One language in danger is that spoken by the Sakizaya aborigine tribe, which has some 659 members.

The government says most indigenous people have little incentive to use or remember their native tongues as they marry ethnic Chinese or work away from tribal homelands. It fears that the most endangered languages will die out within 20 years.

Since 2008, Taiwan’s government has tried to save these languages, but this year they are focusing on the ones most threatened with disappearance. That mission has broad support from the island’s ethnic Chinese majority, because many people look to indigenous culture as a way to distinguish Taiwan from its political rival China.

Yang-Chao Jui-chun, endangered language project director with the government’s Council of Indigenous Peoples, says any losses would weaken the culture of Taiwan and the Asia Pacific.

He says that is because local languages convey information about flora and fauna that would be lost along with the words themselves.

Lost knowledge

He says that if no one can speak an aborigine language in 50 to 100 years, there would be no way to express cultural meaning and values, affecting Taiwanese people’s ability to respect other ethnic groups and live with one another. Cultural resources such as stories and knowledge would disappear along with the languages. For example, he says, the Rukai and Paiwan tribes have unique knowledge of certain snake species.

Anthropologists also consider Taiwan’s aborigines key to understanding ethnically linked peoples across the South Pacific and Indian oceans from Easter Island to Madagascar.

Taiwan’s tribes first reached the island from the Asian mainland. They used boats to fan southward about 3,500 years ago. Taiwan’s government says its aborigines remain ideal for study because they were largely left alone by Western missionaries.

Taiwan’s cabinet today recognizes 14 tribes. Their numbers range from several hundred, to the Amis group at nearly 190,000. Their total population is about half a million and growing overall.

Chinese takes over

Kolas Yotaka, news director with Taiwan Indigenous TV, says the use of native languages has disappeared as potential speakers are required to use Chinese in public schools and leave tribal areas in eastern Taiwan for work in the more urbanized west.

She says the west is dominated by non-aborigines but that to survive and make money, aborigines must move there. Once they move to the west, she adds, those migrants are forced to speak Mandarin Chinese or the Taiwanese dialect to communicate.

Taiwan is studying New Zealand’s effective effort to save native Maori languages through one-on-one tutoring and allowing tribal autonomy over elements of the education system. The government has also contacted Canada, home to Inuit tribes near the Arctic Circle, and the tiny Pacific Island nation of Palau.

Faustina Rehuher-Marugg, Palau’s cultural affairs minister, says her population of 21,000 saved its native tongue by putting it in writing for students. Almost everyone in the former U.S. protectorate also speaks fluent English. On a visit to Taipei this month, the minister advised Taiwan to keep records.

“I think they need to put their dictionary and grammar together and publish it as part of the curriculum because that’s how you actually get it written down," she said. "Because it’s part of the school, it has been taught from grade one.”

Taiwan may eventually transcribe its native languages, though the lack of native writing systems would make the job difficult.

The government will spend about $220,000 this year on aboriginal language preservation. Part of that package goes to collecting whatever information is available in tribal villages and recording elders who speak the endangered languages. There are plans for informal language study programs and the use of exams to certify native speakers of aboriginal languages.

To save the Rukai village language marked as urgent in July, the government must first survey the hamlet in southern Taiwan to find out exactly how many people still speak it.