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FEATURE: Their language on its deathbed, Sakizaya call parents to the rescue

2012/07/31 10:51:29

By Nancy Liu, CNA Staff Reporter

While most Taiwanese parents are awash in English fever and busy having their children learn a language used by over a billion people worldwide, members of a small indigenous group believe such a priority is wrong and are trying to reverse the trend.

More effort should be made to preserve languages that are less widely spoken and on the verge of disappearing, said Yiwan Buting, an elder member of Taiwan's Sakizaya tribe.

As a 60-year-old father to a three-year-old, Buting said his most important responsibility is not to look for the best English cram school in his area but to devise ways to pass on the endangered Sakizaya language to his daughter.

"My ancestors would be greatly disappointed if the language disappears," Buting told CNA.

The Sakizaya, an ethnic minority with a population of 600 people, live mostly in Hualien County in eastern Taiwan. They were officially recognized as Taiwan's 13th indigenous tribe in 2007.

Prior to that, they were classified as part of the Amis, a mainstream group that speaks a different language.

As with many of Taiwan's indigenous people, assimilation over the past hundred years has led to a decline in the use of the Sakizaya language, a development that not only worried the tribe's members but also alarmed the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

In 2009, the international body said only 20 people spoke the language and listed it as "critically endangered," meaning that "the youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they speak the language partially and infrequently."

"There are still people who use Sakizaya, but the problem is that they are very old and are dying," said Buting, who quit his counseling job at the local church a year ago to teach the tribe's language to elementary school children.

"Without a language, there would be no culture. And without a culture, we would be wiped out of existence," he said in a worried tone.

To keep the Sakizaya spirit alive, Buting joined a newly launched revitalization project aimed at passing on the native language and preserving ethnic culture within the family.

In the project's initial stage, five sets of parents, including Buting, will be trained to create an environment friendly to language-learning at home, including the hanging of posters, according to the Council of Indigenous Peoples, the project's organizer.

Toko Sayion, the council official who created the project, said the program's goal is to "turn parents into teachers."

The scheme is expected to not only increase children's chances of practicing their native language but also reduce the need to hire and pay professional teachers for after-class lessons, he said.

Other projects underway include the collection and study of historical information about tribal elders, mythologies and songs. Young volunteers are also being recruited to participate in various language preservation events.

"If we don't start taking this seriously, we could be left with nothing in the end," Buting said, and he urged parents with ethnic minority origins to shoulder the responsibility of culture preservation.

Asked the secret to language learning, Buting, who picked up Sakizaya from his illiterate grandmother, said "practice makes perfect, no secret."

Buting said that after rounds of practice his daughter can now blurt out "haymauhantu," instead of the Chinese word for goodbye -- "zai jian" -- when seeing off guests.

"We dare not think about what we can achieve through this, but at least we know that if we don't take action, we will never accomplish anything," Buting said.