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Magazine digest -- Taiwan's disappearing indigenous languages

2010/08/02 19:16:41

The languages of Taiwan's indigenous inhabitants date back morethan 6,000 years and originate from the family of Austronesianlanguages that still span islands across Southeast Asia and the SouthPacific.

But with government policy in the past emphasizing the use ofMandarin, these tribal languages and dialects gradually lost theirplace in people's daily lives, and they have now become one ofTaiwan's endangered cultural treasures.

Taiwan's government officially recognizes 14 aboriginal tribes,which comprise 2 percent of the population. Each tribe has its owntribal language, and the 14 tribes speak a total of 42 dialects.

In addition, Taiwan has about 10 plains, or "ping pu," aboriginaltribes, which have their own tribal languages and dialects. Thesetribal people have been more assimilated into Chinese Han culturethan indigenous peoples living in mountainous areas.

The government has funded courses over the past 10 years to helpall indigenous peoples regain familiarity with their mother tongues,but even today, individuals under 35 years of age still cannot speakwith tribal elders using only indigenous languages.

Preserving the languages of pingpu tribes is an even biggerchallenge because only a few elders remain who can speak thelanguages fluently.

Another obstacle holding back the promotion of the languages ofofficially recognized tribes is their sheer number.

Reverend Sakinu Tepiq of the Paiwan tribe in eastern Taiwan'sTaitung County said the most important task is to reestablish anenvironment in which the languages are used so they become relevantto children.

He also believes churches can play an important role in theprocess. The earliest written versions of indigenous languages wereromanizations of pingpu dialects by Dutch missionaries in the 17thcentury, and that tradition continues to this day.

Most churches have services in indigenous languages. A church incentral Taiwan's Changhua County, for instance, offers services inboth the Mandarin and Amis languages four days a week and encouragesparticipants to use their mother tongue at gatherings afterwards.

Sun Ta-chuan, the head of the Council of Indigenous Peoples, saidthe council started a six-year program in 2008 to build a collectionof spoken and written examples of indigenous languages, promote thelearning of the languages and produce experts in the languages.

Sun said language is a living thing and for languages that areseldom used, the focus should be on how to collect and record themand compile them in a database so that they are not lost forever.(Dissent 6)(translated by Kay Liu)

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