FEATURE/Language of our own: Fun Taiwanese classes gain popularity in France
By Tseng Ting-hsuan and James Lo, CNA staff reporter and writer
In a classroom in Paris, Taiwan's top envoy to France François Wu (吳志中) was serenaded with ballads from his homeland, sung not in French or Mandarin, but in Taiwanese Hoklo.
For approximately two hours, the University of Languages and Civilizations (Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales, INALCO) classroom was filled with the sounds of French students trying their hand at performing songs in Taiwan's version of the Southern Min dialect.
Some INALCO students carried the songs without even glancing at the lyrics, weeks of effort directed toward memorizing and pronouncing the words properly finally coming to fruition.
Others were less confident, some of them murmuring, others just lip syncing.
But everyone still had a good time. And regardless of the quality of the performance, the joy and fun in the classroom felt palpable, prompting Taiwan's top representative in France to join in and belt out a number of the tunes himself.
"Of course, we encourage the promotion of Taiwanese here (in France), because we want more and more people to understand the language," Wu said, adding "Lots of the students decide to come and visit the country after they've become proficient."
Student Marie Izdag, who has visited Taiwan many times, said she thinks promoting the Taiwanese language and culture is crucial in expanding international recognition of Taiwan and will help people across the world learn more about the history of the island nation.
Izdag was one of many INALCO students who has studied Taiwanese at the university and was tutored by the well-known and much-loved Mandarin and Taiwanese teacher Liu Chan-yueh (劉展岳).
The language of my ancestors
"Taiwanese is the language of my mother," Liu said, "and it is the language I use to communicate with my father."
Liu has been a Mandarin and Taiwanese teacher at INALCO since 2019.
During Liu's first year in the job, the teacher in charge of Cantonese quit suddenly, leaving a vacancy for a Chinese-dialect course to be taught at the institution.
Liu soon submitted an application to have Taiwanese take the spot and the request to upgrade "Southern Min" from a casual class taught sporadically to an official elective that students could sign up for as "Taiwanese," was officially approved in 2020.
"Many people say Taiwanese is Southern Min," Liu said, "But the Taiwanese language actually comes with a lot of historical background that doesn't exist in Southern Min, incorporating (influences from) Dutch, Spanish and the Indigenous languages. It then continued to evolve after Japanese colonization and subsequently was morphed by French and American cultures into what it has become today."
Taiwanese is trending
The course, despite being launched in 2020 amid the pandemic, was well received, with 80 students signing up.
Regular in-person classes resumed after the pandemic subsided and students finally got the full experience of Liu's interactive teaching style, which combines studying hard with a whole heap of fun.
Aside from karaoke sing-alongs, creative activities Liu incorporates into his lessons include broadcasting Taiwan's Highspeed Rail announcements in Taiwanese.
But the most profound exercise Liu leads his students in is directing them in reciting ancient Chinese poetry in Taiwanese at Taiwanese tea houses.
Liu said Taiwanese is actually phonetically closer to the Chinese spoken historically in ancient China, and pairing classical poetry recital with Taiwanese tea creates an immersive ambience that could be palpably embraced by Liu's students and their audiences alike.
"It's rare to have someone with such in-depth knowledge of the Taiwanese language teaching here," INALCO Director of Continuing Education Catherine Legeay-Guillon told CNA, adding, "that is why students like the class so much, especially listening to Taiwanese songs and watching Taiwanese films."
To students like Maximilien Quevrain, Liu's charismatic personality and the fun he brings to the classroom inspired him to choose a similar path, "I would like to become a French teacher in Taiwan," he explained.
Izdag agreed that the teacher is a hit, "He is recognized by all us Chinese-majors at INALCO to be the best teacher," she said, adding that "He also helps us to understand more about Taiwan's culture, as well as bringing fun into the classroom."
Jump on the bandwagon
Liu explained that it was Taiwan's multiethnic and multilingual background that made him want to showcase his beloved country to the world.
"Learning Taiwanese can provide you with the opportunity to see a different side of Taiwan," he told the students, adding that although it's possible to get around Taiwan speaking Mandarin, learning Taiwanese can help people gain deeper insights into Taiwan's cultural nuances and help them build up connections and find opportunities in Taiwan.
"To me, teaching Taiwanese is road home," Liu said, "And it is this road that has given me the opportunity to encourage those from France and other countries to go 'take a stroll' around Taiwan."
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