Healing words: Taiwan’s tribes fight to save their disappearing languages

나는n a modest conference room near the edge of Taiwan’s Sun Moon Lake, Panu Kapamumu holds up an unwieldy A3 booklet. The home-printed document contains every known word of Thao, the language of his Indigenous tribe. Kapamumu runs his finger down the list, reading out a selection of Thao words, meanings and translations. He reads slowly and purposefully, a man in his sixties but still just a student of his mother tongue.

Pastay piakolingkin piakaimahan. Ito Thao Panu Kapamumu,”그는 말한다. It translates in English to: “Everyone is safe and doing well. I am of the Thao people, Panu Kapamumu.”

Normally, Kapamumu speaks in a mix of the two languages he knows better than his own – Chinese and English.

“We believe in our ancestors’ spirits, so we treasure our own language and see it as more important than our own livesWe have a right to survive,”그는 말한다.

Indigenous tribes of Taiwan are in a race against time to save their languages before they are lost forever. An estimated 35% 의 400,000 Indigenous people in Taiwan speak their native tongue fluently, but in some communities it’s far less.

Taiwan’s government formally recognises 16 tribes who inhabited the island for millennia before the arrival of Han people. The Thao, whose traditional lands surround Sun Moon Lake, are the smallest, with fewer than 800 members. Thao is in the Austronesian family of languages, which are spoken throughout Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and much of the Pacific. It is among four of the 16 languages on Taiwan considered by Unesco to be critically endangered.

Under the authoritarian and assimilationist rule of Japan and then the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) regime, native languages were criminalised. The Thao’s losses extended to land, lives and culture.

“With the Japanese, you can’t speak your language. The KMT, you can’t speak your language, there was punishment in schools. So our language stopped 75 여러 해 전에,”그는 말한다.

A loss of language is a loss of traditional and cultural practices, says Dremedreman a lja Tjuveleljem, a consultant and professional teacher of her language, Paiwan.

“Traditional knowledge was always transmitted by native tongue,” Tjuveleljem says. The loss is more pronounced among urban communities, where people were moved by force, natural disaster, or economics, 그녀는 말한다.

Kapamumu, chairman of the Thao cultural development association, estimates their efforts have recorded about 90% of the Thao language. There are now five dedicated teachers of the language in Taiwan, but it is an informal community effort, with minimal resources – a scenario playing out across the island.

Taiwan’s government is seeking to address the oppression wrought on the island’s Indigenous people, particularly language loss, 그리고 2016 President Tsai Ing-wen apologised for the “centuries of pain and mistreatment”.

에 2017 the parliament passed a law to promote and preserve Indigenous languages. It designated the 16 as national languages of Taiwan, increasing the Council of Indigenous People’s (CIP) language budget five-fold, and proscribed more Indigenous consultation in policy development, the establishment of a language research and development foundation, and the offering of language courses in schools and colleges (which activists have demanded be made compulsory for Indigenous high schoolers). As of last week there are now three languages included as options on Wikipedia.

Ting-chung Chen, assistant professor of linguistics at National Tsing Hua University, says the government has good intentions but the foundation, which is responsible for language preservation and educational measures, was understaffed and unable to meet the needs of the 42 dialects within the 16 languages.

“A lot of communities are trying to come up with their own textbooks … but they don’t really know how to do that. Teachers aren’t trained as teachers," 그녀가 말했다, adding that more expertise in linguistics was needed to ensure quality and consultation with communities.

In response to the concerns, Sayun Tosu, executive officer of international affairs at the CIP, says the council has developed teaching materials for all learning levels and online learning for remote students, like herself, a Tayal woman living in an urban area. It was also cooperating with local elders, schools and organisations to develop dictionaries and lessons.

“Languages that were once viewed as dialects and banned from use in schools now have legal basis as national languages,” says Tosu.

“Language preservation has higher priority in the CIP’s policy promotion because it is the core for our culture.”

Tjuveleljem says community-level projects risked “developing a romanisation system which can’t be understood outside their immediate circle”, and needed external expertise.

More native speakers are being fast-tracked as teachers themselves, amid growing acceptance of teaching Indigenous languages as a profession.

“There was a time quite recently when it would have been considered fanciful to make a living from the government teaching mother tongue, but now there’s a significant number that do," 그녀가 말했다.

Communities should focus on speaking their languages regularly, especially with children, 그녀는 말한다.

“There are all the challenges of government funding and time at school etc, but if Indigenous people themselves can’t carry that flag then it becomes even more of a challenge.”

The benefits of Indigenous communities retaining their language are well documented overseas. In Australia, which shares Indigenous historical similarities, efforts to save languages have been linked to improved mental health, social outcomes, and land management.

There appears to be less literature about the impact in Taiwan, but a study of an Atayal elementary school’s immersive native language program in 2017 found it “greatly enriched” the student’s enthusiasm and educational outcomes. The school’s average maths score became significantly higher than the national average, and Chinese scores also rose.

Chen said her experience working with dozens of language consultants was of seeing a growing enthusiasm for the language revitalisation and education.

“Most of them weren’t teachers in the beginning – they were housewives or farmers or truck drivers, which is typical because the ones who got better education tend to not speak their traditional language. These are the ones who stayed behind in their tribe and now they’re sought out by the government and schools. It gives them a sense of pride and purpose.”

In Nantou, Kapamumu plans for a language camp in the summer. Self consciously posing for photos, he looks across the lake and points to the horizon. “I’m looking towards our young people’s future,” he jokes.

But it’s clear the issue weighs heavily. They have little time.

“This is our right to learn our culture and language, and no one can take it, but we need friends to help out,”그는 말한다. “We don’t have land, and we have a hard life. But if we learn our language we’ll be the happiest tribe”.

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