Can the Candidates Walk the Walk on Minority Languages?

Speaking one or two minority languages in election time isn’t enough. The candidates must commit to protecting and promoting them
Photo: J. Michael Cole / Thinking Taiwan
Photo: J. Michael Cole / Thinking Taiwan

All the presidential candidates in the current election have proved themselves to be multi-linguists, mastering many of the languages spoken in Taiwan. But with Mandarin the dominant language throughout Taiwan, is it enough for candidates to speak one of Taiwan’s minority languages, or should they also offer support to protect Taiwan’s other languages that risk being overpowered by Mandarin?

Taiwan is a multilingual country with Mandarin as the official language, which coexists with Southern Min (spoken by 70% of the population), Hakka (spoken by 10% of the population) and more than 12 aboriginal languages.

Under Japanese rule (1895-1945) and the following period of Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) authoritarian rule (1949-1987), local languages (including Southern Min, Hakka and aboriginal languages) were banned from public use, leading to a decline in the number of speakers. Mandarin was the language of government, bureaucracy and authority.

When authoritarian rule was lifted in 1987 and democratization occurred, there was a revival of local languages. Speaking in local languages was often used as a marker of a “unique” Taiwanese identity as distinct from Mandarin-speaking China.

During the 1990s, politicians began learning Southern Min. Using that language allowed politicians to appeal to a wider public, to dissociate themselves with the authoritarian past, and to connect with the rising sense of nationalism that was occurring in the public. And not to mention, of course, winning more votes. For example, an Economist article from 1993 documents the “well-publicised efforts” of Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and James Soong (宋楚瑜), the current presidential candidate for the People First Party, to learn Southern Min. The article observed that “knowledge of Taiwanese [Southern Min] is fast becoming a requirement for a political career” in Taiwan.

In the early days of Ma’s presidency, the fact that he peppered his speeches with Southern Min phrases and words won him plaudits and the belief that he was “connecting” with the local Taiwanese population. Meanwhile, Soong’s earlier efforts in 1993 to learn Southern Min seem to have paid off, as he is now a fluent Southern Min speaker.

In the present election campaign, all three presidential candidates — Soong, the DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and the KMT’s Eric Chu (朱立倫) — are fluent speakers of Southern Min. Tsai and Chu also speak Hakka.

As in previous campaigns, the current candidates also use local languages to appeal to a wider audience. For example in the final presidential debate all candidates first greeted the audience in Mandarin and Southern Min. While the debate was conducted in Mandarin, giving a greeting in Southern Min first was seen as a symbolic gesture in recognition of the diverse linguistic landscape in Taiwan.

The DPP has also released a number of television advertisements in Hakka and Southern Min with each advertisement appealing to issues relevant to the different linguistic groups. Meanwhile, Chu frequently delivers speeches in Southern Min and also has a series of advertisements in that language.

But in the current campaign, is delivering a few lines of a speech in Southern Min (or Hakka) enough to prove one’s linguistic credentials? As the number of local language speakers is declining, policies are needed to preserve local languages. To ensure that their use of local languages is not tokenistic, the candidates need to match their linguistic prowess with concrete measures to preserve the local languages.

For instance, former KMT candidate Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱) is a fluent speaker of Southern Min. In one report it was suggested that her spoken Southern Min was better than Tsai’s. But does having superior Southern Min language skills indicate that a candidate is somehow more supportive of a localized Taiwanese culture or more passionate about supporting language acquisition of local languages?

As the now extinct presidential candidate career of Hung suggests, the answer is no. While Hung spoke Southern Min fluently in 2009, she supported a controversial measure to abolish an exam which would certify Southern Min proficiency.

Similarly, Ma, with his well-documented efforts to learn Southern Min, has nevertheless overseen a number of measures that have diminished the role of Southern Min (and Hakka and aboriginal languages) in everyday life. For example, Ma changed the Romanization system used in Taipei (and in other cities across Taiwan) to Hanyu Pinyin (the same Romanization system that is used in China). He has also overseen a series of changes to the high school history textbooks which some say diminish Taiwan’s own historical experiences in favor of emphasizing Chinese history.

Despite investing heavily in his own Southern Min language study, Soong was largely responsible for the suppression of local languages and press freedoms during his tenure as the director-general of the Government Information Office from 1979-1984.

As these three examples suggest, “talking the talk” doesn’t necessarily mean that one is willing to “walk the walk.”

Unlike Ma and Hung, who have overseen measures that reduced the role of these languages in society, Tsai has raised the issue of protecting local languages (Southern Min, Hakka and aboriginal languages). These include her “Romantic Number Three Highway” announcement, which saw her acknowledge the important role that languages play in building group and community cohesion. The announcement primarily focuses on Hakka language and culture. But at the launch in Longtan, Taoyuan County, Tsai also acknowledged the importance of all languages within Taiwan when she said, “Hakka is a language of Taiwan, Hokkien [Southern Min] is a language of Taiwan, Chinese is a language of Taiwan and every single Indigenous language is also a language of Taiwan.”

While it appears the KMT has not announced its position on languages policies, in 2001, then-legislator Eric Chu promoted the Council for Hakka Affairs and in 2010 he was present when the Hakka Basic Law was passed. In this election he has announced the “Four Hakka Policies,” which include a “promote Hakka language program.”

However, given the sensitive nature of language policy in Taiwan, it remains to be seen whether these announcements will result in actual policies once either candidate is elected.

Southern Min has once again been a language of elections in Taiwan. What is interesting to note is the increase of campaigning that has been done in Hakka and a series of announcements made by both the DPP and KMT on initiatives to protect the Hakka language and culture.

In previous campaigns merely speaking Southern Min (or Hakka) was enough to be seen as a somehow more authentically Taiwanese. This presidential campaign has proved that simply speaking these languages is no longer enough and is often perceived as merely opportunistic. For candidates to truly prove their linguistic credentials, it is necessary for them to match their words with deeds to ensure that there is not a further decline in the usage of local languages, and to ensure the preservation of Taiwan’s unique cultural heritage.


Marie-Alice McLean-Dreyfus is an Australian student, currently studying in Taiwan.

12 Responses to “Can the Candidates Walk the Walk on Minority Languages?”

January 18, 2016 at 1:28 pm, Mike Fagan said:


OK so first there has been a misunderstanding that I need to clear up: I do not think that there ought to be language policies in Taiwan to protect English. Such a position is absurd, and your drawing of that inference made me say “wot?” out loud with a shake of the head (well it didn’t actually, but that’s the best way I can think of to describe my reaction). I was asking what reasons there may be for political action to preserve minority languages, and putting that question into comparison with the possible benefits of acquiring English and the obvious absence of English from the identity card games which Taiwanese politicians play with minority languages in order to get votes. Basically I’m saying there is no good reason to preserve minority languages beyond (1) their value for cynical exploitation by politicians at election time, and (2) the subjective value these languages may have for this or that enthusiast. The first point was my main point – that language preservation is basically an electoral racket; a sort of identity card game aimed at racking up a few extra votes. Point number two means it is perfectly acceptable for individuals to freely devote their time and money to the cause of language preservation, but it is at least arguable whether there is sufficient justification for government to get involved and spend tax-payer’s money as the benefits are so small and accrue to so few people.

“…free schooling seems an interesting option…”

Thank you for saying as much. I think it deserves more attention than either the media or the Ministry of Education would like it to have.

“The thing is that after martial law, biases against these languages are likely to be very important for many “good” jobs and key positions. Of course it is changing, I don’t know at what pace and towards what new situation. But to get a good job it is probably still a better idea to speak Mandarin (or English).”

My suspicion is that, even without the martial law suppression, we would probably arrive at a situation where one or two languages tend to dominate – given the transaction costs necessary for translation, one or two dominant languages just makes so much of everyday life so much more convenient and efficient for most of us.

“…:) the main point of it is probably getting your way inside a network of people who will help you with your career…”

Indeed, which is why much of higher education is basically a licensing racket which saddles young people with unnecessary debt in exchange for being allowed to get into a career. And yet this is not how higher education is marketed or how the people who work in it view it themselves. The promoted images are all about the “quality”, “intelligence” and “objectivity” of the institutions of higher education, when very often much of their teaching and research tends to be of dubious, politically-contrived value (with the partial exception of the STEM subjects).

“I’m (stupidly would you say?) working on Taiwanese processing when I could probably get rich working on Chinese processing.”

No I would not say so. I support the free market because freedom. That it also allows some people to get rich just happens to be a pretty cool side effect. I am coming to the end of my own (five year) research project on Taiwan’s reservoirs as it happens, and from which I expect to earn next to nothing. I did it out of enthusiasm and interest, and a desire to be better educated on the subject than most people.

“Science in its expression requires the use of an incredibly large number of metaphors, and language matters.”

Yes of course, but that is a different point which I am not contesting. Both English and French have different words for metals like gold, iron and tin, yet the knowledge of these elements is common to both cultures. Ergo, expression is not the same thing as knowledge.


January 19, 2016 at 12:26 pm, Mike Fagan said:

For 阿石

Richard Feynman famously made the same point about the distinction between language and knowledge by relating a childhood story in which his father taught him that knowing all the names of a given bird in all the languages of the world would nevertheless leave him knowing nothing about the actual bird itself.


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