Language Policy and the 2016 Presidential Elections

A bottom-up approach to language learning and acquisition is necessary to halt the decline of local languages in Taiwan
Photo: J. Michael Cole / TT

As Taiwan enters election mode for the 2016 Presidential elections, the two major political parties — the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) — will start outlining their major policy objectives to Taiwanese voters. While economic reform, cross-strait relations and food safety will likely dominate the policy debates, both parties will have to outline their stance on a range of domestic issues as well. One issue to be considered is language policy.

Traditionally defined, language policy is the intentional effort by a government or other body to influence the language choice of others. More recent theorizations have expanded this to include any action by individual or groups to manage their own or others’ language use. While language policy may offer a way to protect language rights and cultural identity, it can also be used as a tool to achieve political objectives. This was primarily the case in Taiwan during the Japanese and then KMT authoritarian period.

The role of language policy changed with the start of democratization in 1987 and the end of martial law. This period marked the beginning of the Taiwanization movement and the start of the celebration of all things local, including linguistic freedom. Local languages such as Hakka, Tâi-gí (also known as Hoklo, or Taiwanese) and Aboriginal languages were frequently heard on television and radio. It was during this time that language policy started to be used as means to promote a “local” Taiwanese identity. The political necessity of implementing policies favorable to local languages led to the introduction of a mother tongue language policy in the 1990s. This policy mandated for one hour of local language instruction per week in primary schools from years 3-6 (with a choice between Tâi-gí, Hakka or Aboriginal languages).

The mother tongue language policy of the 1990s was not enough to stop the decline of local languages in society. This has been hastened by increasing globalization and the rise of China, where promoting local languages has taken a backseat to learning English and Mandarin. These languages are seen to offer greater economic and social benefits.

To reverse this trend of declining local language usage, in September 2013, the Ministry of Education announced reforms to language policy as part of the 12-year compulsory national education program review to be effective from 2016. Under these reforms, the government announced that local languages would become a compulsory subject for junior high school students. Students would have to take one hour of local language instruction per week with a choice of Tâi-gí, Hakka, Aboriginal languages and a new course of “New Immigrant languages” catering to the large influx of foreign brides and their offspring.

While welcomed by many, this decision was met with opposition from some students, parents and teachers. An editorial published in United Daily News stated the decision to introduce mother tongue language education into middle school would only increase pressure on students and teachers. Hsueh Chun-kuang (薛春光), chairperson of the Secondary and Elementary School Principals Association, seconded this view, stating this policy change would increase students’ workload. Some teachers even suggested that homes should be the place to learn local languages and not schools. This is a viewpoint endorsed by some students. One student stated that while he respected local languages, he disagreed with the proposal that they should enter the middle school curriculum, as this would only increase pressure on students.

The chorus of dissenting voices highlights the difficulty of putting in place language policies that are accepted by the whole of society. Indeed, so strong was opposition to compulsory dialect classes in junior high schools that in the second (and final) draft, dialect classes were not made compulsory. Dialect classes will therefore remain an elective.

There is also anecdotal evidence suggesting that in some primary schools English is being taught in mother tongue language classes. The ultimate reversal on compulsory dialect classes in junior high schools and the substitution of English in mother tongue classes in primary schools suggest that “macro” language policies implemented at the level of nation state may be failing the preservation of local languages. It also raises a number of questions: How far should language planning and policy go? Are there other ways for people to protect their language?

Faced with the failure of “macro” language policies (those at the nation state level), there has now emerged the trend of “micro” language policies. “Micro” language polices are policies made by and directed at individuals or smaller locally based groups. They empower those who truly care about language to take action to protect their language themselves. This is often realized through the role of educators, or teachers. Educators are able to bring a more localized perspective to the content making it relevant for their students.

This is occurring in Taiwan. Organizations such as the Taiwanese Romanization Association (TRA), which includes many “front line teachers,” are making great inroads in promoting local languages at the local level at the schools in which they teach. Teachers who are also members of TRA are creating new ways to teach Tâi-gí to their students, making it more relevant and accessible. This includes teaching Tâi-gí via songs and stories. Members have also developed new technologies to make it easier to type in Romanized Tâi-gí to increase its traction within society.

Micro-language planning decisions are not limited to Tâi-gí. For example in Hsinchu, one principal, Xu Hui-xin, has succeeded in introducing Hakka into the school’s curriculum. While not a legal requirement, Principal Xu requires all teachers to obtain certification before teaching Hakka. This move has ensured the quality of the Hakka curriculum while encouraging students to take their language class seriously. To further encourage students, every Wednesday is “Mother Tongue Language Day” where students are encouraged to speak Hakka (or other local languages) outside of class time. In recognition of his efforts, Principal Xu was awarded the “Local Language Education Merit” Award from the Hsinchu council for his efforts in promoting local languages.

Examples such as these point to the success of educators changing attitudes at the local level and installing a genuine interest in students of local languages.

With the upcoming 2016 election, language policy will certainly be a topic of debate. Efforts to implement nationwide language policies should be applauded. However, educators must also be recognized as policymakers. Educators are using a range of tools to bring about understanding and learning of mother tongue languages at a local level. Previous nationwide language policies have had limited success. Candidates in this election would be well guided to implement policies that give educators and others at the micro-level greater power in implementing meaningful policies. It is from this sort of bottom-up approach to language learning and acquisition that Taiwan’s decline of local languages may be reversed.


Marie-Alice McLean-Dreyfus is an Honours student at The Australian National University, researching language politics and identity in Taiwan.

6 Responses to “Language Policy and the 2016 Presidential Elections”

September 07, 2015 at 1:24 am, KIRINPUTRA said:

Equality can only flow from a paradigm where Amis, Paiwan, Hoklo, Hakka, and other “bumiputra” heritage tongues are used as media of instruction, not just offered as “material”.

The current paradigm has Mandarin as a sole, “neutral” medium of instruction. This invisible Mandarin hegemony is funded on an ongoing basis by taxpayer money. The best way to break this paradigm would probably be to tie the status of Mandarin to the status of Japanese. After all, they have the same relation to the people of Taiwan. Next, instruction in Japanese must be offered. The economic and academic benefits would be clear. A large minority of Taiwanese would probably go for it. This would break the Mandarin-hegemonic paradigm and clear the way for Hoklo and Hakka to be used as media of instruction.


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