Thursday, May 1, 2014

Article by Ben Goren exposes the attitudes that have developed towards non-Mandarin languages in Taiwan


- Ben Goren

Long-term foreign residents of Taiwan who have a certain level of linguistic fluency in the nation’s official language of Mandarin, will likely at some point have found themselves stymied by conversations which are suddenly interspersed with words, idioms, and vernacular derived from some of Taiwan’s other languages. It is at this moment that they are faced with the reality of Taiwan as a multi-lingual society, the linguistic diversity of which being a result of contingent historical and political forces that have shaped who speaks what, when, and to whom. From personal experience of living in Southern Taiwan, I can attest that while Mandarin is a basic and necessary communication tool, speaking even a little Hoklo (also known as Taiwanese) is a key to forging closer relationships and friendships. Yet, this is not the case in every part of Taiwan and cannot be regarded as a steadfast rule. Indeed, there are occasions when speaking Hoklo rather than Mandarin can be counterproductive and even make a poor impression on the speaker’s audience. Much like a northern accent in the UK can have negative associational impacts when living in the southern Home Counties, language stereotypes in Taiwan can act as barriers and filters that incite and invoke subconscious and culturally embedded prejudices that divide according to class and political identities.
An examination of these linguistically embedded stereotypes was the subject of a recent experimental study by Chang Yu-tzung and Lu Jie. [1] The authors sought to demonstrate, using a bi-lingual comparison between Mandarin and Hoklo, the language stereotypes that exist in Taiwan and to draw out the implications for Taiwanese public opinion and democratic politics. What they found was that language divisions were not just proxies of Taiwan’s regional divisions, but that Taiwanese cognitively differentiate between the political and socio-economic implications of the spoken languages.
If our eyes are regarded as ‘windows to the soul’, then the language we speak, and how we speak it, is surely a window to our culture, education, socialisation, the location of our upbringing, and an indicator of how we wish others to perceive us. It also signifies how we perceive the world, and by extension, is a clue to the ideological matrix we employ to derive meaning and construct strategies for managing relationships and our position in society. Chang and Lu’s paper fills a gap in academic discussion of how substantively meaningful cues are attached to spoken languages in Taiwan, cues which are then decoded and activated during socio-economic and political interactions, in the process shaping the formation of attitudes and behaviour. Importantly, they provide a concise and extremely useful overview of how the retreating Republic of China polity sought to ‘Sinocize’ Taiwan after arriving as exiles in the country. While there has been substantial analysis of the Japanese policies of cultural assimilation, also known as the ‘Kominka Movement’ (皇民化運動) less effort has focused on how the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) carried out exactly the same kind of policies with the intention of installing Mandarin and Chinese culture as the dominant ‘currency’.
According to mainstream ROC narratives, post-war Taiwan was an impoverished island whose subjects were dangerously close to losing touch with their Chinese heritage and identity. Such was the level of oppression and indoctrination that occurred under the Japanese ‘occupation’ most Taiwanese had come to a ‘mindless accommodation’ with speaking and writing Japanese, and Japanese was the normalised and ubiquitous language of education, administration, and business. To a KMT that had suffered heavily at the hands of the Japanese, this was an unacceptable manifestation of Japanese influence that had to be erased. The narrative that claimed Taiwan had ‘retroceded’ to China could only maintained if the physical legacies of the Japanese Colonial Period were ‘cleansed’ from the landscape, and if the lingua franca of Taiwan became Mandarin – in all forms and in all spaces. Chang and Lu’s observation that “language use or language choice is not naturally produced, but the result of political engineering“ is therefore a critical component in understanding how the policies of the colonial ROC regime changed the linguistic landscape in Taiwan to serve as a foundation for both the ideological and economic legitimacy and authority of the ROC, the KMT, and the new immigrant ruling class.  The paper reminds the reader that the significance of  linguistic cleavages for political mobilisation in Taiwan cannot be overlooked, “…given that Taiwan’s linguistic cleavages reinforce, rather than crosscuts, existing cleavages among its ethnic groups.”
Between 1946 and 1987, the KMT instituted language polices that banned the publication of magazines and newspapers in Japanese and relegated Hoklo to a local dialect in the hope that it would eventually die out. It banned use of Hoklo in schools and public places, restricted Government positions to people who could or would speak Mandarin only, banned bibles written in Roman alphabets, and prohibited the use of Hoklo subtitles in film and TV. The net effect of these policies was to institutionalise discrimination based on language use, which in turn excluded Taiwanese from full participation in their own political economy and “planted the seed for future eruption of negative sentiment against Mandarin among Taiwanese-speakers.” By the time Taiwan democratised, Mandarin was spoken and written by 90% of the population. Not only did these language policies harm and possibly permanently undermine the sustainability of the Hoklo language, they also seriously eroded the cultural bases and identities of Aboriginal and Hakka communities, preventing their transmission of cultural experience and knowledge. The KMT’s Mandarin policies have arguably been more severe and more destructive than equivalent Japanese attempts at colonial assimilation. Both the Japanese and KMT language programmes were designed to achieve a kind of ethnic linguistic cleansing and both had the effect of creating clear socio-economic and political cleavages based on education, language, occupation, class, and political affiliation (though the KMT policies by virtue of being instituted via bloody Martial Law led to a clearer political divide based on language than had existed during the Japanese Colonial Period). Chang and Lu succinctly note the depth and impact of the language policies:
“In summary, before Taiwan’s democratization, local languages and culture (e.g., Taiwanese and Hakka folk songs and traditional opera) were deliberately discriminated against and denigrated by the KMT regime as “inferior.”At the same time, the regime established and implemented an efficient reward/punishment system (with penalties as the main element) to promote the use of Mandarin and discourage the use of any local dialects including Taiwanese. Moreover, complementary to its Mandarin Promotion Policy, the KMT government also established a variety of socioeconomic, bureaucratic, and political institutions that intentionally and systematically discriminated against Taiwanese speakers in economic activities, bureaucratic recruitment and promotion, and political participation.”


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