On not speaking Taiwanese

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[This is a guest post by  C K Wang]

When we went to the primary school we were forbidden to speak Taiwanese in public. We spoke Taiwanese at home and when there were no strangers around. So people in my generation speak Taiwanese well—we have kept the mother tongue. I told stories from 西遊記* to Andrea and Clare in Taiwanese and they talked and still talk to each other in Taiwanese, though they were required to speak Mandarin at all time in school

Most of my Taiwanese friends and colleagues, however, spoke Mandarin with their children, though they spoke Taiwanese with each other or with their elders. Some of their children might have learned Taiwanese from their grandparents if they were lucky to spend time with them. I often make jokes about them, saying I would hang at their door a plaque stating: 失去母語的家庭**。The situation has been getting worse. Now the grandparents talk with their grandchildren in broken Mandarin even though the government encourages people to speak local dialects, which are now taught at school. English is taught in primary schools and in many kindergartens now. But we are losing the mother tongue. It’s really sad.


*Xīyóu jì 西遊記 (Journey to the West)

**shīqù mǔyǔ de jiātíng 失去母語的家庭 ("a family who lost their mother tongue")


This began as a comment to the following post:

"Receptive multilingualism" (11/27/18)

In light of comments to that post and the innate importance and resonance with other discussions on Language Log and elsewhere, I thought that C K's remarks deserved separate treatment.



  1. Victor Mair said,

    December 2, 2018 @ 5:01 pm

    My wife, half a generation older than C K, was among the first wave of mainlanders who taught Mandarin to the Taiwanese. She went to a "normal [high] school" (shīfàn xuéxiào 師範學校) where she was trained to be a teacher while still in her teens. She was assigned to a small, seaside town where no one spoke Mandarin. She was told that the elementary and middle school students were only permitted to speak Mandarin. If they spoke Taiwanese, they were to be punished. Of course, that was ridiculous, since none of the students knew Mandarin. Li-ching told me many funny, but sad, stories about the poor little kids trying to speak Mandarin with Taiwanese phonology, lexicon, and grammar. She didn't think it was funny when she had to rap their knuckles or palm if they spoke Taiwanese.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    December 2, 2018 @ 5:08 pm

    From Grace Wu (next generation younger than C K Wang; daughter of one of the best known Taiwanese language teachers and specialists during the 60s, who was jailed by the Chiang Kai-shek government for his efforts on behalf of Taiwanese):

    About "shīqù mǔyǔ de jiātíng 失去母语的家庭“ ("a family who lost their mother tongue")。 In my generation, we only learned Mandarin and Chinese history and never anything about the history and language of Taiwan. I even remember my mom pulling out my brother and me from Taiwanese Presbyterian Church when we had just graduated from elementary school. Mom believed that staying in the Taiwanese environment would have an adverse impact on our Mandarin writing ability in the future, and that meant we wouldn't do well in high school and on college entrance exams.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    December 2, 2018 @ 5:10 pm

    From John Lagerwey:

    As you are probably aware, there is deepening concern that Mandarin will end up driving all other so-called fangyan to extinction. Fortunately, there are still deep reservoirs of rural areas where the "dialects" thrive. But what Chiu-kuei describes is absolutely standard. At the beginning of the 20th century, Bretons were punished if they spoke Breton in the public schools of Brittany. In the 1960s, they started to try to revive its use, but it is basically a dead language, like the langue d'Oc. We are losing languages just like we are losing species: nature-light/language-light. Politics über alles.

  4. Jenny Chu said,

    December 2, 2018 @ 7:22 pm

    It puts me in mind of the stories my ASL teacher told about when she was young and kids had their hands slapped or tied up for using sign language instead of spoken language. This was also politically related, although in a different way.

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    December 3, 2018 @ 5:49 am

    John Lagerwey, via VHM ("Bretons were punished if they spoke Breton in the public schools of Brittany. In the 1960s, they started to try to revive its use, but it is basically a dead language, like the langue d'Oc") — That is sad news for those who hope to be able to revive the Cornish language, since Breton is its closest linguistic neighbour. But I have to confess, having moved to Cornwall and heard "Cornish" spoken, even by Cornish Bards, what I hear is just Cornish words pronounced with a 100% English accent. There seems to be no desire to attempt to re-create the real phonetic/phonemic aspects of the language at all …

  6. AntC said,

    December 3, 2018 @ 7:41 am

    There is now on Taiwan TV a soap in which most dialogue is in Taiwanese, with sub-plots in Souther Min and some characters speaking Hakka. The soap is even more contrived/disconnected than most soaps: you see the Taiwanese speakers in the street saying Hi to the Southern Min, but no real conversation; cut to the Hakka speakers with the Hi-saying in the background.

    Subtitles in MSM Traditional script. The Taiwanese family I was with claimed they could understand most of the action without subtitles (perhaps the Hakka not so much). OTOH I could also get most of the action (with no understanding of any of the topolects): it's standard soap plotlines with pantomimesque 'acting'. (A few years of watching 'Coronation Street' is adequate training.)

  7. DDOwen said,

    December 3, 2018 @ 10:45 am

    Philip Taylor: I'd guess that one potential exception would be the singer Gwenno Saunders, who was raised speaking Welsh and Cornish in Cardiff and so presumably speaks the latter with a Southern Welsh Welsh accent…

  8. Philip Taylor said,

    December 3, 2018 @ 1:34 pm

    "Cornish with a Southern Welsh accent" would be infinitely preferable to anything I have heard so far, and as both Welsh and Cornish were originally Celtic, it may well be a fair approximation to how it was originally spoken. Etymologically, too, Wales and Cornwall have much in common — Wales was originally "Weahlas" ([the land of] foreigners) and Cornwall "Cornu-weahlas" ([the land of the] Cornish foreigners) [1].
    [1] P. Berresford Ellis, The story of the Cornish language, Tor Mark Press, Truro (undated first ed., probably circa 1964).

  9. Mark S. said,

    December 4, 2018 @ 1:18 am

    About ten years ago, Johan Gijsen of I-Shou University had a relevant blog called Talking Taiwanese. His posts often included very useful survey numbers re. who was speaking Taiwanese. IIRC, the figures were discouraging for those who hope for the long-term viability of the language, because young people were increasingly not using the language with each other. Gijsen shuttered the site a long while ago; and, even more unfortunately, not all of it is viewable even via the Internet Archive (see link above).

    His articles from around that time include "Confronting the Demise of a Mother Tongue: The Feasibility of Implementing Language Immersion Programs to Reinvigorate the Taiwanese Language."

  10. The other Eric said,

    December 14, 2018 @ 12:44 pm

    what I hear is just Cornish words pronounced with a 100% English accent. There seems to be no desire to attempt to re-create the real phonetic/phonemic aspects of the language at all …

    I’ve wondered the same thing about Irish. To my untrained ear, Gaelic and the English spoken in Ireland sound basically the same except for the words themselves. But the thing to remember is that Celtic languages have influenced the English spoken in those regions on both the level of phonology and grammar.

    I wouldn’t doubt that English has had an impact on the phonology of Irish or Cornish speakers. But in the case of Irish, there are extant recordings of monolinguals, so we have a reference point for what it “should” sound like. And the Irish English and Cornish English accents are not the same as those in Southeast England or elsewhere.

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