Taiwan's vanishing indigenous languages

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The question of language survival in Taiwan is far more complex than whether Taiwanese (and Hakka and Cantonese) will die at the hands of Mandarin.  Helen Davidson probes the real situation in:

"Healing words: Taiwan’s tribes fight to save their disappearing languages
The island’s Indigenous people are in a race against time to save their native tongues before they are lost forever"

Guardian (6/8/21)

The author introduces us to Panu Kapamumu, speaker and guardian of his native language, Thao / Ngan.  Right away, we come up against a thorny thicket of linguistic verities:  "Normally, Kapamumu speaks in a mix of the two languages he knows better than his own – Chinese and English."

The Thao people live around Sun Moon Lake, which is located near the mountainous, sparsely populated center of Taiwan.  It is remarkable that the global language, English, has made its inroads even there, such that a tribal man in his sixties can speak it.  More troubling to me is what is meant by "Chinese" when it is said the it is one of Kapamumu's two functional languages.  Is it Taiwanese or Mandarin?  If it's Taiwanese, then he is facing double language death, because every year the percentage of people in Taiwan who can speak Taiwanese declines.  This is a phenomenon that we have encountered many times on Language Log.

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.

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, and in 2016 President Tsai Ing-wen apologised for the “centuries of pain and mistreatment”.

In 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 prescribed 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.

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.

What an enlightened view!  If only the government of the PRC would adopt it for many languages in China that have millions, and often tens of millions, of speakers.


Selected readings

For the name "Taiwan", see the explanations in these posts:


[h.t. Don Keyser, Geok Hoon (Janet) Williams]


  1. Jerry Packard said,

    June 9, 2021 @ 1:39 pm

    I am always pleased to point out for my students that Taiwan is considered to be the actual place of origin of the Austronesian languages, in a time frame of around 3000 to 1500 BCE. (Blust, R. 2009. The Austronesian languages. Pacific Linguistics, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, The Australian National University).

  2. Victor Mair said,

    June 9, 2021 @ 4:42 pm

    For those who are interested in TW’s indigenous languages, June Teufel Dreyer has called attention to the work of Scott Simon, an American who teaches at U Ottawa and who has studied several of the languages. June has also introduced the following project:

    Two English books on Aborigines published

    The Taiwan Studies Lectureship at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) has published two English-language books on Aborigines and Aboriginal cultures of Taiwan, the Ministry of Education said on Monday. The program, established in 2014, is a joint initiative of the ministry and the university, the Department of International and Cross-strait Education said in a statement.

    This year, with the support of the Education Division of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Los Angeles, which represents the ministry, studies from an international academic conference on Aboriginal studies, as well as from archeological fieldwork, have been published in books titled Indigenous Peoples, Heritage and Landscape in the Asia Pacific: Knowledge Co-Production and Empowerment and Indigenous Knowledge in Taiwan and Beyond, the ministry said.

    Indigenous Peoples was edited by Stephen Acabado, a professor at UCLA’s Department of Anthropology, and Kuan Da-wei (官大偉), a professor at National Chengchi University’s Department of Ethnology.

    Acabado, Kuan and Chiang Chih-hua (江芝華), a professor at National Taiwan University’s Department of Anthropology, had collaborated to launch the Taiwan Indigenous Landscape and History Project, the ministry said.

    The project, which focuses on Atayal communities, conducted an archeological survey of Sqoyaw Village in Taichung’s Heping District (和平), it said.

    The publication of the research seeks to help develop theories on the relationship between humans and the environment, and to explore land issues between Taiwanese Aborigines and the government, it said.

    Meanwhile, Indigenous Knowledge was edited by Shih Shu-mei (史書美), a professor at UCLA’s Department of Comparative Literature, and Tsai Lin-chin (蔡林縉), a professor at National Chung Hsing University’s Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature and Transnational Cultural Studies.

    The book is based on articles that were presented at an international conference titled “Indigenous Knowledge, Taiwan: Comparative and Relational Perspectives” held at UCLA in 2018, the ministry said.

    It infers the formation of Taiwan’s Aboriginal knowledge from different worldviews and considers how to place the study of Taiwan’s Aboriginal knowledge under a global research framework, it said.

    It is also the first book to be published in the book series titled “Sinophone and Taiwan Studies,” the ministry said.
    With support from various parties, it looks forward to UCLA developing into an important site for Taiwan studies, the ministry said.

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