Saving a critically endangered language one child at a time

« previous post | next post »

A recent blog on Miao/Hmong posted on Language Log reminded Chau Wu of an earlier news report from Taiwan about a 5th grade girl from Hla'alua (Lā'ālǔwa zú 拉阿魯哇族) who won a speech competition using her native language (article in Chinese).

"With fewer than 10 native speakers and an ethnic population of 400 people, Saaroa (= Hla'alua) is considered critically endangered," according to the article on Saaroa language in Wikipedia.

Here is a 4min-33sec YouTube video as a brief refresher on the small Austronesian tribe.

What impressed Chau the most about the story of the girl winning the speech competition is that there were three collaborative fronts working together to help her accomplish the feat:
(1) Her parents: her father is a Hla'alua, but her mother is an Amis (for the Austronesian language, see here).  They label household items with signs in Hla'ahua to facilitate the girl's learning.
(2) Her enthusiastic teacher: Lài Zhāorú 賴昭如 is of Paiwan descent (for the Austronesian language, see here), yet she learned Hla'alua and obtained a certificate (rènzhèng 認證) to teach it, so that she could coach the girl in that language.
(3) The government: the concerned authorities set up speech competitions with awards so children can be motivated to participate.
Chau was deeply moved by the story when he read it, the story of saving a critically endangered language one child at a time.   An enlightened Taiwan.

Selected readings


  1. Philip Anderson said,

    January 23, 2022 @ 7:11 am

    An encouraging story, for anyone who thinks that every language is valuable, and that diversity is richness.

    One question: what script was used to label objects? Did she have to learn a new script?

  2. Chau said,

    January 23, 2022 @ 4:53 pm

    @ Philip Anderson. Thanks for your questions. All Taiwanese Austronesian languages use the Latin-based alphabet for writing. The phonemic writing system specific for Hla'alua was designed in 1999 by an Austrian scholar Jozsef Szakos and a Taiwanese educator in Hla'alua, Iû Jîn-kùi 游仁貴, who devotes himself to the preservation and revival of Hla'alua culture. A table for the phonemes of the 16 Austronesian languages officially recognized by Taiwan government is given on the following Wikipedia page; Hla'alua is listed as Saaroa in the table (row 9).

    The Hla'alua writing system had already been in use when she was born, so she didn't have to learn a new script.

  3. Philip Anderson said,

    January 24, 2022 @ 3:14 pm

    Thank you. I guess she already spoke and read another Austronesian language, probably her mother’s, and the sounds of each letter look to be similar. Missionaries did a lot of work creating scripts.

  4. KIRINPUTRA said,

    February 2, 2022 @ 8:56 pm

    Speech competitions only "help" when a language is not viable. In the case of Taiwanese, arguably Hakka, and maybe Paiwan & Amis, the occupying republic is itself the killing factor.

RSS feed for comments on this post