Taiwanese: a doomed language?

Mark over at Pinyin News has posted about the latest issue of Sino-Platonic Papers, which is a paper by Deborah Beaser about the decline of the Taiwanese language. I feel the article contained a few flaws of fact and reasoning, but in general the conclusion she makes about the ‘inevitable’ decline of Taiwanese does not seem unreasonable.

Beaser outlines the current situations Taiwanese is most often used:

  • In the home
  • Between members of older generations (over 40)
  • Outside Taipei
  • In political campaigning

What is crucial about these points is that for communication amongst each other, the younger generation (whether from Taiwanese-speaking homes or not) almost exclusively use Mandarin. Taiwanese is perceived as being ‘local’ and ‘low-class’ whereas young people want to project a more sophisticated image, best conveyed by using Mandarin.

Bilingual road markings in WalesFor a comparison of a situation where the fortunes of a declining language have been reversed, just consider Welsh. Welsh has many parallels with Taiwanese, having been suppressed, considered lowly and replaced by an alien language (in this case English, for Taiwan read Mandarin). After centuries of official discrimination, Welsh was put on an equal legal footing with English in 1993 by the Welsh Language Act. From that point on, the promotion of Welsh in education, local government and entertainment has led to a marked turnaround in the prospects for the future of this language.

There are of course some major differences between the two situations. Welsh has had an undisputed written language going back to the 6th century. The problems of Taiwanese related to a written standard are many and need to be resolved. Also, divisionsPe̍h-ōe-jī of language (dominant versus weak) are less clear-cut in Taiwan because of the Hakka and aboriginal languages. But what is needed to enable the long-term survival of Taiwanese is a codification of the written form and the opportunity to be educated in Taiwanese (not just to have it as an hour-a-week class). If we were to see romanised Taiwanese on street signs, on official documents, in newspapers and schools, then the possibility of halting the decline could be realised.

Why ‘romanised’ Taiwanese? Why not mixed (character and romanised) or all-character Taiwanese. These are also possibilities, aren’t they?

Firstly, apart from all the very pertinent arguments for romanisation in general (c.f. John DeFrancis, Pinyin Info), there is another concern – if a character-based system is used, won’t people just stick with Mandarin characters? I mean, why bother? But if a romanised system were to be implemented, the benefits in terms of usability and convenience would become clear to everyone who uses it. The other hurdle to overcome is the general prejudice in favour of characters as ‘civilised writing’, by no means an easy task.

In the final sentence of her paper, Beaser writes:

…unless the younger generations are given the means to make Taiwanese a nationally functional language, the outlook for Taiwanese is very poor.

I disagree. I’d say:

even if younger generations are given the means to make Taiwanese a nationally functional language, the outlook for Taiwanese is still very poor.

So, after all that, why have I chosen to learn it? Partly interest, but partly because it’s the language that my future in-laws use. Whether Taiwanese is going to die out in forty years or so not does not really affect my motivation for learning it. Of course, the best scenario would be the preservation and protection of the language. But, given the emotional and political issues involved, this may be no more than a pipe-dream.

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12 Comments on “Taiwanese: a doomed language?”

  1. Prince Roy Says:

    I’ve never quite understood why people assert that Taiwanese is primarily used ‘outside Taipei’. I hear it in this city every day. If you count how often people mix Taiwanese and Mandarin in the same sentence, it’s even more common. This is a very shoddily written article you’ve linked to here. Her position that Taiwanese has started its ‘inevitable decline towards extinction’ is absurd, especially since in the immediate preceeding sentence she notes that it is spoken by the ‘overwhelming majority of Taiwan’s population’. What evidence does she provide? People are ‘reluctant’ to use Taiwanese? Please. One can make the argument (probably correctly) that Mandarin will continue as the dominant language in Taiwan, but that does not mean that people will cease to use Taiwanese. If anything, recent history has shown the opposite. Even many 外省 here now grow up speaking Taiwanese. My own Taiwanese teacher is a case in point.

  2. Taffy Says:

    I too hear it used in Taipei, but not generally by the younger generation when speaking amongst themselves – and that is an issue for concern. Most people in Taiwan can speak some standard of Taiwanese, this is true, but even with my friends from the south they almost exclusively use it in conversation with older people. The fact is that often younger people don’t speak ‘proper’ Taiwanese (as it is considered by the older generation) – for example, the disappearing tonal distinctions in the Taipei area and replacement of more unusual items of vocabulary with Mandarin terms. Add to all this the point that Mandarin is far more dominant on the world stage and you have a recipe for decline. I don’t disagree with you that the Beaser article was poorly written, but I still think the middle to long term prospects for Taiwanese are not rosy. Don’t get me wrong, I like the language and hope it endures, but I just can’t honestly believe that it will see out the century as a vibrant, community language.


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  4. Prince Roy Says:

    As a new student of Taiwanese I’m unqualified to comment on whether what I’m hearing is ‘proper’ Taiwanese, but I wonder if that is really a valid critique. The older generations typically fault Youth’s indiscretions in many areas, language included. Also, language is not a static entity and is constantly adapting. My hunch is that this is what is going on with Taiwanese.

    Again, I can’t address the linguistic aspects of Taiwnaese tonal changes, but the same kinds of things have been observed in other Chinese dialects-i.e. the consonant shifts that occured in certain northern Mandarin dialects in the 17th and 18th centuries, presumably as a result of the Manchu rule.

    Loan words are not signs of a language’s decline; they can be a source of renewed vitality. Going by this argument, English and Japanese are in serious trouble.

    You may be right about the decline of Taiwanese, but frankly, I’m just not convinced. I find it hard to believe that a language which is the first tongue of by far the majority of Taiwanese (15 million), not to mention parts of Fujian, with more than 50 million speakers, is in any real danger of dying out soon; certainly it will see out the century.

  5. Taffy Says:

    By ‘proper’ Taiwanese I don’t mean the resistance to the natural evolution of the language (older people always get grumpy about that!), but rather the fact that many younger people who are supposedly native speakers of the language don’t actually know it that well and often have to resort to dropping Mandarin in to the sentence to plug holes where perfectly good Taiwanese words exist. You can listen to a Taiwanese conversation involving at least one under-thirty Taiwanese interlocutor and it won’t be long before you hear Mandarin filling the gaps.

    Of course, all this is speculation as I have no better idea than most people what’s going to happen in a hundred years. But to support my theory, a couple of points:

    1. ‘Mandarinisation’ of Taiwanese

    I talked about the dissolution of the tonal difference in the Taipei area – like you my Taiwanese is nowhere near good enough to spot this myself. I’m relying on academic studies I’ve read (will try to find the links later). Another area is the adoption of more Mandarin-like words in Taiwanese. Fruit was commonly called góe-chí thirty years ago, but young people today almost always use chúi-kó (adapted straight from the Mandarin shuĭguŏ). This in itself is not dangerous to the survival of the language, but I think it’s indicative of a shift in the way Taiwanese is used by people.

    2. ‘Non-fluency’ of the younger generation

    The topics which younger people are able to discuss in Taiwanese are more limited than those they can discuss in Mandarin. OK, there are still some areas where Taiwanese has the upper hand (e.g. cursing, fighting and political grandstanding), but this is a minority of situations. As an anecdotal subject I give you my better half, who is from a Zhanghua family of Taiwanese speakers. She was raised in an exclusively Taiwanese-speaking home and yet struggles to talk about subjects which fall outside the realm of home/family/friends. I don’t feel she’s alone in this, because Taiwanese for many young people has become limited in scope – it’s something they use to talk to grandad but not to the shuàigē who works at the garage.

    This is an intermediate stage in the evolution of the language and if the next generation don’t teach it to their kids (which is already happening to some extent) then it is doomed. The effect will accelerate as the older generation pass on and the current youth generation drop a language that they can’t use to express the full range of things they want to talk about. The speakers in Fujian will be faced with the same pressures as Taiwanese speakers face and the language there will also decline unless supported, I feel. Add to this the PRC’s current drive to get everyone speaking standard Mandarin (no sniggering, now!) and I give mainland Minnanyu a similar life expectancy.

    For my part, if and when I have kids here I would like them to grow up speaking English, Mandarin and Taiwanese, but while the first two would be equally important to me, if the child doesn’t learn great Taiwanese I’m not going to worry about it too much.

    Again, this is all speculation and I appreciate your points, but I still feel that Taiwanese will decline unless the political and educational climate change dramatically. Perhaps I was a little over-pessimistic in my 100 year limit, but a situation whereby in the year 2100 the Taiwanese that exists is a moribund form, remembered only in pithy interjections into otherwise Mandarin speech, seems pretty plausible to me.

  6. Daniel Says:

    I definitely hear mixed Chinese and Taiwanese everywhere in Taipei – the jumps between bits I can almost hear and bits I can’t understand at all; young students are very clear that speaking Taiwanese is uncool. But then, “uncool” can be very shortlived.

    I also find that very few people that I’ve met in Taipei support the “Taiwanese-ation” programmes of the DPP. It could be because most of the people I talk to are waishenren or Hakka, I’m not sure, but people’s sense of identity seems fairly well tied to a Chinese history, even if they see themselves as separate to the state on the mainland.

  7. Feiren Says:

    1. It is simply not true that the younger generation does not speak Taiwanese. Younger working class men speak Taiwanese extensively and fluently.

    2. Lots of people speak Taiwanese in Taipei. It’s just that Mandarin-speaking foreigners tend to tune it out. I was amazed at how much Taiwanese was spoken in Taipei by people in all walks of life after I started studying it. I just wasn’t listening.

  8. Prince Roy Says:

    Feiren: I heartily concur.


  9. […] So where exactly is my Taiwanese, you might ask? In class at least, the nursery rhyme level (童謠), literally. More specifically, “One, Two Buckle My Shoe”. I’m really glad Mr. Yao is introducing these to me, and I’ll share them all as I learn more. Taiwanese is a truly extraordinarily expressive language. I’m consistently amazed at the richness of it. It is also one of the oldest extant forms on the Chinese side of the Sino-Tibetan linguistic family. Classical Chinese poetry, if read in Taiwanese, maintains its rhyming scheme, which is often lost in Mandarin. Only a few other dialects, like Cantonese, can make that claim. Taffy links to paper which argues that the Taiwanese language is on its last legs. I disagree. The old metaphor would say Taiwanese is going the way of the dinosaurs. The new intepretation would argue Taiwanese is going the way of the dinosaurs, in the way that dinosaurs evolved into birds. […]

  10. redrat Says:

    >English and Japanese are in serious trouble.

    How so? Could you elaborate a bit more?

  11. Johan Gijsen Says:

    Can any language can be neglected in education and still be maintained as long as people “use it”? Is one weekly class period in Taiwanese (or any other “homeland education” class) worthy of a pupil speaking mainly Taiwanese outside the classroom?

    No, Taiwanese is not dying yet, but let us not be overly optimistic either. If children who mainly hear and speak Taiwanese at home cannot receive even primary education in their first language, they will steadily lose fluency in that language. Because Taiwanese is extensively used outside the school, this loss is slow but real nonetheless.

    To my surprise, language researchers overseas with a thorough understanding of Taiwan’s linguistic situation are the ones ringing the alarm bell in this case. Researchers, the public, as well as politicians in Taiwan seem to possess an unhealthy dose of linguistic optimism vis-à-vis the future of Taiwanese. As someone having an endangered mother tongue as first language (Flemish), I hope they are right.

    When the message to children is “Concentrate on Mandarin and English; leave Taiwanese at the schoolhouse door”, are youngsters not asked to leave part of their identity behind as well? Research shows that this situation is detrimental in a child’s linguistic as well as cognitive development (Hickey, Lopez, Tallowitz, Cummins).

    Shouldn’t we therefore discuss the current situation in Taiwan’s mother tongue education rather than who speaks what language and how?

  12. Norman Says:

    Taiwanese is terribly difficult (much moreso than mandarin) to romanise. This is a point that the author has failed to point out. As a student of Taiwanese I know this. I devised a little system to show tones above the words that works, but it is slightly complicated and might be difficult if not impossible to implement in a computer.


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