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:

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.

For 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, divisions 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.