Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Fate of the Language?

Brought to my attention in my Facebook news-feed (what is this world coming to?!), a friend of mine posted a link to this article in the New York Times about how the Cantonese language is facing the possibility of becoming a "dying" language over the next few years in the United States- specifically in New York's Chinatown.

I emphasize language here because it is a language. As far as I can tell from my one-year education in Mandarin, the Cantonese language and Mandarin language are mutually unintelligible. Just as, the Taiwanese language and Mandarin language are mutually unintelligible. And while both languages, Cantonese and Taiwanese, may be facing an uphill battle in surviving as a language- the outlook for Cantonese remains much brighter.

This is due in most part to Cantonese having a fairly well supported written form of itself. On the other hand, Taiwanese is being hit on all fronts by many different systems, from using romanized systems to character systems, where each can be further broken down. This website, Talingua, has a good overview of the various ways you can approach Taiwanese writing/reading. The problem here is (from what I remember/hear) that the KMT government at one point gave money to a bunch of different groups/scholars to each come up with their own system of writing Taiwanese. Sounds good/reasonable right? Well, the result was that each came up with their own, and there ended up being a sort of competition for whose is better. In the end, we have a bunch of different systems, that no one can agree upon. So the Taiwanese language continues to lose place in society as the years pass on with no agreed upon writing system.

While a writing system for a language is not the only thing that is needed to help keep it alive, it is a large part of it. But, I believe there needs to be a change that takes place in conjunction with a unified writing system for Taiwanese to maintain it's prominence as a language of Taiwan. That is, the political and social issues that plague the Taiwanese language. Many young Taiwanese these days are plagued with the notion that Taiwanese is/should be used for only in the marketplace and at home. While currently this notion is certainly not unfounded (as Taiwanese is currently mainly used in marketplaces and inside the home), it is a slippery slope of self-fulfilling prophecy that should be reconsidered. It is one thing to put Mandarin on a pedestal and say it's the main language to be used in the business world/work place, but another thing to put Taiwanese down and limit it to the marketplace and home.

The part that I find must unbearable about this is (coming from personal experience), young Taiwanese telling other Taiwanese, "Why are you speaking Taiwanese? It's so weird." As one who excels in the Taiwanese language, and has the Mandarin capability of probably a 2nd or 3rd grader (or worse), I was not one to be ashamed to use my Taiwanese in all aspects of my life and time in Taiwan- from classmates, to professors, other exchange students, at clubs/bars, customer service people, retail workers, you name it, I probably talked to them in Taiwanese. Were they taken aback at first? Yes. Did they get used to it? Yes. Was it easier to make friends because of my Taiwanese? In my point of view, yes. I think we can all do the Taiwanese language a favor, by at the very least, simply not handing out negative remarks over using Taiwanese. I even met a few people who speak Taiwanese with their friends all the time, and it was a refreshing change to see that there are still young people in Taiwan who have respect for their own culture.

Keep in mind, this is no hack on the Taiwanese who don't speak the language, Taiwanese- but rather a reminder to those that do. Furthermore, I want to emphasize here that speaking Taiwanese does not make one more "Taiwanese" than those who don't. I have met plenty of people who don't speak Taiwanese (only Mandarin and/or Hakka), but are more "Taiwanese" than the current president of Taiwan will ever be (although that isn't saying much of those who really know what Ma is up to, but you get my point).

P.S. As crazy as it is to hear a girl inside Babe 18 speaking butchered-Taiwanese and continuing saying li-ho, li-ho, jia-beng, jia-beng, as if those were the only few Taiwanese phrases that exist, I do applaud these few girls that I met for attempting to do so- and I must say, it is rather cute.


Curious Curious George said...

hell yeah, cantonese.

Mark said...

A guy I know who lives in New York was told by his Taiwan friends that he should refer to himself as Chinese and not Taiwanese. He rejected the notion of having to be politically correct. Unfortunately, I don't think young people in Taiwan consider Taiwanese language something that is endangered - they just can't see the big picture.

Richard said...

I agree with you Mark. I think part of that stems from the fact that a large % of Taiwanese these days cannot speak Taiwanese very well, and as such, do not feel very "connected" to the language. One reason for this is likely due to the martial law era, when Taiwanese was barred/banned from being used anywhere pretty much. As such, there is a generation of Taiwanese that do not speak it because of how the Taiwanese language was portrayed during that time (backwards, lowly, poor, undeducated, etc), and obviously because it was punishable to do so.

I think the harsher reality for Taiwanese has yet to come. Those who grew up during that period, late 1960s to early 1980s, and are starting to marry and have kids, will really have no way of teaching their kids Taiwanese even if they wanted to.

One thing I forgot to mention is the way the society/media in Taiwan portrays the language can go a long ways towards helping promote the language. One case in point, the movie Cape No. 7. Now one of Taiwan's most famous movies ever produced, and almost completely in Taiwanese.

Tailingua said...

Hi Richard, great article here, and interesting to see a different perspective from someone in the Taiwanese-American community.

I think the issue of writing, while important, is not the central one. The Ministry of Education finally agreed on a system a little while ago, but the amount of teaching done with it is laughable. The bigger problem is the attitude of regular folks towards the language - it's "low class, agricultural, old-fashioned" to many urban Taiwanese (whereas in the 17–1800s even the educated elite used it). Your comment above about language suppression during martial law is right on the money.

As you write, people are just not passing the language on to their kids. The situation is somewhat better in the south, but when kids stop using it en masse, like is happening now, the language is in serious trouble, no matter how many millions of native speakers it claims at the moment.

The richness and diversity of the Taiwanese language is something that should be preserved, and there are good people fighting to help this happen. But can they change the apathy of most Taiwanese people on this subject?

Richard said...

Thanks for comment. I completely agree with your statement about how Taiwanese is an extremely rich and diverse language (as my mom always points out when I ask her clarifications on a word or what the Mandarin equivalent is). Often times there are ways to express a feeling or something in Taiwanese that just isn't possible in Mandarin Chinese- you can get close to, almost, but just never actually close enough to what the meaning is in Taiwanese. Furthermore, a lot of times the Taiwanese version of the word has underlying meanings to each syllable, that give it extra meaning.

As far as the young generation, there is something happening between the time that they are in the home and then start their education in school that causes them to pick up the mentality that Taiwanese is low-class. As I never grew up in Taiwan, I can't quite figure it out, but I guess it could be as simple as a few parents and perhaps even teachers telling the kids that Taiwanese is as such, and then the kids pick up that notion as well, and it unintentionally becomes abnormal to speak it with each other, especially when they are "striving" to learn Chinese in school.

I never really thought of it until now, but the background and surroundings really do make a difference (as you pointed out my perspective as a Taiwanese-American). I grew up in a home that pretty much always spoke Taiwanese, as well as all my aunts and relatives families. Furthermore, we attended a Taiwanese church that has service in Taiwanese, so I guess that community of Taiwanese that all spoke Taiwanese (from young kids to adults) made me very comfortable with speaking Taiwanese outside of the home.

It all comes back to their impression of the language growing up. If the notion that Taiwanese is a low-class vulgar language, cannot be stopped at an early age, then this vicious cycle can never end. As you say, apathy is a big problem, as I'm certain many would think, "Why do I need to learn Taiwanese? I do just fine with Chinese."