Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Three Comments On Marie-Alice McLean-Dreyfus Article At "Thinking Taiwan" On Minority Languages

As below, in chronological order; the first in response to the article itself, and then the second and third in response to other commenters. As usual, quotes from other people appear in italics...

1) Marie-Alice,

"Tsai also acknowledged the importance of all languages within Taiwan when she said, “Hakka is a language of Taiwan, Hokkien [Southern Min] is a language of Taiwan, Chinese is a language of Taiwan and every single Indigenous language is also a language of Taiwan.”

I note the absence of English in that list, despite the obvious presence of English throughout the country and its' not inconsiderable economic, cultural and scientific importance.

"As the number of local language speakers is declining, policies are needed to preserve local languages."


Admittedly I don't exactly spend my time looking for an explanation, but I have never seen any linguist dare to openly and clearly explain the premises at work here (not that I expect to get an answer here, but I think it's worth putting the question). That a language is in decline is not, of its' own, an argument for the protection of that language. The value of the language - and its' value to whom and for what purpose - must be accounted for and without recourse to vague, evasive hand-waving about "cultural enrichment" or the like.

Having said that, I appreciate the point that minority languages were once officially prohibited in Taiwan and that this was wrong. But that is not the case today; nobody is "attacking" or "overpowering" anything. The decline of these languages is simply a consequence of people making choices in their own self-interest, and these choices are not only financial but social in nature too. Are these choices "wrong", and if so, then why?



Shen-yi Liao,

Thanks, but that wasn't particularly informative and I don't have time to plough through a book on a subject in which I have only marginal interest.

So far as I can tell, there are seemingly two main arguments for preserving dying languages. The first is the preservation of knowledge - of the natural world and of a people's history. The second is the attempt to prevent or retard the occurrence of social, economic and political changes.

The first argument is specious; in principle, knowledge of the natural world can, if lost, be recovered by people of any language, albeit at a cost. A people's history can be written down - if not in the original language, then when translated into another.

The second argument - the attempt to arrest change - is more serious, and that was what I was really getting at in my earlier comment. My objection is twofold; first that it seems to imply ghettos from which the speakers of that language either should not escape or should be discouraged from doing so for the alleged benefit of their community; the second is the idea that problems of social dislocation should be avoided or ameliorated by preserving dying languages rather than solved.

On the first point, I favour individual freedom and I don't think it is right (to put it mildly) to keep young aboriginal people locked up in little tourist show-villages and deny them the opportunities everyone else has in the cities. On the second point, crimes committed by displaced minorities don't happen just because they haven't got anyone to talk to in their native language. Having someone around who speaks their native language may help, but are we really willing to accept that that is the only thing that can help? I'm not having it. There must be plenty of other ways to prevent young minority men from going off the rails without handcuffing them to a dying culture.



@ 阿石

I partially agree; children from a Hokkien speaking family are at a disadvantage in school compared to children from a Mandarin speaking family. The same disadvantage may also apply to children from an English or German speaking family, though these families are usually bilingual. However, I disagree that linguistic inequality is the problem. There is always likely to be one language more commonly used than others, whatever political arrangements are made. I think the problem is political control of education, to which the solution is educational freedom. A better home schooling policy wherein the Education Department relinquished dictatorial control of the terms and content of the syllabus would be a good first step. Children from Hokkien speaking families would then be free to adopt whichever mixture of Hokkien, Mandarin and English they preferred - and the market for educational materials would eventually cater to these preferences, and probably quite quickly too since there would be money to be made.

4) "The knowledge of all the classics in Hokkien won’t get you to NTU."

That's OK because NTU is probably overrated; their engineering graduates typically have to be re-taught properly once they graduate and go to work in large tech corporations (I have that on personal communication from more than one senior manager), and the English undergraduates at NTU whom I have taught had considerable difficulty in reading and interpreting simple graphs, even after they had been told how to do so. In the end the graphs had to be explained to them.

5) "...I don't agree with the idea that "knowledge of the natural world can, if lost, can be recovered by people of any language" [or translated]. So much is lost during translation, and so much is added on top of the "natural world" when one find some words to phrase it."

Knowledge of the natural world can be categorized in at least three ways; the scientific, the practical and the aesthetic. My guess is that whatever is lost in translation will tend to be aesthetic, or in certain cases perhaps practical, rather than scientific. That reduces my concern because aesthetic categories are subjective and open to change, and the practical use of certain materials can probably be substituted for in most cases. Scientific knowledge is the preserve of Western languages, predominantly English and so scientific knowledge of the natural world is not tied to this or that dying minority language.


No comments:

Post a Comment

Comment moderation is now in place, as of April 2012. Rules:

1) Be aware that your right to say what you want is circumscribed by my right of ownership here.

2) Make your comments relevant to the post to which they are attached.

3) Be careful what you presume: always be prepared to evince your point with logic and/or facts.

4) Do not transgress Blogger's rules regarding content, i.e. do not express hatred for other people on account of their ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation or nationality.

5) Remember that only the best are prepared to concede, and only the worst are prepared to smear.