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By Liberty Osborne

A blue and orange print of a cup of bubble tea

Art by Yii-Jen Deng

Taiwan, the West, and the politics of language.


Finding yourself aboard the Taipei metro, a voice over the tannoy will state the station towards which you are heading in clear-cut Mandarin. A moment later, it will deliver the same message, this time in English. And again, in Taiwanese Hokkien. Once more in Hakka. And in case you didn’t quite catch that, though only if you are travelling in the centre of the city, the station will be announced a fifth time in Japanese. This is no technical malfunction; rather, this diversity of languages reflects a complex tale of colonisation, conquest, and nativist revival. Mandarin, Hokkien, Hakka, and Japanese all represent parts of Taiwan’s history through the various peoples who migrated to or ruled over it.

The use of English, however, has little to do with the island’s past. Instead, it marks a look towards the future, in the latest turn of Taiwan’s complex linguistic landscape: ‘Bilingual Nation 2030’. Introduced in 2018, the ambitious policy aims to achieve Mandarin-English bilingualism nationwide by the end of this decade. Emulating neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore, where English is spoken widely and fluently, the government has introduced a series of measures ranging from translated street signs and bureaucratic documents to a bilingual education system.

The choice of English, rather than Hokkien, the dialect spoken by over 80% of the population, is motivated by a desire to assert Taiwan’s place in the international community and strengthen global economic ties. Never mind that few measures have been taken to address the other issues which primarily make Taiwan unappealing to foreign businesses and expats: low wages and an intense working culture. English, according to the Taiwanese government, is the holy grail for attracting foreign investment.

Fluency in English would allow more Taiwanese to move abroad for work or education, whilst English-speaking work environments would increase accessibility for Western companies wanting to invest in the island. The premise is simple: a common language creates stronger economic and cultural ties, hopefully leading to stronger political and, perhaps one day, even military support. The policy consciously uses language to political ends. For, as tensions with its Chinese neighbour across the strait are increasingly fraught, a burgeoning economic relationship with the West could become crucial.

People in Taiwan have long joked about how TSMC, the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, effectively serves as Taiwan’s own iron dome. With Taiwan producing 65% of the world’s semiconductors, small chips essential to the running of any computer-based device, from smartphones to cars, this is not that much of a stretch. Disturbance of the island’s chip production would almost certainly have a devastating impact on the world economy.

Whilst TSMC has recently announced that it will open a plant in Arizona, in the meantime, it seems unlikely that the world will want to lose its source of such an essential commodity. America is far more likely to defend Taiwan as long as the loss of Taiwan also means the loss of their own semiconductor supply and the crippling of multiple American industries. A mere handful of additional economic links in a similar vein could ensure Taiwan's security.

Taking somewhere with a population of over 20 million and making it fully bilingual in just twelve years is ambitious. To anyone who has ever visited Taiwan, it sounds near-impossible. For, whilst English might be widespread in the capital’s major companies and high-flying universities, venturing outside of Taipei and into rural communities you find that local dialects still prevail. English might now be plastered on signs across the country, but it remains miles away from becoming vernacular.

‘Bilingual Nation 2030’ is a policy that actively disadvantages those communities by widening educational gaps. It defines Taiwan’s official linguistic identity according to economic aims exclusive to big cities, rather than to the genuine cultural reality of the country.

The policy may work well in the capital, Taipei, adding an extra boost to rich schools. But in rural areas, resources are already extremely limited, and access to fluent English-speaking teachers is near-non-existent. Here, the policy will be at best ineffective and, at worst, extremely damaging.

The government attempted to acknowledge this last year, when renaming the policy ‘Bilingual 2030’. The small semantic shift meant to signal a step down from the grander aims of the original. In practice, many of the policies have remained the same.

Teachers’ unions still complain of a compulsory bilingual education, forcing teachers who can barely speak English to use it to teach Science or Maths. Meanwhile, children watch on bemused, as those struggling with English find themselves falling behind.

The government’s use of language as a way of shaping the island’s identity is nothing new to Taiwan. The current bilingual policy is in some ways reminiscent of the linguistic policies of a not so far, albeit much more repressive, past.

Following defeat in the first Sino-Japanese war of 1895, Qing China ceded Taiwan to Japan, who would rule the island for the following fifty years. Alongside efforts to improve the economy and infrastructure of their new prize, the colonial government pursued an aggressive policy of ‘Japanisation’ in which everyone was forced to use Japanese. It became the main language of instruction in schools, and children could get in serious trouble for speaking Taiwanese Hokkien, Hakka, or aboriginal tongues in the classroom. Elite Taiwanese started going to Japan to study and most indigenous literature began to be written in Japanese. Even when Taiwanese resistance movements emerged, ironically, Japanese was often the language in which calls for independence were written.

Art by Eloise Cooke

Then, in the middle of the twentieth century, politically, and linguistically, everything changed again. Following Japan’s defeat in the Second World War, Taiwan was returned to China, in the midst of an ongoing civil war between the existing Nationalist government and the insurgent Communists. In 1949, the Nationalists were defeated, and driven across the strait to Taiwan, which they claimed as their new seat, awaiting an eventual reunification with the mainland.

Led by Chiang Kai-shek, millions of Chinese fled their homes for Taiwan. Coming from all over the mainland, these immigrants brought a flurry of linguistic habits with them, with Mandarin, the language of government, acting as the common tongue. On the contrary, those who had been on the island for much longer spoke Taiwanese Hokkien or, less often, Hakka, as well as the language they had been taught at school, Japanese.

For Chiang Kai-shek, a man who claimed to be the rightful ruler of a single Republic of China, this linguistic diversity posed a threat to the ‘One China’ narrative he stood for. This was all the more true for local aboriginal cultures and languages, who were proof of a non-Han presence in Taiwan for millennia.

Four decades of martial law from 1949-1987 thus sought to homogenise the linguistic landscape, aggressively promoting the ‘national language’, i.e. Mandarin Chinese, while local tongues were to be suppressed. Just as under Japanese rule, dialects were banned in schools, and children severely punished, usually violently, if they spoke anything other than Mandarin. Once again, language became a marker of political control.

In response, a nativist literature movement emerged in the 1970s with Taiwanese, Hakka, and aboriginal languages at its heart. The mother tongues of the island, crafted into poetry, theatre, and essays, became weapons of resistance against an oppressive rule that denied local history and culture. The works sought to not only express themes of identity and politics, but also to represent the lives of ordinary Taiwanese people using the languages they spoke.

One of the most prominent contributors was Li Kuei-hsien, a Nobel prize nominated poet who produced long, political poems using Taiwanese Hokkien. His works include 'February 28th Incident Requiem', named in memory of the more than 18,000 people killed that day in 1947 following anti-Nationalist government uprisings on the island. The poem became a cry for a free Taiwan.

Other works, such as the aboriginal poem ‘If You Would Ask', also condemned the pain inflicted on the island by invaders. Calls for independence were thus heard in a plethora of local tongues, gradually crafting a distinctly Taiwanese literary identity.

After martial land ended, and as Taiwan’s democracy burgeoned in the 1990s and 2000s, local languages were actively promoted for a time. Several laws asserting the equality of languages such as Taiwanese Hokkien and Hakka were introduced, aiming to preserve different cultural heritages and provide equal access to services such as education or transport.

Political candidates in some of Taiwan’s early elections, including the first President Lee Teng-hui, made a point of occasionally speaking Taiwanese Hokkien or Hakka in public, attempting to connect with the local population and define themselves against the oppression of their predecessors.

Schoolchildren today are still required to learn a little of local language at school, but this is largely overshadowed by English, and young speakers of Hokkien, Hakka, and aborigine languages are increasingly few and far between. 'Bilingual 2030' forgets Taiwan’s linguistic legacy, as the prioritisation of English likely comes at the cost of further endangering the island’s rich linguistic landscape.

The policy makes no claim to be an equalising force celebrating nativist culture; it is elitist by its own admission. Government websites unashamedly talk about the role of 'Bilingual 2030' in 'nurturing an elite group of students in key professional fields', this select few being the recipients of a 'focused cultivation'. Such a cultivation, the government hope, will allow them to lead a pursuit of internationalism.

While engaging the wider population's cultural roots might be important, for the government, asserting Taiwan's place on the global stage is even more so. Yet, the effects of ‘Bilingual 2030’ remain eerily reminiscent of Taiwan’s not-so- democratic recent past, as language once again becomes a tool of government.

Just as Japan sculpted their 'model colony' and Chiang Kai-shek curated his homogenous Republic of China, the government is once again attempting to use language to forcibly carve out a new identity for Taiwan in the 21st century, one distinct from mainland China.

Thus, the linguistic cacophony that you hear over the tannoy on the metro is not random; it tells the story of the people of Taiwan, reflecting patterns of migration, aboriginal roots, colonial pasts, and new global ambitions. Some of the languages on the tannoy are reminders of freedoms and rights that, until recently, Taiwan did not have; others are reminders of the international future to which the island aspires.

If at the end of your metro ride, you happen to find yourself sitting down for a meal with a well-off family in Taipei, you may be lucky enough to hear multiple languages at play all at once. The great-grandparent, well into their nineties and educated during Japanese rule, might have grown up speaking Taiwanese at home and Japanese at school. Their Mandarin might even be a little shoddy.

In contrast, their children and grandchildren might consider Mandarin their primary language, only speaking Hokkien on the side, and, if well-educated, maybe a little English. Their great-grandchildren will of course speak Mandarin, but they may very well be on the path to fluency in English, that is, if the government gets its way.

LIBERTY OSBORNE reads Chinese at Univ. She writes about languages to procrastinate learning them.


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