Can the Taiwanese language survive?

In the latest issue of Sino-Platonic Papers Deborah Beaser examines the chances for the survival of Taiwanese (a.k.a. Hoklo, Minnan, Southern Min, etc.).

The introduction to her paper, The Outlook for Taiwanese Language Preservation (432 KB PDF), is a good summary of the whole work:

In this paper I will discuss the history of the Taiwanese language on the island of Taiwan, and explore its potential to continue into the future. I predict that over the next 50 years Taiwanese, as a language, will become increasingly marginalized, and that the recent increase in desire to promote Taiwanese is purely the short-term reaction of the generation of Taiwanese who went through periods of linguistic and cultural suppression. This is not to say that I believe it will completely disappear. To the contrary, I believe the Taiwanese language will remain as part of a cultural legacy, but how large that legacy will be depends on whether or not today’s Taiwanese people are able to standardize a script and computer inputting system that will preserve it in a written form and open up its domain of usage.

5 thoughts on “Can the Taiwanese language survive?

  1. I have not read the paper, so my comment is limited to what I get out of the abstract. Although I read and write Taiwanese almost everyday, I am wary of putting too much emphasis on the power of the written language to mitigate the audible decline of the spoken language, particularly among the younger generations. If we’re to take “preservation” literally, in the sense of mechanically recording the language for posterity, then yes, the technical aspects of orthography are obviously quite important. But any language activist will point out that’s not what they mean by preservation, but something much more organic. The project would be more along the line of “open[ing] up its domain of usage”, say inserting the language into the myriad domains of our modern media-saturated, post-industrial life that is Taiwan today, the language of 7-Eleven, McDonald’s, college dorms, and such. That’s hard, and that’s why governments Blue or Green will take easy shortcuts instead (this assuming the generations that still recall language oppression will continue to exert some political pressure, even if largely only to demand symbolic gestures). Without entirely discounting top-down processes, more activists need to recognize that perhaps we shouldn’t count on the State so much. Ultimately, I believe, the solution would require some form of deep grassroots work.

  2. Fifty years sounds like a long time away. I hope the collective effort to preserve the Taiwanese language in the next ten years will make a big difference, so much so that it will render this “50-year prediction” grossly wide of the mark. For now, though, this prediction can serve as a motivator to push forward the preservation work. (This comment is based on the summary as I had difficulty clicking open the article.)

  3. The article raises some interesting points, particularly about young people preferring to use Mandarin. It also underscores the need for a standardised writing system.

    There is one point the article doesn’t really give enough consideration to though. While I certainly believe Taiwanese deserves to be considered a language in its own right, it is a dialect of Minnan. Minnan and closely related dialects are spoken by over 50 million people in China, Taiwan and Southeast Asia. Even if the Taiwanese language goes into decline, what of the survival of Minnan elsewhere? I guess the outlook might be similar in the other places too.

  4. a good analogy is that of Cantonese (Yue).
    1) a non-standardized writing (with supplementary words/characters added) based on the mandarin Chinese sript.
    2) a dialect of the chinese language
    3) widely spoken across the chinese dispora
    4) each has its reference system in mainland china (guangdong and fujian respectively), where the dialect continues to be spoken while mandarin was taught in school.

    the only difference, is perhaps the political consciousness on the island of taiwan.
    a) in taiwan, all young people speak both dialects, but political consciousness may boost either way, and more for the minnan
    b) for cantonese, HK used to be the stalwalk, but with its integration with the mainland, the young people will be able to speak both dialect, the situation may be approaching that of guangzhou

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