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Feelings mixed about local indigenous language amid shift to Mandarin in Taiwan

Atayal language teacher Yabun Toli, right, teaches a student the alphabet system used to write the indigenous language at Aohua Elementary School, in the village of Aohua, Yilan County, Taiwan, on May 23, 2018. (Mainichi)
Atayal vocabulary words appear next to their Mandarin Chinese counterparts to aid in student's learning of the indigenous language, at Aohua Elementary School, in the village of Aohua, Yilan County, Taiwan, on May 23, 2018. (Mainichi)

YILAN COUNTY, Taiwan -- In the village of Aohua here on the northeastern side of the island, students at Aohua Elementary School take the indigenous language Atayal as a school subject.

"What does 'qasu'laka' ' mean?" asked 69-year-old Atayal language instructor Yabun Toli. The students all at once answered, "Feiji!" -- "airplane," in Mandarin Chinese.

In Taiwan, the common language and the language of education is Mandarin Chinese, and the number of people who speak indigenous languages such as Atayal is dwindling. In order to pass these languages down to the next generation, students can choose to take indigenous language classes in school.

"It's the language of the Atayal people, so I want to learn it," said 11-year-old Ch'en Hsing-yu, a fifth grader at the school. "My father speaks Atayal better than me, so I have to practice it even more."

In the four villages in Yilan County, Hanhsi, Aohua, Tungyueh, and Chinyang, where "Nihongo" (Japanese) or "Yilan Creole," a mix of Japanese, Atayal and Seediq, is spoken as a home language, those who can speak Atayal are limited to a small number of elderly residents. Toli tells the children, "The Atayal language is the most important thing. You must not forget your roots." But even then, her first language was also "Nihongo."

During break time between classes, when the students realized that the reporter was Japanese, they started to try to strike up a conversation in the unique language variety: "Nani iteiru, anta?" (What are you saying?), similar to the phrase in Japanese. But after initial greetings, they switched back to Mandarin.

It appears that due to the influence of Mandarin Chinese as the language of education, the majority of the young cannot speak so-called Yilan Creole. With no writing system, the variety may completely fade away when its speakers pass away.

Until the 19th century, people of the Han ethnic group in Taiwan spoke Southern Min Chinese, a variety completely different from Mandarin, and each indigenous group spoke their own language. It was when Japan annexed Taiwan at the end of the 19th century that Japanese language education began on the island. However, after the end of World War II, Gen. Chiang Kai-Shek crossed over from mainland China to Taiwan, installing a dictatorship and pushing for education in Mandarin Chinese and the use of it as the common language. Almost overnight, the people of Taiwan suddenly had to learn this new language brought from the mainland, and the diverse languages spoken on the island were cast aside by history. Passing indigenous languages such as Atayal down to the next generation is becoming increasingly difficult.

The feelings about the fate of these languages differ among the villagers of Yilan County. Ts'o Ma-li, 33, of Aohua said, "The Atayal language is most important, but since it cannot be used in daily life, even if you study it, you won't be able to speak it. It's a shame."

Meanwhile, 60-year-old Lin Mei-hua of the village of Hanhsi joked, "When I went to work in Japan, I was immediately able to pick up Japanese even without studying very much." Wu I-no, 25, of Hanhsi, was also positive about the area's unique language variety, "I would like to protect the 'Nihongo' that I inherited from my grandparents," he said.

Meanwhile, one woman in Hanhsi revealed her complicated feelings toward the contact language: "'Nihongo' is just the result of the cultural invasion by the Japanese."

(Japanese original by Shizuya Fukuoka, Taipei Bureau)

This is Part 2 in a series.

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