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Student rediscovers ethnic pride interviewing Japan-Taiwan creole speakers

Aohua village native Liu Shao-hsuan smiles during an interview, at National Dong Hwa University, in the eastern city of Hualien, Taiwan, on April 21, 2018. (Mainichi)

YILAN COUNTY, Taiwan -- When 23-year-old Liu Shao-hsuan was growing up in the village of Aohua in the northeastern mountains here in Taiwan, she thought that the language she spoke was Atayal, that of one of the local indigenous groups of the same name.

But her perception changed completely when she entered junior high school in a neighboring town. Liu could not understand the Atayal her classmates who had come from nearby Atayal-speaking villages spoke. This was because the language variety that she had learned at home growing up was a mix of Japanese, Atayal and Seediq, referred to as "Nihongo" (Japanese) by insiders or "Yilan Creole" by researchers, born during the Japanese colonization of the island from 1895 to 1945.

"If you can't speak Atayal, then why do you call yourself Atayal?" When Liu was asked this by one of her classmates, she was shocked. In Taiwan, the common language is Mandarin Chinese, but in the towns where the classmate who confronted her lived, Atayal was also spoken.

Liu was struck with an identity crisis: "I am ethnically Atayal, but my native language is 'Nihongo.' Just what am I?" So she decided to abandon her home language and instead throw herself into studying Atayal language.

However, a turning point came for Liu when she enrolled in National Dong Hwa University located in the eastern city of Hualien and met associate professor Chien Yuehchen, 47, who researches the language variety spoken in Liu's home village in Yilan County. Chien told her that the language she had learned at home was different from Japanese, and had been dubbed "Yilan Creole." She was ecstatic.

"I was so happy," Liu recalled of the experience. "I was able to feel pride about my native language again." Under the guidance of Chien, Liu embarked on a survey of the language spoken by the villagers where she grew up.

Liu majored in linguistics and cinematography, and for her graduation piece, she interviewed residents of the four Yilan County villages, Aohua, Hanhsi, Tungyueh and Chinyang, where "Yilan Creole" is spoken, with the help of other students.

During filming, many villagers told Liu that they had been slightly embarrassed by their native language before, but they had regained their confidence. This made Liu feel happy, and taking over half a year, she completed the roughly 22-minute film.

Under the rule of the Imperial Japanese government, speaking indigenous languages like Atayal and Seediq in the four villages had been prohibited, but over a short period of time, a new contact variety that was created by the villagers that preserved the elements of the indigenous language had been born.

"Our language changed with the times to become a creole, but that is nothing to be ashamed of," said Liu, her eyes filled with pride. "The language is a part of our lives, and it is what makes us unique. We are the Atayal people who speak 'Nihongo.'"

(Japanese original by Shizuya Fukuoka, Taipei Bureau)

This is the third and final part of a series.

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