The fight for Taiwan’s linguistic diversity

Foreign Affairs

A recent spat in Taiwan’s legislature put a spotlight on the island’s “heritage languages.” But are proponents of linguistic diversity fighting for a lost cause?

Dispute and controversy in Taiwan over language
Illustration by Derek Zheng

On September 27, Minister of National Defense Chiu Kuo-cheng (邱国正 Qiū Guózhèng) presented a report in the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s parliament, about the importance of developing long-range weapons. But then, when he came to be questioned by beleaguered legislator Chen Po-wei (陈伯惟 Chén Bówéi) of the deeply pro-independence Taiwan Statebuilding Party (TSP), the conversation shifted into something else entirely.

Chen asked his question in Hokkien, a language also known as “Taiwanese.” In eschewing Mandarin, Chen hoped to bring attention to the inauguration of the Legislative Yuan’s use of real-time interpreting services, a result of the Development of National Languages Act.

However, Chiu refused the service, asking a subordinate to translate instead. As Chen continued speaking in Taiwanese, Chiu became frustrated, telling Chen, “Language is a communication tool, if everyone can use the same tools, it will make things more convenient,” implying that Chen should use Mandarin, Taiwan’s lingua franca. A vexed Chen responded that he was only “protecting Taiwan’s mother tongue” and that Chiu was being “unreasonable.”

Divided roots

The incident immediately sparked debate over what role language should play in the development of Taiwanese democracy. After the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) took control of Taiwan in 1945, it began promoting Standard Mandarin as the “national language” (国语 guóyǔ). When Japan ruled the island, it imposed Japanese as the lingua franca, bringing the island’s relatively isolated ethnic groups into a common society.

After the beginning of martial law in 1949, the KMT began repressing other languages, including Taiwanese and Hakka, which were labeled as dialects, as well as indigenous languages. Media had to be in Mandarin, “dialects” were banned in schools, Bibles written in romanized Taiwanese were confiscated, and all state business was conducted in the national language.

After martial law ended and Taiwan democratized, an effort began to encourage the development of Taiwan’s heritage languages. Schools began teaching languages according to their students’ ethnic background. Broadcasting restrictions were relaxed. Cabinet-level commissions were created to govern Indigenous and Hakka affairs, with language policy as a key issue.

But the 40 years of martial law and imposed Mandarin hegemony has done extensive damage to Taiwan’s linguistic diversity. According to the 2020 census, only 7% of children ages 6 to 14 use Taiwanese as their primary language. In contrast, almost 66% of those over the age of 65 primarily speak Taiwanese. The situation is even worse for Hakka and Indigenous languages.

In 2019, the Legislative Yuan passed the Development of National Languages Act, which labeled all of Taiwan’s heritage languages as national languages and called for their official promotion by the government. This included measures like the establishment of government-funded TV stations for each of Taiwan’s languages, more resources for the development of language education, and the extension of “mother tongue” education to secondary school students.

Persistent scars

But the passage of the law did not remedy all the problems of the past. The politics of language are intertwined with ethnic politics, which permeate Taiwanese society.

“Language is loaded with memory and bitterness,” says Shih Cheng-feng (施正锋 Shī Zhèngfēng), a professor at National Dong Hwa University.

“Behind the blue and green conflict lies ethnic divisions,” he adds, referring to the main political camps centered on the KMT and ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

According to Shih, Chen’s persistence in using Taiwanese revealed the existing ethnic tensions that persist in Taiwanese society, illustrating the continued grievances between locals (本土人 běntǔrén) and mainlanders (外省人 wàishěngrén), who came to Taiwan with the KMT after 1945 and imposed Mandarin on the population.

“Language is an important mobilization tool for the DPP [and other parties in its camp]. It consolidates groups,” Shih says. He believes that though Chen is technically a mainlander, his position as a legislator for arguably Taiwan’s most pro-independence party means he has to act like a “fighting chicken” to “show his loyalty.” This is critical for Chen, who must activate his base to save his job at a recall election on October 23.

After his spat with Chiu, Chen was inundated with criticism, primarily coming from the KMT camp. A user on PTT, a popular Taiwanese social media platform, criticized Chen for “earnestly making a show” of an important hearing. Another lamented, “Do we have to divide ethnic groups again?” Chao Shao-kang (赵少康 Zhào Shǎokāng), an important pro-KMT media figure, said that Chen had “wasted the people’s blood, sweat, and tears” with his antics. In a demonstration of the incident’s political saliency, both current KMT chairman Eric Chu (朱立伦 Zhū Lìlún) and former chairman Johnny Chiang (江启臣 Jiāng Qǐchén) said they would become more involved in the effort to recall Chen.

But Chen also had defenders. Lai Pin-yu (赖品妤 Lài Pǐnyú), a legislator for the DPP, said that Chen’s “good intentions had been muddied” by the opposition. Chen Feng-hui (陈丰惠 Chén Fēnghuì), director of the Lee Chiang-chiue Taiwanese Culture and Education Foundation, believes that Chen made a point to use Taiwanese because he and the TSP “want to bring attention to language and culture issues,” emphasizing that “Taiwanese language should have a place in politics.”

To Chen Feng-hui, defense minister Chiu’s refusal to use the interpretation function was strange. “He might not know, or think it’s important, that Taiwan is a culturally and linguistically diverse country,” she says. She believes that “the harms of the martial law period still persist,” with large sections of Taiwanese society still “brainwashed” into thinking having a common language is ideal.

“Local languages are our roots,” she says, an essential piece of Taiwanese identity.

The partisan reaction to Chen and Chiu’s outburst in the Legislative Yuan demonstrates the power of identity politics in contemporary Taiwan, and could indicate subtle changes in the country’s ethnic dynamics.

“Mainlanders feel relatively deprived now,” says Shih, the professor at National Dong Hwa University. “Before, they were the dominant group. After the democratic transition, they started to increasingly feel like they had nothing. Language, the dominance of Mandarin, is one of the last places they still feel superior.”

From Mandarin hegemony to English hegemony

The transition toward a truly linguistically diverse society has had mixed results. While multiple DPP governments have championed linguistic diversity, they have also enacted policies that contradict this aim.

For example, the Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文 Cài Yīngwén) government’s 2030 Bilingual Country Policy (双语国家政策 shuāngyǔ guójiā zhèngcè) aimed to make English an official language with the equivalent status of Chinese. For Chen Feng-hui, the director of the Taiwanese language foundation, the policy signifies the government’s ignorance of the threat facing Taiwan’s local languages. Not only does it imply that Mandarin should be the language of officialdom, but it again makes other languages like Taiwanese, Hakka, and Indigenous secondary.

“Taiwanese speakers will vote for [the DPP],” says Chen Feng-hui, believing that the party has little incentive to prioritize language revitalization.

Shih, the professor at Dong Hwa University, agrees. “The DPP has ignored this issue because they want to replace mainlanders, not reform society,” he says. He believes that the existence of DPP party factions mirror KMT local factionalism, and the party’s promise 30 years ago that “ethnic differences will fade away” sounds very close to the KMT’s rigid Chinese nationalism.

As for Chen the legislator, it seems that his antics have not been well received in the broader pan-green camp. He and Chiu apologized to each other the next day, and various reports in the press indicated that important DPP leaders, while supporting Chen, had told him to tone down his rhetoric. An October 9 My Formosa poll found 37% of those asked supported recalling Chen, with only 25% opposed. Perhaps identity politics isn’t enough to save his electoral chances.

Professor Shih believes that for Taiwan to truly become a liberal, multicultural society, it must learn from other countries. He believes that the Canadian model, where both French and English hold the same national stature and localities have a high degree of autonomy in language policy, is worth considering in the Taiwanese context.

But others fear it may be too late.

“The Indigenous Peoples Commission says in 10 years their languages will be gone. The Hakka say in 20 years. We say 30 years for Taiwanese,” says Chen Feng-hui.