The Taiwanese linguistic mosaic

What do we know about Taiwan? Some would know Taiwan as one of the Four Asian Tigers, but I prefer the name Ilha Formosa, meaning “Beautiful Island,” coined in 1544 by Portuguese sailors to describe a small island located just 180 kilometers off the eastern coast of mainland China.

According to China’s “One China” policy, Taiwan is not considered an independent country, something that Taiwan disagrees with. Taiwan refers to itself as the Republic of China (ROC). Due to the special political status, the ROC only maintains a few fully established diplomatic missions abroad and in fact is represented by unofficial intermediary bodies. Many international institutions and organizations recognize the People’s Republic of China’s position that ROC is a defunct entity.

If you have never been to the island, the chances are high that you have never seen a Taiwanese flag, as the ROC flag is not commonly displayed at international gatherings in which the People’s Republic of China (PRC) participates due to pressure from the PRC over the political status of Taiwan. Even during the Olympic Games the flag is replaced by the Chinese Taipei Olympic Committee flag. The incident of raising the flag at Taiwan’s de facto embassy in January 2015 during the New Year Ceremony in Washington DC was harshly denounced by China as an act of disobeying the One China policy.

The ROC flag was adopted in the 1920s. The white sun on the blue field was the Kuomintang party flag, with the twelve rays of the white sun symbolizing the twelve months of the year and the twelve Chinese hours and the red field representing the Han Chinese race.

History has not spared the state from colonization, foreign occupation and waves of immigration, which significantly affected the current linguistic situation of the island. Hence some historical facts are relevant for thorough understanding of its current linguistic setup and developments.

Historical background

In the 17th century, the southern part of the island was colonized by the Dutch, followed by an influx of Han Chinese, including Hakka immigrants from southern provinces of mainland China. Then there was a short period of Spanish rule and a subsequent Dutch takeover. Between the end of the 17th century and 1895 the island was integrated into the Qing empire. However, following the military defeat by Japan during the First Sino-Japanese War, Taiwan was ceded to Japan. Under imperial rule, Japanese became an official language in Taiwan and marked a period of advanced loanwords into the local languages. Consequently, after the Second Sino-Japanese War, Taiwanese Hokkien was banned from official use including education and contact with the Hokkien-speaking part of mainland China was considerably limited. Even very recently it was common to meet elderly people who could speak Japanese.

In 1945, after the end of World War II, the ROC, led by the Kuomintang (KMT), took control of Taiwan. As a consequence of a series of political missteps, the Chinese Nationalist Party fled to the island at the end of a civil war with the Communists and established an authoritarian one-party state under the leadership of President Chiang Kai-shek. Since then, China and Taiwan have been ruled separately. The influx of mainland soldiers and civilians caused the population of Taiwan to increase by two million, further affecting the language shift. To establish mainland China’s cultural supremacy, Taiwanese was banned and any public use of the local languages was subject to repression.

Whereas in 1954 in mainland China the Communist party led by Mao Zedong, an advocate of total romanization, introduced simplification of Chinese characters to combat the high illiteracy rate and the Nationalists maintained the traditional form of the glyphs to underline the separation from PRC and preserve language purity. Simplified character forms were created by decreasing the number of strokes and simplifying the forms of a large number of Traditional Chinese characters (Figure 2).

In 1964 it was entirely forbidden to use Taiwanese, especially in schools and broadcast media. After the lifting of martial law in 1987 there was a wave of Taiwanese language revival.

Mother tongue movement

Taiwanization developed in the 1990s into a “mother tongue movement” focused on promoting languages locally established in Taiwan. The efforts to save declining languages were meant to emphasize the importance of a separate Taiwanese cultural identity.

In 1993, Taiwan became the first country in the world to implement the teaching of Taiwanese Hokkien, Hakka and aboriginal languages in schools. However, Mandarin remains the predominant language of education and despite all efforts the number of people speaking Taiwanese is continuously dropping.

There has also been a major dispute regarding nomenclature and the interaction between Taiwanese and Mandarin. Some dislike the term “Taiwanese,” as it is considered that it downgrades the other languages spoken on the island. Others prefer the names Southern Min, Minnan or Hokkien.

In general, while supporters of Chinese reunification believe that all languages used in Taiwan should be equally respected, they claim that Mandarin should have a preferred status as the common working language unifying all the different groups. On the other hand the supporters of Taiwanese independence push to make Taiwanese a second official language, which causes strong opposition among other dialect users.

Linguistic mosaic

Han Chinese comprise 98% of the population of Taiwan, caused by the centuries of migration from mainland China. Mandarin Chinese is currently the most widely spoken language in Taiwan. The generation born after the early 1950s speaks a variant of Mandarin that notably differs from the Standard Chinese (Putonghua) used in mainland China and Southeast Asia, including Malaysia and Singapore. This is mainly due to the limited exchange of information after the Chinese civil war. The language spoken informally in Taiwan has some significant differences in grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation with Standard Chinese influenced by other local languages as well as Japanese and English. However, if you go to the market, even in the outskirts of Taipei, you will hear people speaking other dialects and languages.

In addition to Mandarin, approximately 70% of the population of Taiwan speaks Taiwanese Hokkien, also known as Hoklo. It was brought to Taiwan around the year 1600 by emigrants from southern China, who due to political and economic reasons were pushed to search for new land. Hokkien is a topolect of the varieties of Chinese originating in southern Fujian, specifically those from Quanzhou and Zhangzhou and is used by many overseas Chinese throughout Southeast Asia. Regional variations within Taiwanese Hokkien are traced back to a group of Southern Min dialects, which over the course of years acquired a substantial number of loanwords from Japanese and the Formosan languages.

The other component of the Taiwanese linguistic mosaic is Taiwanese Hakka, spoken by 15% of the total population. People of Hakka ancestry chiefly come from the southern provincial areas of China; however, it is not the geographical location that defines the members of the group. Contrary to other Han Chinese groups, they are usually identified with people who share Hakka origins and speak one of the five primary Hakka dialects: Sixian, Hailu, Dabu, Raoping and Zhaoan. The most common of the Hakka dialects in Taiwan are Sixian and Hailu.

There are many families of mixed bloodlines and often three generations of the same household speak different languages depending on their origins. Grandparents may use Hakka and Hokkien with their children but Mandarin with their grandchildren.

Taiwanese tends to get used more in rural areas among older people, while Mandarin is used more in urban settings by youth. Mandarin is commonly used in media; however, both Taiwanese and Mandarin are used in political news broadcasts. Despite the governmental programs promoting usage of Taiwanese, it has been undergoing further decline and the new generation focuses on learning English rather than native languages.

Formosan languages

The Formosan languages are the languages of the indigenous peoples of Taiwan, who currently comprise about 2% of the island’s population.

According to some studies, Taiwan was where the entire Austronesian language family originated. Research conducted by linguist Robert Blust  indicates the Formosan languages form nine of the ten principal branches of the Austronesian language family, whereas nearly 1,200 Malayo-Polynesian languages are found outside of Taiwan. The findings of the language evolution studies and the genetic DNA evidence suggest that most Pacific populations including New Zealand’s Maori originated from Taiwanese aborigines. There have been recent developments in relations between aboriginal communities from both islands to further research their origins and linguistic influences.

All Formosan languages are slowly being replaced by the culturally dominant Mandarin Chinese. Hence these languages are threatened with extinction.  The ROC government officially recognizes 16 “native tribes” based on linguistic and cultural diversity. Of the approximately 26 languages of the Taiwanese aborigines, at least ten are extinct, another four (perhaps five) are moribund and several others are to some degree endangered.

Living languages: Atayal, Bunun, Amis, Kanakanabu, Kavalan, Kaxabu, Paiwan, Saisiyat, Puyuma, Rukai, Saaroa, Seediq, Thao, Tsou, Yami (Tao).

Extinct languages: Basay, Ketagalan, Taokas, Babuza, Favorlang, Papora, Hoanya, Taivoan, Makatao, Pazeh, Siraya.

Despite recent governmental attempts to start aboriginal reappreciation programs including the reintroduction of Formosan mother tongue education in Taiwanese schools, it seems hard to reverse the trend.

Pinyin vs Zhuyin

Another unique Taiwanese feature from the linguistic perspective is the phonetic system used in teaching Mandarin pronunciation. Unlike mainland China where Hanyu Pinyin (the Latin alphabet for romanization) is applied, Taiwan uses Zhuyin as the language phonetic symbol system (Figure 3). That marks another difference between PRC and Taiwan maintained since 1958 and wins many supporters among foreign Mandarin language learners.

Zhuyin Fuhao, also called Bopomofo after its first four letters, is the national phonetic system of the ROC for teaching the pronunciation of Chinese characters, especially in Mandarin.

Pinyin is a way of phonetically transcribing Chinese using the familiar Latin alphabet. It’s used in mainland China (with simplified characters) and in Hong Kong (with traditional characters).

Zhuyin uses 37 special symbols to represent the Mandarin sounds: 21 consonants and 16 rimes. These phonetic symbols sometimes appear as an additional set of small strokes printed next to the Chinese characters in young children’s books to enable them to read Chinese phonetically as they, over time, become familiar with the Chinese traditional characters.

The sole purpose for Zhuyin in elementary education is to teach standard Mandarin pronunciation to children (Figure 4). Particularly in the lower years all subject’s textbooks (including Mandarin) are often entirely annotated with Zhuyin as an aid to learning. Around grade four, Zhuyin symbols are greatly reduced, remaining only in the new character section. School children learn the symbols so that they can decode pronunciations given in a Chinese dictionary, and also so that they can find how to write words for which they know only the sounds.

Zhuyin remains the predominant phonetic system in teaching Mandarin in Taiwan and is highly rated among foreign Mandarin learners as a more effective learning tool. It is also one of the most popular ways to enter Chinese characters into computers and to look up characters in a dictionary in Taiwan.

Final findings

Taiwan is a beautiful island with stunning mountain ranges and breathtaking views of the coastline. Taiwan is also a goldmine of information for pursuing linguistic and anthropological research of Polynesian migrations. However, time is running out to examine the clues that would unveil vital answers to the origins and cultural connections across the South Pacific islands.

On top of this, due to current economic developments Taiwan has been undergoing drastic demographic and cultural changes. The rising number of mixed marriages between Taiwanese men and women from Southeast Asian countries as well as a dominant trend to learn English instead of native languages further shape the linguistic mosaic of Ilha Formosa.