OPINION: In Kaohsiung, There Are Limits to the Multilingual Love

OPINION: In Kaohsiung, There Are Limits to the Multilingual Love
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Why you need to know

The axes are out for a politician advocating for languages other than English and Chinese to be kept out of the classroom.

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In a video report from August, the Kuomintang (KMT)’s Kaohsiung mayoral candidate Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) said public schools should only teach Chinese (Mandarin) and English. “Home languages should be taught/learned at home,” Han said.

The comments were not welcomed by those who support in-school instruction of Taiwanese, Hakka and or native Taiwanese languages. But does Han have a point?

Language requirements for local students evoke strong reactions from many, including expats. But unless you have a child or children in the Taiwanese public-school system or are from or connected to one of the language communities that would be affected by public-school policies, maybe just give the arguments on both sides some thought rather than going keyboard warrior.

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Photo Credit:翻攝自中央社
Kuomintang Kaohsiung mayoral candidate Han Kuo-yu.

This week, representatives from a Hakka-promotion/preservation community met to denounce Han’s comments, and while there appeared to be some partisan politics involved, I do not doubt the sincerity of many who said they don’t want to see their language (which is of course deeply connected to their culture) die out.

But Han isn’t simply rejecting the teaching of so-called “home languages.”

Translating from the video, Han says that for Kaohsiung to become an ‘international city,’ bilingual (Chinese and English) education is a must. Within the first year of his administration, Han declared, he will order all public information signs, including road signs and tourism info/signs to be bilingual.

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Credit: Eryk Smith
A sign explaining mayoral candidate Han's position on studying languages other than English or Chinese.

It wasn’t clear if he meant changing Kaohsiung’s Tong Yong pinyin system to the internationally-recognized Hanyu system (Cijin Island vs Qijin Island), but at least he is talking about the problem of a lack of proper English signs in Kaohsiung.

Han went on to say that following this initial move, he will begin requiring teachers, police officers, firefighters and other city employees to demonstrate some English ability, before finally requiring documents issued by Kaohsiung City Hall to be published in Chinese and English. Han also called for each public school in Kaohsiung to be affiliated with a pre-school, presumably to share resources and promote bilingual education.

There is sense in the idea that the government focus must be on English and Chinese.

The city is completing highly expensive infrastructure projects including the light rail system, several mega concert halls, a cruise ship terminal and others in a bid to “get on the international map,” but Kaohsiung remains hindered in its international outreach by a paucity of English speakers.

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Photo Credit: Kaohsiung Urban Development Bureau
Read More:Kaohsiung Builds but People May Need a Nudge Before They Come

A sign on the Kaohsiung MRT illustrates the stubborn persistence of ‘not quite right’ public English info. Train carriages reserve a seat for passengers who are “gravida” -- an English term related to pregnancy, (it describes the number of pregnancies, regardless of outcome).

Few are disputing that Kaohsiung residents need better English instruction and ability, but the “home languages” remarks set off Hakka and Taiwanese proponents along with some new immigrant groups who want more instruction in languages such as Thai, Indonesian, Vietnamese.

There’s no question that more local people able to speak the languages of the increasing number of ‘New Taiwanese’ from Southeast Asia would be beneficial. Such multilinguals could promote trade links between Taiwan and the region. These individuals could also help reduce sad incidents such as the one reported by the MENAFN-Asia Times in which a sexually assaulted Vietnamese woman was turned away by Kaohsiung cops because she smiled during questioning.

Gravita
Credit: Eryk Smith

The September 2018 report explained the day was saved by the deputy director of the Stella Maris International Service Center in Kaohsiung, Phạm Huyền Anh. Phạm is fluent in her native Vietnamese, Chinese, English and French and was therefore capable of speaking to the victim, while explaining to cops that smiling can be a way for Vietnamese women to mask being upset.

The Taiwan-born child of a parent like Phạm who speaks a “home language” in addition to Chinese might well be able to provide similar linguistic and cultural assistance, as well as help build business links. Some say these arguments merit teaching various Southeast Asian languages in public schools.

Speaking to a Kaohsiung mom who wants Taiwanese (Hokklo) to continue as a school subject because she sees the language spoken in her city for hundreds of years fading fast, or talking to a dad from a Hakka family who wishes he had a better command of the language his ancestors sailed to Taiwan speaking, or hearing from parents who look to the day their child might act as a connector between Taiwan and a Southeast Asian nation gives one a lot to think about.

All these needs, hopes, and dreams are clearly to some degree valid. But public resources are not infinite.

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)’s Kaohsiung mayoral candidate Chen Chi-mai (陳其邁) has now set up an advisory board that will plan his Hakka-language policies after his presumed victory in November. Hopefully the board will promote clear-eyed policies that can be supported even by those with doubts about the dialect’s long-term survivability.

In another first step, Kaohsiung-based associations for Thai, Vietnamese and Indonesian communities met this week to discuss forming an alliance to promote their communities, including language needs. They hope to join forces with Chen’s Hakka team.

But after the alliances cut the ribbons the rubber has to meet the road. How many qualified teachers of all the languages discussed above reside in Kaohsiung? Who is going to pay them? Are the students going to take classes during school hours or after school? How many languages can we fit into a public-school curriculum?

And let’s not forget the children. It’s all well and good for Facebookers to bemoan suggestions that it’s not practical to keep some languages alive, but try explaining to a nine-year-old that they have to go to an extra Hakka class because their parents or an advocacy group wants to keep Hakka culture alive.

Perhaps it’s time for some ‘surgical’ thinking. Instead of creating lofty but unrealistic additional burdens, how about subsidizing and incentivizing teachers and students from these language backgrounds or communities?

Every school can’t be expected to provide for every need, so how about setting up different language programs at designated schools? Then, offer free or subsidized transport costs so a kid who stands to benefit from a Hakka, Thai, Vietnamese or Indonesian lesson can attend classes at one of the designated schools with a quality program.

Government-supported Hakka or Taiwanese cartoons or other engaging internet videos might push a kid towards learning or absorbing more of their family’s ancestral tongue, but forcing them to study it a few hours a week seems a less likely path to success.

A final idea might include working with private or even cram schools and incentivizing participation.

Let’s stop with the politics. Let’s stop wasting money. Let’s stop being smug. The KMT’s Han didn’t make a completely compelling case and I’d like more specifics, but “save/protect home languages” is merely a slogan.

Han’s comments – if nothing else – should make parents, educators and advocates pause and think. Are the programs education authorities have in place or are considering really saving or teaching ‘native’ or ‘home’ languages?

Let me end by responding to a personal dig, “But you’re not a linguist!” Yes, that’s true. And neither is the KMT’s Han or the DPP’s Chen. But many of the people running Kaohsiung’s current public-school language programs are…and you can be the judge of how’s that working out.

Read Next: OPINION: We love Hakka? Maybe It's Time to Let It Go

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