Language Policy and Preservation Challenges: Taiwan’s Indigenous Languages

By Angel Ayala 

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Background

3. Language Policy from Japanese Rule to Present

4. Current Challenges to Preservation

5. Strategies for Future Preservation Efforts

6. Conclusion

7. References

8. About the Author

1. Introduction

Preserving linguistic diversity is a major challenge for sustainable development (UNESCO, n.d., par. 2). Languages convey “knowledge and local know-how” representing “an entire cultural and intellectual heritage” vital to the prosperity of future generations (UNESCO, n.d., par. 2-3). However, despite this need for linguistic diversity, out of approximately 7,000 languages existing today, at least half may disappear in just a few generations (Austin & Sallabank, 2011, p.1). Among those most vulnerable are Taiwan’s endangered indigenous languages, some which have less than ten competent speakers (Li, 2008, p. 1-2).

This entry takes Taiwan’s indigenous languages as a case study through which to explore the issue of language preservation. It begins with a brief introduction to Taiwan’s indigenous peoples and indigenous language endangerment. This is followed by an analysis of different language policies leading to the current state of indigenous languages. Finally, specific challenges to preservation efforts are addressed, before concluding with a summary of future actions needed for successful preservation.

2. Background

The indigenous peoples of Taiwan are the descendants of Taiwan’s earliest Austronesian inhabitants and comprise approximately 2% of the total population (Pawan, 2004, p. 26; Wu, 2011, p. 100-101). The Taiwanese government recognizes 16 different tribesAmis, Atayal, Bunun, Kavalan, Paiwan, Puyuma, Rukai, Saisiyat, Sakizaya, Seediq (or Sediq), Thao, Truku, Tsou, Yami (or Dawu), Hlaalua, and Kanakanavu—with the Amis, the Paiwan, and the Atayal accounting for roughly 70% of the indigenous population (Executive Yuan, 2014). Tribes have their own distinctive language varieties, referred to in this entry as indigenous languages, which are not necessarily mutually intelligible (Pawan, 2014, p. 26).  

Research has found fluency in indigenous languages has rapidly declined (Lee, 2004; Pawan, 2004; Tsao, 1996). Out of originally 20 indigenous languages, only half remain and are considered endangered (Li, 1994 as cited in Pawan, 2004, p. 27). One telephone survey by the United Daily Newspaper (1999) found the percentage of indigenous children fluent in indigenous languages to be as low as 9% (as cited in Pawan, 2004, p. 27).  This trend is rooted in Taiwan’s history of language oppression, and only recently has the Taiwanese government taken measures to counter this problem.  

3. Language Policy from Japanese Rule to Present

Decades of assimilationist language policies in Taiwan had a devastating effect on indigenous languages. When Japan colonized Taiwan in 1895, after defeating the Qing Dynasty in the Sino-Japanese War, it used the Japanese language to enforce cultural integration into its empire, suppressing all local vernaculars (Hubbs, 2013, p. 81-82; Wu, 2011, p. 103-104). Indigenous people were specifically considered “barbarians,” and centers were created to teach them Japanese (Chen, 2011 as cited in Hubbs, 2013, p. 81).  In 1945, following their defeat in World War II, Japan returned Taiwan to the Republic of China, ruled then by the Kuomintang (Hubbs, 2013, p. 82). When the Kuomintang fled to Taiwan after being defeated by the Chinese Communists in 1949, it enforced Mandarin Chinese as the national language to erase Japanese influence and create a sense of Chinese national unity (Hubbs, 2013, p. 82). Use of non-Mandarin languages in the public sphere became illegal, and their use in schools was punished severely (Hubbs, 2013, p. 82). Given these policies, use of indigenous languages drastically declined. 

Only after the end of the Kuomintang’s absolute rule were non-Mandarin languages finally given necessary attention. In 1987, Taiwan began transitioning into a democratic government, giving rise to its first opposition party, the Democratic Progress Party (DPP), and culminating in popular elections for president in 1996 (Wu, 2011, p. 106, 108). Although Mandarin remained the national language, there was a new push to create a distinct Taiwanese identity, and more attention was paid to local languages in the educational and political domains (Wu, 2011, p. 106). For example, politicians began making speeches in Southern Min/Taiwanese and Hakka, and children were no longer punished for speaking non-Mandarin languages in school (Hubbs, 2013, p. 84). Most importantly, in 2001, Taiwan enacted a language policy requiring all elementary school students to take one weekly session of mother tongue, offering them as electives for junior high school students (Pawan, 2014, p. 28, 30; Hung, 2013, p.16). This represented a reversal in language policy and the recognition by the government of the historical oppression of non-Mandarin languages.

For indigenous languages, this translated into several language preservation policies. Following the enactment of the Education Act for Indigenous People, schools with an indigenous student population exceeding one-third can apply for extra grants for implementing indigenous programs (Hung, 2013, p. 16). Teachers who wish to teach indigenous languages are required to obtain indigenous language proficiency certificates, and teaching materials began to be developed by indigenous taskforces in conjunction with National Chengchi University (Hung, 2013, p. 17-18). In addition, indigenous students are able to obtain a preferential score in secondary school and university entrance examinations if they successfully pass a Culture and Language Proficiency Test (Jacob, Liu, & Lee, 2015, p. 51). Through these efforts, the current government aims to support the basic framework for indigenous language education, as well as incentivize indigenous students to maintain fluency in their native languages.         

4. Current Challenges to Preservation

Despite these policies, indigenous languages face threats from Mandarin and English, which are more prioritized in schools. As the national language, Mandarin is perceived to provide access to highly-valued work fields and constitutes “economic, social and cultural capitals” in Taiwan and abroad (Hung, 2013, p.14). Similarly, English is seen as more “useful” than local languages, allowing entry to better schools and providing opportunities for better jobs and salaries (Hung, 2013, p. 14). As a result, studies such as Chen (2011) revealed Mandarin and English were consistently given more teaching hours and resources than local languages (as cited in Hubbs, 2013, p. 87-88). In turn, indigenous language classes are often canceled if they conflict with public events or examinations (Pawan, 2014, p. 30). As for resources, Mandarin and English classes demonstrate heavy use of PowerPoint, songs, and textbooks that local language classes lack (Hubbs, 2013, p. 88). Therefore, in practice, indigenous language classes are severely constrained.

In addition, the lack of effective teaching materials and a standard curriculum hinders the efforts of even the most enthusiastic teachers. Textbooks for indigenous languages are not always at the appropriate level for students, while many focus on language phrases and grammar devoid of any cultural context (Hung, 2013, p. 17-18). As Chen (2011) states, in the worst-case scenarios, some local language classes do not have any resources at all and simply become a 40-minute cultural session (as cited in Hubbs, 2013, p. 87-88). The lack of support from schools, combined with factors such as time pressure and difficulty for teachers to discuss curriculum design, leads to a lack of a coherent and holistic local language curriculum (Hung, 2013, p. 19). As a result, indigenous language classes cannot make the best use of their limited time, greatly minimizing the effects on children’s fluency levels.

Shortages of qualified indigenous language teachers have also had a negative impact on preservation efforts. Although teachers interested in teaching indigenous languages are required to have teaching certificates, when schools have shortages of certified teachers, they must resort to hiring missionaries, elders, parents, or other local people (Pawan, 2014, p. 28). There are also not enough teachers for every specific indigenous language, forcing some schools to combine age groups or place students into classes teaching a language different from their own (Hung, 2013, p. 19). Younger teachers often have limited knowledge about tribal culture and history, as they themselves were not allowed to learn about indigenous cultures during their education (Hung, 2013, p. 18). As Pawan (2014) explains, this lack of qualified teachers not only makes teaching and learning ineffective, but also causes students to lose interest due to inconsistencies in the teaching methods (p. 30).

Indigenous parents often fail to fill this gap in their children’s education due their own declining fluency levels and negative perceptions of indigenous languages (Hung, 2013, p. 19-20). Lee (2004) found indigenous parents mainly speak to their children in Mandarin, leaving children to speak indigenous languages only with grandparents (p. 109-110). Due to interethnic marriage and a push towards living in big cities, indigenous families also have fewer chances to speak their mother tongues, contributing to the decline in fluency levels (Hung, 2013, p. 19-20). Even more alarmingly, many indigenous parents see teaching their languages to children not only as “useless,” but also as a “burden” which will negatively impact their children’s academic achievement (Hung, 2013, p. 19). With little support in schools and at home, indigenous children are left with few options to learn their mother tongues.

Due to this lack of support, as well as the socioeconomic realities in Taiwan, indigenous children fail to see incentives to learning their native languages. Jacob et al. (2015) explained significant social pressure exists for indigenous people to find professional and educational opportunities in urban centers, causing young indigenous people to emphasize Chinese learning over tribal languages (p. 52). In one study, pupils of a local Pangcah language class even demonstrated more interest in practicing Southern Min, a more widely spoken Chinese language, compared to their own native language (Chang, 2014, p. 190). Although young indigenous people may still consider indigenous languages psychologically close (Lee, 2014, p. 110), it is clear the pressure to succeed professionally and academically causes them to prioritize other languages. Current indigenous language education is not enough to incentivize students to learn more about their native languages and cultures.

5. Strategies for Future Preservation Efforts

Although the Taiwanese government has taken steps towards protecting indigenous languages, it must expand on its current policies if it is to ensure these languages survive. First, the government must enact policies to increase instructional time of indigenous languages, as the current weekly sessions are clearly not having the desired effect. As one possibility, scholars such as Tsao (1996) have advocated using vernacular languages as the medium of instruction starting in kindergarten, until student command of Mandarin reaches a level where it can be used as the medium of instruction. A perhaps less “radical” approach could be to emulate the model of Singapore’s Mother Tongue Language Policy, which makes study of mother tongues compulsory throughout primary and secondary school and an integral part of student examinations (Ministry of Education, Singapore, 2011). At the same time, the government should continue to expand support for teachers of indigenous languages by offering more scholarships and grants to indigenous people interested in teaching, along with incentives to stay in traditional indigenous areas outside of urban centers (Liu & Kuo, 2007, p. 284). These changes would address some of the current challenges and send the message that indigenous languages are also a priority.

School leaders must also provide better support to teachers through development opportunities, standardized curricula, and effective teaching materials. Schools should cooperate with indigenous teachers to create an integrated language curriculum that empowers teachers with more opportunities to disseminate knowledge and adjust curricula as needed (Hung, 2013, p. 20-21). Educators must also continue improving on the current textbooks available, as well as make use of technology to create new learning platforms, such as the e-learning system for the Yami language proposed by Yang & Rau (2005). No new language policy will be successful if schools do not have teachers, curricula, and materials that can effectively increase the language abilities of their indigenous students.

Finally, an environment must be created where indigenous peoples become invested in preserving their native languages. Hung (2013) argues schools are not the key factor to preserving indigenous languages, as language classes only serve communicative functions, instead of developing indigenous languages as a cultural symbol and sign of identity (p. 21). This can only be achieved within the indigenous populations themselves. However, the current sociolinguistic environment is not conducive to indigenous peoples valuing their languages. For example, Mandarin’s dominance in most media leads to indigenous children feeling oppressed if their languages are not heard in public (Liu & Kuo, 2007, p.284). Schools and the government must therefore work together to not only develop multilingual learning opportunities for children and families, but also promote general awareness of indigenous cultures (Liu & Kuo, 2007, p. 284). If indigenous languages and cultures play a more visible role in Taiwanese society, indigenous peoples will have more incentives to learn and identify with their mother tongues.

6. Conclusion

Languages are not simply communication tools. As stated in the introduction, each language preserves “knowledge and local know-how” (UNESCO, n.d., par. 2), which may not be present elsewhere. As the descendants of Taiwan’s original inhabitants, Taiwan’s indigenous people have in-depth knowledge of the land, which is in part preserved in their languages. This knowledge has a direct effect on Taiwan’s sustainability, as it potentially holds key information for issues facing Taiwan in the future. Therefore, preserving these languages not only benefits indigenous peoples, but also Taiwanese society as a whole. The current language policies are not effective in halting the declining fluency levels among the young indigenous population. If further actions are not taken promptly, the rich cultural and linguistic traditions of these indigenous peoples so important to Taiwan will completely vanish.


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About the Author

Angel Ayala 

MEd Student, The University of Hong Kong