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



Principles for Developing a Culturally Responsive and Inclusive Classroom

By Yulia Nesterova

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction

  2. Definitions

  3. Principles of Teacher Education for a Cross-cultural Classroom

    1. Recognition of the Past

    2. Reflection

    3. Active Learning

    4. Respect and Reciprocity

    5. Building a Relationship

    6. Knowledge and Meaning Construction

    7. Action

  4. Challenges

  5. Concluding Remarks

  6. References

  7. About the Author

1. Introduction

According to a United Nations (UN) report (2004), educational institutions have curriculum and teaching methods that are culturally inappropriate for Indigenous children and aim to assimilate them instead of promoting their cultures and languages. Such a process leads to language and culture loss, and alienation from both the mainstream and home societies and discourses. The teachers who work with Indigenous children are often representatives of the dominant group whose knowledge, culture, and language dominate the classroom. Not to contribute further to the estrangement of Indigenous communities, teaching and learning must be re-thought and re-shaped to include Indigenous cultures and knowledges so that education becomes relevant to Indigenous lives and sustainable for their communities.

How can we prepare teachers for re-constructing such environments and developing and maintaining just classrooms in which no child is made to feel his/her knowledge, culture, language, and contribution are irrelevant and inferior? How can teachers of a dominant group learn to relate to Indigenous children whose cultural differences are immense, and whose relations with that group have historically been of an unequal and unfair nature? How can teachers contribute to revitalization of Indigenous cultures and their further development?

The entry aims to discuss a possible strategy that has a potential to help institutions educate future and current teachers. Drawing on Indigenous and Postcolonial theories and methodologies that are used for research with culturally different others, it is suggested how they can be used as a framework that help teachers who educate Indigenous children. Such a framework will address power relations that affect what and whose knowledge and values students learn and how the process is carried out; and negate harmful effects of interaction among groups of different socio-cultural backgrounds.

2.                  Definitions

Culture is seen in this paper as a ‘framework of belief’ or ‘world picture’, as articulated by Butler (1986, pp. 94, 95) that is always “local, contextual, and performative” (Denzin, 2003, pp. 231-232).  Culture represents certain power arrangements that communicate a certain version of reality and moral norms to the people that live within that culture. In the case of Indigenous people versus a dominant group, Indigenous ‘world picture’ with all its knowledge, discourses and paradigms has been deemed unsuitable and primitive, whereas the dominant culture has been seen as unquestionable and unchallengeable. Throughout the paper the word ‘Other’ is used to imply differing knowledge systems and cultures of Indigenous peoples whose lives have been built on asymmetrical power relations and inequality that continue to shape cultural dominance and social privilege of the dominant culture (Jones and Jenkins, 2008).

3.                  Principles of Teacher Education for a Cross-cultural Classroom

A culturally-appropriate model of a classroom that is inclusive of Indigenous children is a decolonizing classroom that is grounded in values and knowledges of all students participating in the learning process. Material and discusrive oppression, exclusion, and overlooking of Indigenous children and their traditional knowledge are disrupted in such a setting by the teacher (Swander and Mutua, 2008, p. 34). The teacher carries the brunt of responsibility in this situation as s/he is responsible for radically rethinking and planning cross-cultural encounters between the teacher and students and between students of different cultural backgrounds. The teacher needs to make sure that Indigenous students feel included and accepted as having equal worth. S/he thus needs to create an ethical space that rests on ethics of care and love, respect for individual uniqueness and emotionality along with personal responsibility of the teacher and students (Denzin and Lincoln, 2008, pp. 12, 14). Issues that the teacher is to encounter in thinking about, planning, and implementing activities and projects are of a moral and political nature and can be unsettling and challenging at first. Below seven principles are suggested. They can help educate teachers to establish a respectful, reflective and ethical cooperation; encourage inclusion and prioritization of personal and specialized knowledge of Indigenous children; and privilege sharing among groups.

3.1. Recognition of the Past

The teacher should be culturally and historically aware of the colonial period of his/her country that exploited Indigenous people and appropriated their resources, as well as the suffering of such groups of people that continues happening these days due to systemic inequalities and negative representations (Dillard, 2008, p. 288; Sunseri, 2007, p. 97). S/he then needs to be able to educate students on the harm that has been done by the dominant group to Indigenous communities while at the same time to keep clarity, calmness, and strength to help transform injustices without trying to develop guilt in young people (Dillard, 2008, p. 288; Liamputtong, 2010, p. 23).

3.2. Reflection

The next step after recognizing how the past influences the present society should be for the teacher to rethink the dominant epistemologies and reflect upon his/her own position as a teacher who comes from the dominant group but educates Indigenous children in a largely mainstream classroom (Wright, 2003, p. 202). This need is dictated by the struggle of interests and ways of knowing and being of the teacher and of the Other that occurs in the classroom (Jones and Jenkins, 2008, p. 473). The teacher can address the issues of conflicting knowledges and perspectives by following three steps. First, the teacher critically (re)assesses his/her own biases and rethinks his/her own experiences and perceptions (Bat, 2009, pp. 3, 7). Second, the teacher should work to locate him/herself in the “between” position that is oriented to building a relationship rather than understanding of the culturally different Other (ibid, p. 482). Third, the teacher compares the codes of ethical behavior of his/her culture and of the culture(s) Indigenous students come from, learns from the difference, and in spite of conflicting interests, treats students with respect and integrity.

3.3. Active Learning

Another component of a culturally-appropriate framework is teachers’ openness to engage in the process of “always becoming” (Giroux, 2009, p. 82). The teacher needs to want to be an active learner and not to see him/herself as an expert. This implies that s/he understands that knowledge is not something fixed, universal, and available only to experts. As Giroux (2009, p. 83) maintains, the teacher should overcome the dangerous idea that s/he knows the answer. Instead, s/he needs to engage in an open and respectful conversation and meaning-construction with students, by seeing his/her knowledge as partial and their knowledges as valuable and important to form shared perspectives (Sunseri, 2007, p, 101). Thus the teacher should be open to learn, unlearn and learn again and see this process as an enriching experience for him/herself and the students. The potential benefit of the experience is that learning from difference in the long run can provoke meanings beyond own culture and thus lead to new thoughts, ideas, and discoveries (Jones and Jenkins, 2008, p. 480).

3.4. Respect and Reciprocity

Readinness to learn about the past, to be reflective, and to become open to learning require the teacher to have respect for the culturally different other and seek reciprocity while engaging with the other. Respect in this context should be for culturally specific ways of being and doing. The teacher does not need to know about peculiarities of the culture, yet s/he hasto respect differing views, experiences and interpretations and give an equal voice to them in the classroom (Sunseri, 2007, pp. 99, 100). As a first step, the teacher should shed discrimination and prejudice s/he has towards the other. Then remove the boundaries between themselves and the other so that there is a possibility of creating a space in which they see the other as an equal human being (Dillard, 2008, p. 288). The next step would be to seek for a transformative dialogue in which the teacher looks and listens deeply to what the other has to say as well as has a strong belief in the humanity and equality of those who go through the learning process (Dillard, 2008, p. 287).

3.5. Building a Relationship

The teacher has a responsibility to develop and help students create a special kind of relationship in the classroom. Such relationship should be based on trust, respect, reciprocation, collaboration, and cooperation (Liamputtong, 2010, p. 23; Wright, 2003, p. 202). Another trait of the cross-cultural classroom relationship is development of a compassionate mind in students so that they listen to others carefully, acquire knowledge with an open mind, and reconsider their positions (Sunseri, 2007, p. 100). Openness and compassion will help them participate in building a platform to discuss what is, and is not happening in and within the negotiated relations, and whose story is being told and whose story is being shadowed (Fine as cited in Jones and Jenkins, 2008, p. 475). Establishing friendly and close relationships with Indigenous children on their culturally-appropriate terms will diminish power imbalances and unequal hierarchies (Mauthner and Doucet, 1998, p. 120; Wolf, 1996, p. 35).

3.6. Knowledge and Meaning Construction

The teacher should be able to involve Indigenous children in meaning-making and knowledge sharing and place their perspectives as a central part of their learning process (Bat, 2009, pp. 3, 7).  The practice of legitimizing non-dominant knowledge will, first, support the teacher in educating students to rethink and (de)construct the dominant discourses and legends (Denzin and Lincoln, 2008, p. 10, 14). Second, for Indgenous students to progress in their studies and being able to relate to learning, knowledge should be constructed from everyday lives of people and their communities rather than abstract and detached perspectives (Saavedra and Nymark, 2008, pp. 255-257).

3.7. Action

The purposes of teaching should not be seen as transmitting knowledge and values. The teacher should see him/herself as a social justice activist. Teaching should therefore be approached as a responsibility to the individual (student) and communities (Dillard, 2008, p. 280). Responsibility to the individual implies enhancing in students moral agency, producing moral discernment and commitment to justice and ethic of resistance against (epistemic) violence and oppression (Denzin and Lincoln, 2008, p. 14). Responsibility to the community embodies developing moral ties to the group of people the teacher works with. To be able to achieve the goal, the teacher should embrace compassion and focus on political and social action and reflection. Embracing compassion requires an explicit intention and capacity to relieve and transform suffering and struggle against dehumanizing contexts and conditions of those who the teacher educates (Dillard, 2008, p. 288). Focus on socio-political action and reflection guides teacher’s attempts to promote political and social change in the community rather than creating universal theories (ibid., p. 280).

4.                  Challenges

This approach to educate teachers for the cross-cultural classroom that responds to the needs of Indigenous children poses big challenges to the education system. It is teachers who will need to critically re-think and re-learn the role they traditionally occupy as transmitters of a predetermined set of “knowledge and curriculum” (Lewison et al., 2002, p. 383). They will need to be motivated to be open to complexities for this rather radical stand will require them to break away from a safety and comfort of textbooks, “testing and right answer” heritage, and usual practices; and to apply more conflicting, interactive and Indigenous-child-centered methods (Lewison et al., 2002, p. 383; Wolk, 2003, p. 103). It will also be challenging for them to encourage students’ interests in sociopolitical issues, to educate them to be open to multiple perspectives, to “go beyond personal or psychological responses”, and to take action (Lewison et al., 2002, 386). For some teachers it may be hard to see students as someone who can contribute to the meaning- and knowledge-construction equally to adults for the dominant view of what a child represents, is a blank paper that needs to be filled with text.

5.                  Concluding Remarks

These principles can help prepare teachers to re-learn their ways of relating to and educating children of various socio-cultural backgrounds so that the encounters are ethical and culturally-appropriate. First, they introduce teachers to the approaches that recognize complexity, competing views, and existence of other forms of knowledge and creative spaces. Second, they encourage the idea of creating different meanings together with other people as we learn, unlearn, and re-learn. This component can help teachers understand that knowledge is not something fixed, and engaging in an open and respectful conversation and meaning-construction with the other can help reflect on the position of the teacher within the classroom and in relation to students in a more critical way. Third, internalizing and employing the principles can help teachers address unequal power relations in the classroom as the focus is shifted from learning about the other to learning to build relationships in which students and teachers learn from each other. This way power of the teacher over his/her students is transformed to power of the teacher and students to create something meaningful and ethical together. Finally, the spaces established on these principles can help negate harmful effects of interactions between groups of different socio-cultural backgrounds.


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About the Author

Yulia Nesterova

PhD Student in Education (Policy, Administration and Social Sciences Education), The University of Hong Kong


Website:  Yulia Nesterova