Spoken at Home and in the Market: The Shifting Perceptions towards Southeast Asian Languages in Taiwan

Written by Isabelle Cheng.

Announced on 16th August 2016, the New Southbound Policy (NSP) envisaged a joint force between the government and the private sector for forging ‘strategic partnerships’ with 18 states in Southeast and South Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Although being global-minded and aspiring to regional leadership, the NSP also entertained its domestic audience by promising to deliver the benefits of globalisation at home. A tool for realising this goal is the government’s authorisation of public funds for teaching of Southeast Asian languages as part of the education curriculum and promoting the appreciation of Southeast Asian cultures. Therefore, beginning in the academic year of 2018, Southeast Asian languages have been offered as a core subject for primary education and an optional subject for secondary education.

Ho Minh Mai (pseudonym) is an experienced Vietnamese language teacher who teaches at university, secondary school and primary school. In her view, a fundamental challenge of teaching Southeast Asian languages is their categorization in Taiwan’s ongoing politics of language recognition. With Mandarin continuing to be recognised as the national language, Taiwanese, Hakka and aboriginal languages used to be officially embraced as ‘Mother Tongues’ (muyu, 母語), but are now re-classified as ‘indigenous languages’ (bentu yuyan, 本土語言). As articulated by Minh Mai, Southeast Asian languages can be classified as ‘mother tongues’, an ethnic language, a foreign language or a second foreign language. In her view, at primary school level, Southeast Asian languages can be categorised as ‘mother tongues’ (according to the government) or ‘Mother Tongue’ (because the student’s mother is from Southeast Asia). However, she was quick to point out that this recognition would set Southeast Asian languages in a contest for prestige with the three existing local ‘Mother Tongues’ (which are now ‘indigenous languages’). An alternative advocated by her was to designate all of these non-Mandarin languages as ‘ethnic languages’. At secondary and tertiary levels, Southeast Asian languages can be categorised as foreign languages, or, if bowing to the status of English as the dominant global language, they can be categorised as ‘second foreign languages’.

These classifications suggested by Minh Mai underline the fluidity of language recognition. It seems to me that the fluidity of language recognition also conveys the gradation of Southeast Asian languages between the private home and the public market. That is, they depart from the private sphere defined by intimacy to the public domain defined by economic competitiveness. At a primary level, when Southeast Asian languages are designated as ‘Mother Tongues’, it stresses that identity formation and cultural inheritance in the private sphere is rooted in the mother-child intimacy and that such intimacy deserves public recognition. Similarly, the designation of ‘ethnic language’ at primary level suggests that the shared cultural heritage amongst the speakers of non-mainstream languages should also enjoy public support. On the other hand, after observing how Minh Mai’s university students discussed their career prospect after graduation, I realised that for them, the Vietnamese language is nothing private but a language for employability. It became clear that when Southeast Asian languages are taught at university, they share the same label of ‘foreign language’ or ‘second foreign language’ as all other non-local languages, such as English, French, German, Spanish, Russian, Japanese and Korean. Arguably, this common label breaks Southeast Asian languages away from their primordial root defined by their ethnicity. Partly due to universities’ promotion strategies, the acquisition of foreign language skills linked to career development brings these Southeast Asian languages into the public realm of economy where the utilities of these languages are evaluated by their competitiveness for job hunting.

In sum, Southeast Asian languages are now seen an asset for career development, regardless of the speaker’s ethnicity. In this light, the gradation of Southeast Asian languages from the private home to the public market is to politicise mother-child intimacy for instrumental multiculturalism. From being confined to the private home and expected to become the mother of the Taiwanese nation raising the ‘New Children of Taiwan’, as their children used to framed, Southeast Asian women are now praised as citizen diplomats nurturing a new transnational generation who are born with additional competitiveness which is not only beneficial for personal careers but also contributes to national development.

Isabelle Cheng is Senior Lecturer, School of Area Studies, Politics, History and Literature at the University of Portsmouth. This paper is part of EATS 2019 conference special issue. Image credit: CC by Sitcon/Flickr.

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