On the Many Reasons People Study Endangered Languages

Written by P. Kerim Friedman.

Image credit: Teaching the tribal language by Roy Berman/Flickr, license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

We often assume that all language learning serves the same purpose: communicating with native speakers of the target language. The truth is that this is not always the case. There are many other reasons people might decide to learn a language: It might be a requirement for school, work, or citizenship. A philosopher might want to read German, and a linguist might only desire to learn enough Japanese to analyse the language’s grammatical or phonetic structure. Many people worldwide learn Hebrew, Latin, or Arabic as part of their religious training and only use those languages in that limited context. So, it should be no surprise that people studying Taiwan’s endangered Indigenous languages also have many reasons for doing so. Some of those reasons might have little to do with actually having conversations in those languages.

I have been studying efforts to revitalize the endangered Pangcah (Amis) language for nearly a decade but have not managed to learn to speak it myself. Part of the problem is that I spent a lot of time in language classrooms, and the sad truth is that language classrooms are probably the worst place to spend your time if you want to become fluent in an endangered language. My friends who have succeeded did so because they spent long periods living in a village, speaking to the elders. Ironically, doing work on language education leaves one less time for this kind of fieldwork. I joke that my Mandarin improved more than my Pangcah because so much class time is spent in Mandarin.

A typical class would involve the teacher writing a phrase or sentence on the board and having everyone repeat it a few times before explaining the meaning in Chinese. This approach makes sense if you understand why most students are there in the classroom. Many do so to pass the Indigenous Language Proficiency Test (原住民族語⾔能⼒認證測驗). This exam is necessary to qualify for certain benefits or jobs awarded to Indigenous Taiwanese, but it has come to be more than that. For many, taking the exam has become a kind of rite-of-passage, a way of connecting to their Indigenous identities. (I’ve compared it to my own experience learning Hebrew for my Bar Mitzvah.) Few such students envision actually communicating in Pangcah, other than to say a few memorized phrases.

But some Pangcah language activists envision a different future for Pangcah, one where young people use it in their daily lives. They are inspired by their visits to Aotearoa/New Zealand, where the Māori have made great strides in preserving their language. For the last eight years I have been working with these activists and trying to understand the challenges and limitations they face in bringing their vision to life here in Taiwan. My fieldwork was conducted in two stages. During the first few years, I attended workshops designed to train Indigenous language teachers in Māori approaches to language pedagogy. The second part followed one of the graduates of those workshops as she tried to set up a program in her village that was designed along with those same principles.

Judged on their own terms, neither program could be considered a success. My paper, which I presented as part of the 2021 EATS conference to be held online 15-17 April, discusses why these programs, but the short version is that it is the fault of the Indigenous Language Proficiency Test. Educators feel pressure from parents, students, and funding agencies to prepare students for these tests. This pressure works against the focus on communicative competence built into the Māori teaching methods they were trying to implement.

So, what is to be done? One option is to focus on teaching languages at home. My PhD student Sifo Lakaw and I just submitted a paper discussing how he managed to raise his two young daughters as native speakers of Pangcah. But what happens when the kids go to school? Even though the home environment is key, all work is wasted if schools do not reinforce and support what is happening in the home. It is a vicious circle because the schools do not feel it is worth supporting these languages until families demonstrate that they want their children to speak these languages, not just learn about them in a heritage language class. Change needs to happen simultaneously at all levels to break out of this downward spiral.

Looking at Aotearoa/New Zealand, another option appears to give Indigenous people more control over their own school systems. Taiwan is making baby steps in this direction, with some new experimental schools giving Indigenous people more freedom to design their curriculum. However, it remains to be seen how much autonomy these schools will have within Taiwan’s centralized educational system. There is also the problem of finding teachers with the necessary language proficiency to teach subjects such as history or social science in Indigenous languages. (This might be easier for Pangcah than languages with smaller populations.) But just as Taiwanese parents stopped speaking their mother tongues because of pressure from schools, encouragement from schools could potentially encourage them to use those languages at home once again, making it clear that these languages still matter and do not just belong in a museum.

P. Kerim Friedman is a professor in the Department of Ethnic Relations and Cultures at National Dong Hwa University in Taiwan.

This article was published as part of EATS 2021: Narrating Taiwan special issue. All articles in the special issue can be found here.

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