China Post: The Evils of Tai-lo and Teaching Taiwanese

Taiwan has three English language newspapers; The China Post, The Taipei Times and the Taiwan News. The first, as you can probably tell from its name, is very pro-China, considers Taiwan to be an inalienable part of China, and despises the DPP (the outgoing ruling party). The other two are ideologically opposite to the China Post, and have their own numerous failings, but it’s an article in the China Post which caught my eye this week.

The article concerns a plan to “enforce” learning of Tâi-lô up to ninth grade in Taiwanese schools. It is so riddled with inaccuracy and ideologically motivated clap-trap that it’s hard to see any merit in it at all. Worse, rubbish like this just spreads misinformation about the language.

TAIPEI, Taiwan — All students in Taiwan, from ninth graders on down, may be required to learn what the Ministry of Education (MOE) defines as the “Taiwan Minnan language,” a Hoklo dialect popularly spoken on the island.

It is mandatory now that schoolchildren have to learn how to write Hoklo in Chinese logograms. Hoklo is a Min dialect of Chinese which used to be called Amoy.

Hmm, children have to do a couple of hours a week of native language education (which might be Hoklo (Taiwanese), Hakka or one of the aboriginal languages). There is no requirement to learn to write in Chinese “logograms” (characters).

Chinese nationalists often refer to Chinese as one language and the constituent parts like Mandarin, Wu, Hakka, Cantonese, Min and so on as “dialects”. From a linguistic point of view, however, it makes more sense to look on these parts as languages in their own right.

One dialect (here using the term in a linguistically more acceptable way) of Southern Min is Taiwanese. Taiwanese can be further split in to different regional variations. Amoy is related to Taiwanese, but is not the same thing. Both Amoy and Taiwanese are derived from a mix of Zhangzhou and Quanzhou dialects, but this happened at different periods in time and independently from one another.

All first through ninth graders would be compelled to learn how to Romanize the Taiwan Minnan language, if a new MOE program were implemented as from 2011.

The education ministry called a meeting to finalize the program yesterday.

Min is a nationally accepted moniker for Fujian, a province in southern China. Nan means “south.” The new term the education ministry has coined means literally the South Fujian language in use in Taiwan.

This is strange, because Minnan is the name used both by nationalists in Taiwan, usually in the form of Mǐnnányǔ 閩南語, and the government and media of China, who usually render it as Mǐnnánhuà 闽南话. It’s not a new coinage, nor is it something one would expect the China Post to be opposed to.

Amoy, the old name of Xiamen today, used to be the name given the Hoklo dialect.

Half right, it was referred to by some westerners as “The Amoy Dialect” as spoken in Taiwan. Even they made note of the difficulties in going between the two, with differences in pronunciation and meaning.

But the new syllabus for the teaching of the Taiwan Minnan language requires the use of a romanization invented in Taiwan, which differs from the Church Romanization in use around the world for more than a century.

True. I believe the ministry should probably have stuck with the “Church Romanization” (POJ, which incidentally the China Post has criticised in the past). Tâi-lô is a variation (some would say “improvement”) of POJ, with some small adjustments and the replacement of the tricky letter o͘ (an “o” with a dot above right, pronounced something like the “aw” in “thaw”) with oo.

As a matter of fact, the Tai-Lo pinyin or Taiwan’s Romanization spelling the education ministry mandates is more complicated than the Church Romanization and a little more difficult to learn.

Pure nonsense. There is no appreciable difference in difficulty between the two systems.

According to the syllabus, a third grader will be able to write e-mail with the new spelling method. Fifth graders have to be able to converse via MSN (Microsoft Network). Junior high students should acquire ability to blog by romanizing Hoklo words.

Sounds pretty good to me. It would be fantastic if this level was achieved, but I doubt it will be due to many factors, including political opposition and lack of adequately trained teachers. Hold on, here comes the generalising editor…

All this is highly unlikely to come true, however.

For one thing, parents are up in arms against the new method of writing.

Professors of linguistics taking part in yesterday’s meeting opposed the new teaching on grounds that students would be “much overburdened.”

No specifics – parents are up in arms, professors rebelling. I’m quite sure there are some professors and parents who think learning any of the languages of Taiwan except Mandarin is a waste of time. I’m also certain that many support native language teaching.

No parents want their offspring to suffer, if required to learn the difficult Taiwan-Romanization spelling.

The difficult Tâi-lô? Would that be difficult when contrasted with Chinese characters, which require years of study to Tâi-lô’s few weeks? Are these offspring not suffering through the degradation and decline of the native tongue of their parents?

People on Quemoy or Kinmen consider the MOE decision a demonstration of Taiwan’s Hoklo chauvinism. They speak the Zhangzhou version of Hoklo, sometimes quite different from the Zhuanzhou version which is popular in Taiwan.

Again, this is half right. “Zhuanzhou” here should read “Quanzhou”. Many people in Taiwan speak the Zhangzhou flavour of Taiwanese, not just those in Jinmen. However, the Jinmen version is closer to “pure” Zhangzhou than the Zhangzhou versions spoken on Taiwan island.

In fact, the Taiwan Minnan language is a mixture of the two versions.

Hurray! No faulting this sentence. Note how the editor has used the same term “Taiwan Minnan” which was obliquely criticised above.

Moreover, the new government, which will be installed on May 20, is unlikely to enforce the controversial eleventh hour program MOE Tu Cheng-sheng approved.

Tu has to resign before the Kuomintang takes over the government.

He has made another much ado about nothing to demonstrate his now incorrect political correctness.

I hate the way that language is such a politicised issue in Taiwan. I hate the way that due to ideological slants the media has to spout such rubbish about a topic I care about. I hate being identified with one political party because I choose to learn a particular language. I support the implementation of Hanyu Pinyin as the nationwide standard for Mandarin, which is a KMT policy. I support the teaching of native languages (not just Taiwanese) in schools, which is a DPP policy.

Apologies for the long-ish rant – articles like this are guaranteed to get my back up.

8 Responses to “China Post: The Evils of Tai-lo and Teaching Taiwanese”

  1. A-gu says:

    Great article!

  2. A-gu says:

    Clarification: great critique of the article!

  3. sjcma says:

    Article: “Min is a nationally accepted moniker for Fujian, a province in southern China. Nan means “south.” The new term the education ministry has coined means literally the South Fujian language in use in Taiwan.”

    Tailingua Response: “This is strange, because Minnan is the name used both by nationalists in Taiwan, usually in the form of MǐnnányÇ” 閩南語, and the government and media of China, who usually render it as Mǐnnánhuà 闽南话. It’s not a new coinage, nor is it something one would expect the China Post to be opposed to.”

    Are you reading something into that paragraph that just isn’t there? Despite whatever problems exist in the rest of the article, this paragraph appears to be fairly benign. It is simply explaining the meaning of the term “Taiwan Minnan language”. To foreigners new to the island, such a paragraph explaining the term may indeed be very helpful. They’ve heard of Mandarin, they’ve heard of Taiwanese, but perhaps they’ve never heard of the “Taiwan Minnan language”.

    Adding the modifier Taiwan in front of Minnan is indeed fairly new usage. Previously, if people didn’t use Minnan, they would simply call it Taiwanese or Taiyu/Taiwanhua.

  4. Great article, and I’m grateful this blog exists! I was reading about this in 自由時報 last week, of course from a totally different angle, but I distinctly recall that the report said that teachers were allowed to teach whichever romanization system they were most familiar with.

  5. Johan says:

    Enjoyed reading your critique!

    But isn’t it fair to say that the MOE had 8 years to implement a more effective form of native language education. And exactly now that they have been voted out of power, they want to “finalize the program” for such education. Losers.

    Any initiative for native language education at selected schools will probably have to happen at grassroots levels, with financial help of private businesses and interest groups. If successful, it will be hard for a future nationalist-dominated MOE to ignore it.

  6. admin says:

    Nostalgiphile: It wouldn’t surprise me if the MoE set a standard and then ignored their own advice – sounds about par for the course.

    Johan: A very fair point. As you often observe on your blog, the MoE has for eight years consistently failed to implement a strong native language policy, despite this being a supposed objective of the DPP government.

  7. Maoman says:

    Wow – how did I miss this entry? It’s a good one!

  8. admin says:

    Thanks Maoman – it feels good to complain every now and again!

    I’ve just realised I didn’t really answer SJC Ma’s point above (from six months ago – sorry!). I think perhaps you’re right, I might well be reading more into it than is there. Joe Hung’s China Post articles about language always appear riddled with inaccuracy to me, and that seemed like another example within this piece.

Leave a Reply