Spreading The 'Taiwanese' Word; Two New Language Books Sign Of Changing Times

Free China Journal
Publication Date: 07/26/1990
Story Type: Feature;
Byline: Karen S. Chung

     Taiwan has long been a popular place for foreigners to learn Mandarin, China's national language. A few people--mainly missionaries and linguists--also delve into the Taiwanese dialect, spoken natively by about 70 percent of the island's residents. But rarely would it occur to a Chinese originating from a province other than Taiwan to learn Taiwanese.

     The forefathers of the island's Taiwanese-speaking majority brought their dialect with them when they immigrated to Taiwan about five centuries ago from southern Fukien Province. Today, the southern Fukien dialect, commonly referred to as "Taiwanese," is spoken widely in the home and in business, particularly in areas outside of Taipei.

     However, it has not been regarded as the language of government and education. People, therefore, have tended to regard Taiwanese as substandard, and not worthy of serious study. In fact, in the 1950s and early 1960s, when the government was working hard to promote Mandarin as the national language, use of dialect in classrooms was strongly discouraged. Sometimes there was even a small fine each time the "wrong" dialect slipped out.

     This is now changing. Taiwanese is rapidly becoming a status language with strong sentimental--and sometimes political--appeal.

     People have become more concerned over the prospect that their children might go through life with just one dialect, and perhaps even end up more fluent in English than Taiwanese.

     Efforts to preserve and promote local Taiwanese culture have ranged from bringing back traditional children's rhymes to making movies on how things were in leaner times. The approach of professor Cheng Liang-wei of the University of Hawaii and his colleagues has been to write texts to teach Taiwanese dialect to Chinese of mainland origin.

    "A number of good texts of Taiwanese have been available before. 

     But, most were designed for foreigners and taught the dialect through the Latin alphabet, or Romanization," Cheng explains.

     "Chinese tend to reject the use of a foreign alphabet to learn a dialect of their own language. So we decided to compile a set of materials to teach Taiwanese through Chinese characters," noted Cheng.

    Thus were born two new Taiwanese primers, Everyday Taiwanese and Taiwanese for Parents and Children. Also participating in the project were Fang Nan-chiang, director of the Taiwanese department of the Taipei Language Institute, and two other linguists, Chao Hsun-wen and Wu Hsiu-li.

     The content of Everyday Taiwanese is based on the Romanized Taiwanese text for foreigners, Taiwanese Survival Course, which was compiled by the Taipei Language Institute. The dialogues and explanations in Everyday Taiwanese are presented in Chinese characters, with parallel texts in Romanization.

     They cover a wide range of situations in which one might need to use Taiwanese, from greetings to grocery shopping to sports and leisure activities. Appendices teach how to pronounce Taiwan place names. "Taipei," for example, is spoken as "Tai-pak" in Taiwanese.

     They also teach common family names. "Chen," for example, is "Tan." Taiwanese for Parents and Children was written for parents wanting to give their children an early start in a second dialect or language. If begun at an early age, a new tongue can be picked up directly by absorption, without the consciously analytic approach that adults need to rely on.

     The book covers most daily parent-child interactions, starting with getting up, brushing teeth, having breakfast, and getting dressed. It also prepares the reader for a sibling argument. The book mentions the Taiwanese word for diaper rash, which is ang-kha-chhng, or literally, "red bottom." Cassette tapes for both books are scheduled to be on the market by August of this year. The tapes will be especially useful for those not exposed to the dialect on a regular basis. Also, intermediate-level follow-up volumes to the two books are in the works. In addition, texts of Taiwanese for special purposes, such as medicine and business, are being considered.

     People who venture into the Taiwanese dialect soon learn why Mandarin, which is based on the Peking dialect of northern China, was chosen as the national language rather than a southern dialect.

     Mandarin has only four tones, plus a neutral tone. It has few instances of tone sandhi, that is, changes of one tone into another in certain phonetic environments.

     Taiwanese, on the other hand, has seven tones, and each one undergoes a tone change, unless it is the last word in a sentence or phrase. A tone sandhi is comparable to the rule in English that "a" must be changed to "an" when it precedes a vowel. When speaking Taiwanese, a similar change must be made in every word of a sentence, except the last.

     Another difficulty is the great disparity between Taiwanese and Mandarin. By comparison, British and American English differ only slightly from each other and are mutually intelligible. Taiwanese and Mandarin, however, are as different as Spanish and French.

     The Taiwanese, or southern Fukien dialect, is not restricted to the island of Taiwan. Fourteen million people speak it in Taiwan. But there are another 36 million doing so in mainland China, mostly in Fukien and Kwangtung provinces and Hainan Island. Another 12 million people from the Philippines and Singapore also speak Taiwanese, making it a dialect of international importance.

     Several well-known personalities in Taiwan have taken up the study of the dialect. They include Chen Li-an, the minister of national defense, and Toong Metsung, the wife of former Republic of China Premier Yu Kuo-hwa.

     Students who complete Everyday Taiwanese or Taiwanese for Parents and Children will discover that the benefits of knowing the Taiwanese dialect are many. Besides having the ability to communicate with millions of people in their native tongue, knowing Taiwanese helps increase a person's appreciation of the richness of Chinese culture.