Interview with Khin-huann Li: On Preserving the Taiwanese Language

TAIPEI, TAIWAN – For more than half a century the Chinese government did an excellent job of decimating the Taiwanese language. In 1949, the Chinese Nationalist Party a.k.a. the Kuomintang (KMT) fled the Chinese mainland to reconsolidate their power in Taiwan. There they banned the main local language, Taiwanese, from being spoken in all public institutions. Fines and beatings were enforced to ensure compliance, and Mandarin Chinese was established as Taiwan’s official language.

When martial law was lifted in 1987, so too was the practice of punishment for speaking Taiwanese. But by then it was too late. Young people in Taiwan were now communicating almost exclusively in Mandarin Chinese. Today, some experts estimate that 80 percent of the Taiwanese population in their 20s and 30s cannot speak Taiwanese, a statistic that infuriates one local professor.

I first met Professor Khin-huann Li (李勤岸) in the fall of 2008, while visiting my parents who had moved back to Taipei. Growing up in the States, I spoke a mixture of English, Taiwanese, and Mandarin Chinese at home. While I cannot claim fluency in Taiwanese, I was able to have simple conversations with my relatives, and I was struck by how much easier I could communicate in the once de facto mother tongue of Taiwan than some of my younger cousins on the island.

A poet and chair of the Taiwan Culture, Languages, and Literatures department at Taipei’s National Taiwan Normal University, Khin-huann leads a group of linguists who have been trying to standardize the Taiwanese language since 2005. The main obstacle: Taiwanese has never had a single agreed-upon script.

Some critics argue this is proof of the derivative nature of Taiwanese – i.e. that Taiwanese is actually a dialect of Chinese. But Khin-huann isn’t sold: “The Chinese call Taiwanese a dialect in order to say they are a united country because they have one language.” Khin-huann, who taught Taiwanese at Harvard for three years, adds, “Their stance is political. Linguistically this is not true. When you say ‘a different language’ it means you cannot understand what they are saying unless you speak the language.”

Khin-huann’s fix comes via romanization, which uses the Roman alphabet to substitute words and letters impossible to represent in Chinese characters. He estimates that his version is a mix of about 10 percent romanized letters to 90 percent Chinese characters. “Our team takes the Chinese characters that are already accepted in folk writings or are common words in Mandarin. We don’t suggest difficult characters.”

At the most fundamental level, there are four tones in Mandarin and eight in Taiwanese. “Some people try to write Taiwanese totally in Chinese characters, but they encounter a lot of difficulties,” says Khin-huann. “That’s because originally Taiwanese was not a Chinese language – it was an Austronesian language – but became a Chinese language by sinification. Around 10 to 15 percent of Taiwanese words have no characters to represent them in Chinese.” This means that at heart, Taiwanese is part of the catchall Southeast Asian and Pacific culture, says Khin-huann (it’s his theory). Not surprisingly, this theory angers Chinese nationals and many others. “It’s not just the pro-China KMT people who hate me for my work. I have become the enemy of the Tong-iong system as well,” Khin-huann confesses.

Pushed as an alternative to Khin-huann’s work, Tong-iong is a romanization method largely based on China’s Hanyu pinyin system for Mandarin that supporters claim can be used to cover Mandarin, Hakka, Taiwanese, and other tongues (it literally means “general use”). “The Tong-iong people fought with me in the newspaper for many months,” says Khin-huann. “Today they continue to fight and reject the new Taiwanese romanization system.”

The problem, admits the university professor, is that there are too many ways of writing Taiwanese. “We have to choose,” he insists. “When I entered the committee, there were three systems of writing in romanization. I invited my colleagues to sit down and talk with the support of the Minister of Education. Finally, after a year of discussions and formal debates, we combined traditional Church Romanization and Taiwanese Language Pronunciation Alphabet and got rid of Tong-iong.”

To date, Khin-huann and his team have come up with approximately 700 characters. In five years, he estimates, they will have the entire language down to a standard script. But that is just the beginning: they are also publishing an online Taiwanese dictionary, which has more than 10,000 words for reference.

“The only way to save the language is to fight for a better education system,” says Khin-huann. “We need to accept the language as the first language of the school and use it to teach all subjects. If the education system accepts this, then we can change everything. If not, we do not have access and we are in danger.”