Taiwan Insight: Zooming in on the ‘Speak Your Mother Tongue’ Controversy

Taiwan presidential election campaigning would be incomplete without language controversies. On 3 November during her Taichung ‘Chia-fen lectures’, Lee Chia-fen, spouse of KMT presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu, spoke up in support of her husband’s vision of educational policy. Here we will examine some of the responses to these statements.

It was Lee’s personal opinion of the Ministry of Education (MOE)’s mother tongue instruction policy that went viral: “I speak Taiwanese (Taiyu) at home, so having to learn it at school is a waste of resources.” The impact of Lee’s comment went far beyond ‘hurting’ the bensheng Taiwanese; it evoked an angry response from the indigenous and the new Taiwanese communities, whom demanded an apology.

Having the opportunity to be taught the language and culture of one’s parents’ home country, or even the language spoken at home or in private, is significant when reflecting on Taiwan’s difficult path to legislating language rights as part of its democratisation process. Alongside the implementation of multiple mother tongue programs, the MOE is also promoting a policy of bilingual education and would like to make Taiwan Mandarin-English bilingual by 2030. Regardless of language, the problem is situated in a rearrangement of curriculum within the existing number of hours allocated to core courses.

Mother tongue education as legislated by the Language Equality Act requires the instruction of local languages other than the national language, Mandarin Chinese. These local languages are Taiwanese, Hakka and the Austronesian languages spoken by several indigenous communities. Promotion for instruction of these local languages on the national level has gone hand-in-hand with civic groups’ demands to sustain policies for language preservation and revitalisation. An active promotion of English language instruction can be easily used and interpreted as a stick in political campaigning. It is in this context that we read the responses from social media.

These reactions from civil groups were in step with the consternation expressed by politicians. Particularly for those in the Democratic Progressive Party camp, Lee and Han’s statements were interpreted as reminiscent of outdated KMT language policies. Others saw similarities with Chinese Communist Party policies. In any case, these statements were definitely no longer appropriate for today’s Taiwanese society that stands for multicultural ethnic identity.

Han and KMT spokesmen accused the DPP of deliberately “smearing” him, but this did not exculpate the party from some form of clarification. They claimed that Lee was misrepresented; she did not mean to say that mother tongue classes should be cancelled, but that in line with promoting bilingual education, there would be less time in the day for regular curriculum. Mother tongue classes could be compensated in extra-curricular activities with speech contests, drama performances and other socio-cultural events.

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Zooming in on the ‘Speak Your Mother Tongue’ Controversy

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