We must fight to save Taiwan's languages
By Paul Li 李壬葵
According to the Tao Te Ching
the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu
founder of Taoism: "Heaven and earth are impartial. They regard all
beings without distinction"
Thus, under the law of the jungle, the weak usually stand as easy
prey to the strong when they don't have adequate protection.
After hundreds of millions of years of evolution, there are
billions of animals and plants in the world. Human beings, however,
have been expanding at an astonishing pace ever since the Industrial
Revolution took place in the West during the second half of the 18th
century. As men have invaded each and every corner of the world,
occupying the habitats that originally belonged to other species,
the environment is now facing an unprecedented threat. As a
consequence, many precious species are becoming extinct today.
According to statistics, hundreds of species become extinct on this
planet every single day. People who know about the food chain all
realize that once there is a break in the food chain, many species
will be seriously affected. If the environment keeps deteriorating,
the survival of mankind will definitely be threatened.
The extinction of languages occurs even faster than the
extinction of certain species, as languages are becoming extinct at
twice the rate of endangered mammals and four times the rate of
endangered birds. One language disappears approximately every two
weeks on average. There are still 5,000 to 6,000 languages in the
world. At a rough estimate, half of the languages will disappear
within 50 years; as many as 90 percent will become extinct within
this century. If the situation continues, the world will ultimately
be dominated only by a few key languages, including Mandarin and
According to a report by Michael Kraus, director of the Alaska
Native Language Center, as many as 20 to 40 percent of the estimated
6,000 languages spoken on earth may soon become moribund. Since less
than 10 percent of the languages are widely spoken and enjoy
official status, only 5 to 10 percent of the world's total, about
300 to 600 languages, remain relatively secure for now. If we wake
up to this situation and try to take action immediately, perhaps
half of the languages in use today could last for another century.
A "healthy language" must be practiced by new users constantly.
Unless the language can be passed from generation to generation, it
is destined to die out. From this perspective, all aboriginal
languages in Taiwan are on the verge of extinction. For example, the
three extant languages of the Plain's Aborigines, the Pingpu tribes
most likely all become extinct within the next two decades. Most of
the languages of Taiwan's nine principal aboriginal tribes will also
become extinct in the next 50 years. In fact, about half of Taiwan's
aboriginal languages are dead already. Some have disappeared without
A language is the best reflection of a culture. The leading
linguist Noam Chomsky once said, "Language is the window to the
mind." Indeed, many aboriginal languages and dialects are priceless.
They all possess certain language characteristics and riches that
the dominant languages might lack. These languages and dialects,
which have existed for hundreds of thousands of years, are the
shared intellectual properties of mankind. It will be a significant
loss for all human beings if we just sit back and watch these
languages die. Thus, there is no greater loss than that of our
Paul Li is a research fellow and the former director of the
Institute of Linguistics at Academia Sinica.
Translated by Eddy Chang
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