Healing words: Taiwan’s tribes fight to save their disappearing languages

In a modest conference room near the edge of Taiwan’s Sun Moon Lake, Panu Kapamumu holds up an unwieldy A3 booklet. The home-printed document contains every known word of Thao, the language of his Indigenous tribe. Kapamumu runs his finger down the list, reading out a selection of Thao words, meanings and translations. He reads slowly and purposefully, a man in his sixties but still just a student of his mother tongue.

Pastay piakolingkin piakaimahan. Ito Thao Panu Kapamumu,” he says. It translates in English to: “Everyone is safe and doing well. I am of the Thao people, Panu Kapamumu.”

Normally, Kapamumu speaks in a mix of the two languages he knows better than his own – Chinese and English.

“We believe in our ancestors’ spirits, so we treasure our own language and see it as more important than our own lives … We have a right to survive,” he says.

Indigenous tribes of Taiwan are in a race against time to save their languages before they are lost forever. An estimated 35% of the 400,000 Indigenous people in Taiwan speak their native tongue fluently, but in some communities it’s far less.

Taiwan’s government formally recognises 16 tribes who inhabited the island for millennia before the arrival of Han people. The Thao, whose traditional lands surround Sun Moon Lake, are the smallest, with fewer than 800 members. Thao is in the Austronesian family of languages, which are spoken throughout Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and much of the Pacific.It is among four of the 16 languages on Taiwan considered by Unesco to be critically endangered.

Under the authoritarian and assimilationist rule of Japan and then the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) regime, native languages were criminalised. The Thao’s losses extended to land, lives and culture.

“With the Japanese, you can’t speak your language. The KMT, you can’t speak your language, there was punishment in schools. So our language stopped 75 years ago,” he says.

A loss of language is a loss of traditional and cultural practices, says Dremedreman a lja Tjuveleljem, a consultant and professional teacher of her language, Paiwan.

“Traditional knowledge was always transmitted by native tongue,” Tjuveleljem says. The loss is more pronounced among urban communities, where people were moved by force, natural disaster, or economics, she says.

Kapamumu, chairman of the Thao cultural development association, estimates their efforts have recorded about 90% of the Thao language. There are now five dedicated teachers of the language in Taiwan, but it is an informal community effort, with minimal resources – a scenario playing out across the island.

Read more: The Guardian

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