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[From Peter K. Austin, Endangered Languages Academic Programme, SOAS]

[I began this blog on Saturday 9th June while sitting in Taipei Airport at the end of five extremely interesting but rather exhausting days in Taiwan. I was reflecting on the International Conference on Austronesian Endangered Language Documentation (held at Providence University (PU), and especially the two day post-conference excursion to Sun Moon Lake and Puli. I put the finishing touches to this post on Saturday 16th June sitting in Narita Airport, Tokyo, thanks to a four hour delay in the departure of my BA flight back to London.]

The International Conference on Austronesian Endangered Language Documentation, which was organised by Victoria Rau, Meng-Chien Yang, Yih-Ren Lin, and Margaret Florey brought together around 40 people from Taiwan, Australia, the Philippines, Thailand, UK and USA working on endangered Austronesian languages.

There was an interesting array of papers with lots of good interaction – the highlight for me was a presentation by Oliver Yih-Ren Lin, an Assistant Professor in Ecology at PU and Lahwy Ice, an Atayal MA student, about a collaborative project they are working on to record Atayal Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). Their paper was jointly presented, with Lahwy giving his section in Atayal (their Powerpoint conveniently included Atayal, Chinese and English material, along with spectacular maps and photographs of their fieldwork). This was the first time I had heard a paper presented in an endangered language at an Austronesian conference. Their project has been centred on Smangus, Lahwy’s home village in the southern mountains of Taiwan, and has involved documenting and mapping TEK along with place names and boundaries. Although Lahwy speaks Atayal fluently he, like many younger people, has not acquired TEK so the project is a learning experience both for him and Professor Lin. The outcome of their work so far is extremely interesting and has also been relevant for some current legal disputes between the Taiwanese government and aboriginal people, including the Atayal.

The conference was followed by a two day excursion led by Professor Lin and his graduate students from the Atayal, Bunun and Pazeh groups. On the first day we went to Sun Moon Lake in the centre of Taiwan and were hosted by the Thao. Community leader Banu, who is also the chair of the recently formed Thao Language Revival Committee, told us about the history of the Thao and their fight to retain their land and access to the lake and its sacred sites, along with their efforts to study and revive the Thao language which now has around 10 remaining speakers, all in their 60’s and older. After an excellent and interesting dinner (which included barking deer meat) we attended an ‘Aboriginal Cultural Show’ of dances and songs put on for tourists and visitors. Several conference participants distinguished themselves by joining in with the dancing.

The next day we went to Puli, and were hosted by Reverend Lai, a Presbyterian minister of Pazeh descent who spoke about the history of his group and their fight for official recognition from the Taiwanese government. Their position as ‘plains aborigines’ is weaker in Taiwan than groups like the Atayal or Bunun who live in the central and southern mountains and the east, since they are not counted among the 13 officially recognised tribes. Interestingly, Rev Lai, who has learnt a little Pazeh as an adult, insisted on speaking Taiwanese Minnnan rather than Mandarin as a means of marking his ethnic identity (Minnan and Mandarin are in a complex diglossic relationship in Taiwan, with many Han Chinese code-switching between them; only Mandarin is used normally in writing and ‘high’ functions however). Rev Lai showed us the historical museum he has been putting together and then took us to meet a group of Kaxabu elders who discussed their language revitalisation work, presented some stories and songs in Kaxabu, and then feasted us on local produce.

Following this we visited a group of Pazeh elders who have started language lessons for children – Pazeh has just one 94 year old full speaker, but these partial speakers have been working hard to revitalise the language and recover lost traditions. They demonstrated a language lesson to the visitors, and then answered our questions about their work. The Pazeh, Kaxabu and Thao we met all expressed their willingness to share their experiences and appreciated the interest of concerned outsiders.

One interesting, and rather telling, footnote came up in our discussions about Thao revitalisation – Academic Sinica in Taiwan has recently published an impressively large dictionary of the language, however it uses the letter c for the interdental fricative which speakers prefer to spell as th. In addition, the definitions are in English, which is unknown to the speakers and language teachers. A Taiwanese anthropologist who has been working with the Thao showed us his heavily corrected copy of the dictionary with dozens of annotations on each page in Chinese – perhaps this example can serve as an object lesson about linguists preparing reference materials that are inaccessible to community members who might want to use them. What we saw also contradicts the picture painted on the Academic Sinica Institute of Linguistics website:

“The present situation of the Thao can be described as one of terminal assimilation … All but one of the known speakers was born in 1937 or earlier. Some younger Thao profess an interest in learning their own language, but have little idea of how to proceed, generally having very misguided ideas based on their primary exposure to Taiwanese, Mandarin, and the Chinese writing system. The future of the Thao language seems all but sealed.”

The current struggles by the Thao, Pazeh, Kaxabu and other groups in Taiwan are reminiscent of the situation in eastern Australia, though historically with rather less positive participation by linguists. It is interesting that it is anthropologists, ecologists and others who are at the forefront of involvement in the current grass-roots language and cultural revitalisation efforts in central Taiwan.

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