The Hakka Language in Taiwan, a Multilingual Society

Masahiro Endo
Professor, Faculty of Law, Chuo University
Area of specialization: Linguistics

1 Introduction

The Taiwanese Hakka language, and primarily its grammar, is the subject of my present research. It has been suggested that this language could disappear from Taiwan within another two decades. And yet Hakka is not a minority language with a mere several dozen or several hundred speakers. So how could such a situation come about?

2 The language situation in Taiwan

Taiwan is an island about the size of Kyushu, but linguistically it is extremely diverse. Nowadays, roughly speaking, people use either Chinese languages or Austronesian languages. The Austronesian languages are spoken by Taiwanese aborigines and belong to the same language group as Indonesian, Malay and so on. Taiwanese languages of Chinese origin, meanwhile, are Taiwanese Hokkien, also called Holo, Hakka, and Mandarin. They were brought to Taiwan by Han immigrants from mainland China from the 17th century onward. The present population of Taiwan is 23 million, of which 1.7% are aboriginal Taiwanese, 73.3% Hokkiens, 12% Hakkas, and 13% so-called “Waishengren (outside province person),” the group of people (and their descendents) who moved to Taiwan with the Guomindang government in 1945. The former three groups have lived in Taiwan since before the era of Japanese rule between 1895 and 1945, and are called “Benshengren (home province person)” as against “Waishengren.” According to the results of a 2008 survey by the Hakka Affairs Council of the Executive Yuan, the Hakka population (Taiwanese citizens who consider themselves exclusively as Hakka) is 3,108,000. Simply put, just over one in ten Taiwanese are Hakka speakers.

3 From the suppression to the resurgence of indigenous languages

The main threat of decline faced by the indigenous languages, which were the mother tongues of the native Taiwanese (Benshengren), came from the suppression of those languages and the forced teaching of a national language, Japanese during the era of Japanese rule and Mandarin under the Guomindang dictatorship. In broadcasting and public life, especially in school education, the use of Taiwanese Hokkien, Hakka and so on was tightly restricted. Indigenous languages were thus almost driven out of the public realm.

However, indigenous languages started to make a comeback as the country underwent democratization. Punishment for using indigenous languages in schools was abolished along with the ending of martial law in 1987 by President Chiang Ching-kuo, and from the early 1990s these languages were gradually incorporated into public education. From 2001 local language education became obligatory as the native language education, as it is to this day. In public broadcasting, restrictions on the use of indigenous languages were lifted in 1993, and Hakka TV started broadcasting in the Hakka language in 2003 followed by TITV(Taiwan Indigenous Television) in aboriginal and other languages in 2005. There are also television stations such as Formosa Television whose Taiwanese Hokkien language programs take up more than half of their broadcasting time. Politicians also change the language they use depending on who they are addressing. When Hokkien candidates visit Hakka areas during election campaigns, for example, they sometimes give speeches in the Hakka language, however short. Taiwan’s current President Ma Ying-jeou, a Taiwanese mainlander (Waishengren), uses Taiwanese Hokkien in public speaking.

4 The circumstances surrounding the Hakka language

In the above ways, the circumstances surrounding indigenous languages have greatly improved and their survival systematically guaranteed. As a result, Taiwanese Hokkien in particular has become more secure. However, at a symposium on the issue of indigenous languages held seven years ago at the Academia Sinica (Symposium Series Multiculturalism Thinking of the Language Policy), it was pointed out that the survival of the Hakka language was under threat, as already mentioned at the beginning of this article.

There are a number of reasons for the lack of optimism about the survival of Hakka. One is the low market value of the language. That is to say, there are few opportunities to use Hakka in public so it is not very useful from a practical view. The development and spread of a writing system, as well as media, are also limited. This is probably because of the long-term policy of suppression, as mentioned earlier, and because it is a minority language within Taiwan. A Hakka friend of mine in his 20s asked me why I was researching Hakka, on the assumption that it was a waste of effort to learn the language. I also heard from a former Hakka primary school teacher that however much the children study Hakka in the native language education, it was in fact meaningless. That is because the language is hardly used in the home. Parents want their children to learn Mandarin rather than Hakka, and English rather than Mandarin. Another reason for pessimism is that Taiwan’s Hakka language is not homogeneous and the lingua franca of Taiwanese Hakka people is unclear. Taiwan also has some varieties of Hakka, Si-Xien, Hai-Lu, Rao-Ping, Zhao-An, and Don-Shi, each with different vocal sounds, vocabulary, and so on. Hakka TV therefore uses variations of Hakka, and the Hakka Language Certification Examination implemented since 2005 accommodates the different types. Furthermore, even if Si-Xien Hakka, used by more than half of all Hakka speakers, were taken as the standard form of the language, that would only give rise to a new kind of suppression.

5 Conclusion

Hakka is without doubt a living language. If you go to Hsinchu County, where there are a very high proportion of Hakka people, you will have ample opportunities to hear it spoken. A significant number of people are also steadily continuing the Hakka revival movement. There is a Hakka proverb, “Rather sell your ancestor’s farms than forget their language.” If Taiwanese Hakka people want to remember their language and want to keep it alive, not only should they improve the systems relating to their language but every single speaker must strive to force Hakka out from the personal realm into the public realm. I hope that Hakka will survive wherever possible and that Taiwan will continue to be a model for a multilingual society.



Masahiro Endo
Professor, Faculty of Law, Chuo University
Area of specialization: Linguistics

Born in Shizuoka prefecture in 1966. He graduated in archaeology from the School of Letters, Arts and Sciences I, Waseda University in 1991. While enrolled at the School, he studied Chinese at Liaoning University in China from 1988 to 1990. In 1997 he completed the PhD program in Chinese Literature at the Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University. He was a full-time lecturer and then assistant professor, Faculty of Law, Chuo University before taking up his current post in 2007. His areas of specialization are linguistics and Chinese language. He is presently conducting descriptive research into Taiwanese Hai-Lu Hakka. His publications include: Jisho no chikara—Chuugokugo kami jisho denshi jisho no genzai [The power of dictionaries—Present Chinese paper dictionaries and electronic dictionaries], co-editor, Kohbun Shuppan; Orukara chugokugo seikatsu zukai jiten [All-color Chinese everyday illustrated dictionary], supervising editor, Shogakukan.




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