Showing posts with label taiwanese_language. Show all posts
Showing posts with label taiwanese_language. Show all posts

Saturday, January 9, 2021

A Bilingual By 2030 Throwdown

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Bilingual by 2030 is a complicated topic on its own terms alone. Using it as a hook on which to hang your favorite opinion without discussing the merits of the actual policy is not the way to go with this.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Deliberately Lost in Translation: How Language Is Used to Obfuscate Taiwan's Reality

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Consume any mainstream English-language media about Taiwan, and you'll come across an abundant lexicon of terms that sound as though they help define the Taiwan-China situation: "renegade province", "split in 1949", "dialect", "Mainland", "reunification", Chinese", "One China Policy" and "status quo" are probably the most common. More recently, there's also the term "one family", though that doesn't seem to have made the leap to English quite yet, and there's the perennial "tensions", a term which has already been covered extensively for its problematic usage.

These terms are readily employed by writers wanting to appear knowledgeable about the region  - especially non-specialist journalists, though some specialists do it too.

The problem?

Many of these words phrases don't translate well into English, and the ambiguity created by imperfect translations is, in my opinion, being intentionally used to imprint an inaccurate narrative of Taiwan in the international media.

In other cases, the meanings of the terms are clear, but the most common translation is simply wrong, yet encouraged - by China that is - because it promotes their preferred perspective.

And in still others, the implications of the terms call to mind a state of affairs that simply does not exist.

All of these are invisible hurdles that Taiwan advocates must vault in order to make Taiwan's case to the world - every minute we spend arguing over the meaning or use of a term, we waste precious time of other people's attention span to actually make the arguments we want to make in the first place. We are literally held back by language. And I daresay this is not an accident. It is entirely deliberate.

There doesn't seem to be a comprehensive breakdown of this strategic use of language anywhere else and why it's a problem for Taiwan, so I've created one here. Let's have a look - starting with the biggest headache of them all.


"Reunification"

The Mandarin term for Taiwan and China (ostensibly peacefully) uniting is 統一 (tǒng yī). It means "unify" or "unification". If you wanted to add the meaning of the "re-" prefix in English to that, it would be something like 再統一 (zài tǒng yī). I've also recently heard the term "回歸" (huíguī), and there's 光復 (guāngfù), which means 'retrocession' or 'recovery', but is rarely used outside of formal speech.

So here's the thing - nobody actually says these in Mandarin. They always use "tǒng yī". The Mandarin term for this concept is "unification". It doesn't mean -  and has never meant - "reunification", though I suspect many in China view it that way, because they've been taught to.


It's not a natural perspective arising from history: the Qing era - an imperial era, really - and the brief interlude between 1945-1949 are the only times in the history of both China and Taiwan that one could argue that the two were united. Both are open to interpretation, however. During their reign, the Qing were not considered Chinese (they were Manchu, which was considered a different group of people). Qing Dynasty China was arguably a Manchu colonial holding; Taiwan was too. And not even all of Taiwan - for most of their time 'claiming' Taiwan, the Qing only controlled the western part of the island, and for most of their reign it was not considered a 'province' in its own right. Before that, Taiwan was not considered 'Chinese', as the people living there were indigenous, and China's borders were considered to end at the sea

So was there one China under the Qing Empire or were there two colonial holdings - Taiwan and China? That's a discussion worth having for a clear historical perspective (though as far as I'm concerned it changes nothing about Taiwan's right to sovereignty now). The government which accepted Japan's surrender on behalf of the allies was not the same government that ceded Taiwan to Japan. Likewise, the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China were never united.

The problem with "reunification", then, is not only that it's not an accurate translation of the Chinese. It also assumes a particular historical interpretation - that Taiwan and China were once clearly unified and that the change in government from 'empire' to 'republic' doesn't matter. "Unification" is a less politically marked word; regardless of one's interpretation of history, it provides the linguistic room the conversation to happen. For that reason alone, it is the more appropriate term when discussing peaceful integration (non-peaceful integration would be "annexation").

So what to make of news outlets using "reunification" as though it's the correct term? I can only assume the editors don't know what they're talking about. Reuters, especially, has just put out some hilarious junk on this point:


China translates the word “tong yi” as “reunification”, but it can also be translated as “unification”, a term in English preferred by supporters of Taiwan independence who point out that Beijing’s Communist government has never ruled Taiwan and so it cannot be “reunified”.


The CCP does promote the use of "reunification" over "unification" to describe 統一, but the rest of this is laughable. It subtly gives credence to the CCP's preferred term by referring to it as "China's" choice of translation, not that of a political party with a particular objective regarding Taiwan, and marks the less problematic and more accurate/directly translated term as political by saying that it is used by "supporters of Taiwan independence" - as though to use it is to make a political statement. When, in fact, the opposite is true: "reunification" is an inherently more politicized word, as it is promoted by a particular political group (pro-China/CCP supporters) and is not a direct translation of the Mandarin term.


"Renegade Province"

This one is interesting, because it doesn't seem to appear in Mandarin-language media regarding Taiwan. A friend of mine asked about this recently, and the answer he got was that media from China discussing Taiwan never use "renegade province", because that would imply that the majority of the people in that province wanted to be "renegades", and that they'd elected a government that represented that wish. China can never admit to its own people that this is in fact the case (and it is!) - it has to refer to those who support Taiwanese independence as "splittists" and make them seem like a loud minority.

This view that Taiwanese national identity is a minority separatist movement is underlined by the recent comments of a Chinese general, who warned that "Taiwanese independence supporters" would be considered "war criminals" if China "were forced" to invade. That would only be possible to carry out if it were a minority of Taiwanese - otherwise, the implication of that statement is that the majority of Taiwanese (so, somewhere between 11 and 23 million people) would be war criminals. But that's exactly what would happen! This general - and China as a whole - cannot admit openly that the majority of Taiwanese favor independence (more on that under "status quo").

The phrase "renegade province" in Mandarin would - to the best of my knowledge - be 叛變的省份 (pànbiàn de shěngfèn). That phrase pops up in Internet searches, but doesn't seem to make any appearances in any major Chinese-language media.

So where did "renegade province" come from?

The best I can puzzle out is that it was picked up by foreign-language media, first appearing in 1982. Prior to that, China had used it to describe northern Vietnam, and the foreign-language media started using it to describe Taiwan out of a desire to summarize the CCP position succinctly (apparently Lee Teng-hui used it too? I have no evidence for this but someone I trust said he did).

The unfortunate side effect is that it gives the international media an easy way to avoid clarifying that China calls pro-independence support in Taiwan the work of "splittists", but that in fact, such a category would include most Taiwanese.


I assume some good faith from the international media - I don't believe they are intentionally trying to distort the narrative. They just don't know better. The CCP, on the other hand, tacitly encourages it, as it keeps Taiwan's perspective from being fully included. It frames the Taiwan issue as being similar to 'separatist movements' that Westerners, at least, seem to think of as destabilizing, overly ethno-nationalist or not their business (how many Westerners do you know who actively support a Kurdish state?), rather than accurately portraying the desire of most Taiwanese to merely maintain the sovereignty they already enjoy.


"Chinese"

In Mandarin, there are two ways to refer to a person as "Chinese". The hypernym for this is "華人" (huá rén), and it means a person of Chinese ethnic heritage - whatever that means. Not everyone from China is similar genetically - the Uighurs and Tibetans certainly aren't - and plenty of people who are certainly not from China are Chinese, and not all Chinese speak the same language or are Han, so it's really a reified sociopolitical construct rather than a real definable thing.

But, anyway, let's say you had ancestors from China whom most people would consider "Chinese". It is quite possible in Mandarin to call oneself huá rén the same way I call myself "Armenian" even though I'm a US citizen: without making any statement about one's nationality. You can be Singaporean, Malaysian, Taiwanese, American, Australian or whatever and also huá rén. 

The other term is more of a hyponym: 中國人 (Zhōngguórén), and it specifically means "from China, the country" - as in, a citizen of the People's Republic of China.


Taiwanese who also claim Chinese ethnic identity overwhelmingly refer to themselves as huá rén - only a unificationist or someone actually born in China would call themselves Zhōngguórén.

And yet, in English, both of these terms are translated as "Chinese". It's very confusing, and the Chinese government benefits from the ambiguity - and wants to keep it that way. So much so that it considers all Chinese regardless of citizenship to be primarily Chinese.

This bleeds over into another confusing term: "overseas Chinese". "Overseas Chinese" can be citizens of China who happen to live abroad, or citizens of other countries who emigrated from China, or from other countries with ancestral heritage from China. The Chinese government also benefits from this ambiguity because it makes it easier to defend not only their harassment of Chinese citizens abroad, but their interference in the actions of citizens of other countries (many members of the Chinese Australian community referenced in the pieces above are citizens of Australia, not China).

So, when some know-it-all Dunning-Kruger type says "but the Taiwanese are Chinese!" as though that is a good argument for Taiwan being part of China, he's confusing huá rén (a person of Chinese ancestry, the same way most Americans have ancestry outside the US) and Zhōngguórén (a person from China). Or he's deliberately equivocating: deliberately using the 
huá rén meaning of "Chinese" to convince listeners that Taiwanese are the Zhōngguórén kind of Chinese.

If you're wondering whether this quirk of English translation is intentionally exploited by the Chinese government, well, they equivocate in the exact same way. So yes, it is.

Bring this up, and you might well get some version of "yeah but to be Chinese is a different notion, because of...uh, cultural differences, so the two terms connote more closeness than when Westerners talk about their ethnic backgrounds!"

Except it's not and never has been. First, if it were, there wouldn't be two clearly separate terms for it. Second, ask any Taiwanese what they think of the term 
huá rén and you won't hear that it's similar in meaning to Zhōngguórén. If anything, they'll tell you the opposite. And in order for this "but they are the same" nonsense to have any purchase, the Taiwanese would have to agree with it - and most don't. Otherwise you're just telling people what they should think of their own language and identity. Don't be that person. 

This makes it difficult not only to talk about the parts of Taiwan's cultural heritage which come from China, but for Taiwanese to talk about their ancestry without it being politicized. I'm sympathetic to Taiwanese who don't want to cut off their connection to their Chinese ancestral heritage, and how difficult it is to express that clearly in English without implying that one wants to be a citizen of China, when the two words are the same in English.

And if you're wondering why Singaporeans, Malaysians, Americans and others of Chinese heritage refer to themselves as "Chinese" without hesitation, it's because China's not trying to take over Singapore, Malaysia or the US. They are trying to take over Taiwan. The political implications are simply more dire, and that is not an accident.


"Dialect"

As someone who studies Applied Linguistics, this one has me clawing at the air with rage.

First, forget the stupid adage that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy, or however it goes. That was an off-the-cuff joke by a non-linguist. It explains the political reasons why we have separate "language" names for dialects (e.g. Hindi and Urdu), but linguistically it means nothing.

The labels "language" and "dialect" can only be applied in relation to other languages/dialects. In relation to Urdu, Hindi is a dialect, but in relation to Tamil (which is entirely unrelated), it's a language. American English and Australian English are dialects in relation to each other; in relation to German, each is a language.

Languages are mutually unintelligible. Dialects may sound different and have some different features, but are mutually intelligible.

By that rubric, Minnan (Southern Fujianese) and Taiwanese are dialects of each other. In relation to Mandarin, they are languages. Cantonese is a language in relation to Mandarin. Taiwanese, Mandarin and Cantonese are not mutually intelligible.

But oh look, here comes Dunning-Kruger Guy again, and he took Chinese 101 as an elective in college. "But the Chinese [he means Mandarin] word for them translates to 'dialect'! Hah! I explained it!" 

That's true - in Mandarin, the word 方言 (fāngyán) - as in 地方的語言 or "language of a place" - is translated to “dialect", but the underlying implication is more like 'tongue spoken by people of a nearby [in China] place'. This is entirely a sociopolitical construct: in defining what "is" and "is not" China, the tongues spoken "in" China are more conveniently referred to as "dialects" so as to promote a sense of political unity that helps the leaders of China to maintain control and discourages the formation of unique cultural/national identities within China.

It is very convenient for the Chinese government to refer to Taiwanese, which is intelligible by people from southern Fujian, but nowhere else in China - as a "dialect". It implies that Mandarin speakers can understand Taiwanese...but they can't. It promotes a sense of unity where there is otherwise none. It makes it more difficult to talk about this aspect of Taiwanese identity in English, especially as Mandarin was essentially forced on Taiwan by the KMT's language policies, so that the vast majority of Taiwanese now speak it.

Dunning-Kruger Guy: "But they can understand each other through writing because the writing systems are the same! Nyah!"

Sort of, but no. It's more that Taiwanese doesn't have its own writing system, so Chinese ideographs were adopted in order to write it. In that sense, someone who can read Mandarin can puzzle out some Taiwanese writing, but that doesn't mean they are mutually intelligible, any more than Japanese and Mandarin (two different language families) are mutually intelligible just because one can write Japanese in Chinese ideographs (kanji). What's more, with underlying differences in how the characters are used and how the grammar works, it's not as intelligible as you think.

Don't believe me? Ask a Mandarin-speaking/reading friend who is not from Taiwan and doesn't speak Taiwanese or Minnan what this says:

哩講三小! 恁祖媽係大員郎。

Go ahead, I'll wait.


"...split in 1949"

I'll try to keep this one short - the issue here isn't that it's completely wrong, it's that it leaves out key details that change the entire story.

First, I'm not so sure that the ROC (Republic of China) and the PRC (People's Republic of China) "split" in 1949 so much as the ROC fought a civil war with the Communists; the Communists won, drove out the Nationalists and their ROC government, and formed the PRC. To split, two sides must have once been united, and the ROC and PRC were never united.

It also implies, through omitting the history immediately prior to 1949, that before that date Taiwan and China had been united. For how long? Who knows! The media never says!

It's true that from 1945-1949 the ROC controlled both Taiwan and China after a fashion (I mean for most of that they were in the process of taking over for the Japanese on Taiwan while fighting a progressively more dire civil war in China so they would not have actually controlled both places at the same time for even that long, but let's not nitpick).

But before that, Taiwan was a colony of Japan, and before that, a colonial holding of the Qing. To boil that complicated history down to "split in 1949" makes it easier to write succinctly, but also implants in readers' minds this idea that for a significant period of time before 1949, Taiwan and China were part of the same country. And that is simply not the case. To the point that many people who consider themselves well-versed in international affairs likely don't even know that Taiwan was Japanese, not Chinese, before it became part of the ROC. Why? Because the media rarely mentions it!

And why doesn't the media mention it? In part because it takes up valuable word count, but in part because the "China experts" that the media talk to never bother to emphasize this point. And why would they? It helps China's case that Taiwan is Chinese if the rest of the world conveniently forgets that Taiwan used to be Japanese. 



"Mainland"

I hate to be one of those people, but let's take a quick look at the first dictionary results for the term "mainland":



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The clear connotation of "mainland" just going by these definitions is that it is the main/continental part of a territory, and that outlying islands which are referred to in relation to it are also part of said territory.

By that metric, the only reason to use the phrase "Mainland China" in relation to Taiwan is if you want to imply that China and Taiwan have some sort of territorial relationship, or that Taiwan is a part of China. If you believe they are two sovereign or at least self-ruled entities, it makes no sense at all. In that sense, Taiwan doesn't have a mainland, unless you want to refer to "mainland Asia" (as Taiwan is a part of Asia, but not a part of China - you can also refer to "mainland Asia" in relation to, say, Japan).

So why do people keep saying it? I think partly force of habit - because former president and slightly deformed voodoo doll Ma Ying-jeou was pro-unification (yes he was, and is) and his administration used it, or if one is a journalist, perhaps because everybody else still does for some reason. I'm not sure how people came to believe the word was neutral or apolitical. It's not.

If you are wondering just how political "mainland" is, remember that it is required as a corresponding term to "Taiwan" in Xinhua's style guide, which is a reflection of Chinese government policy (seeing as Xinhua is state-run news, as basically all news in China is).

And yet it's become so ingrained in English discussions about Taiwan that people I know have asked what other option there is to refer to China (like, oh, "China"), and then resist, saying that just calling it "China" is political, but "Mainland" is not, when the opposite is true. That's frankly tiring. 


So if you want to talk about Taiwan exactly the way the Chinese government prefers, by all means use "mainland". I don't know about you, though, but I prefer not to be a useful idiot.


"Status Quo"

The thing about the term "status quo" is that it's not wrong - it describes the situation of Taiwan being de facto independent but not de jure independent.

That said, the status quo as it exists today does allow Taiwan to rule itself. It has sovereignty. From the Taiwanese perspective, it may be said that Taiwan is already independent (if we leave aside the compelling argument that the ROC is a colonial entity and true independence will come the day we formally change to a government of Taiwan).

Yet, when people who don't know Taiwan that well refer to the "status quo", they seem to think it means that Taiwan is in a much more precarious state of limbo - I've met people who genuinely think that Taiwan's current status is "a part of China but wanting independence" (like Xinjiang), or that China has some official say in how things are run here (they don't), or that Taiwan simply doesn't have a government (how would that even work on an island of 23.5 million people?). In any case they don't realize that the 'status quo' effectively renders Taiwan as de facto sovereign.

So if you are wondering why I would say that the Taiwanese favor independence when polls show they favor the status quo, it's because the status quo basically is independence. Considered alongside the fact that there is almost no support for unification, the public will is clear.

I do believe this is somewhat purposeful: while the Chinese media refer to Taiwan as a part of China in their own media, internationally they are quite happy to encourage the misconception that "status quo" means Taiwan does not currently have sovereignty in any form, when in fact it does. 



"One China Policy" 

Last but not least, we have the most misunderstood policy in...quite possibly the history of modern international relations.

A frightening number of laypeople and writers confuse the US's "One China Policy" with China's "One China Principle".

The American "One China policy" (which is not so much a single, formal policy as a set of confusing and ambiguous policy decisions, acts, communiques and official documents) stipulates that there is one government of China. Somewhere in this dizzying array of papers, there's an acknowledgement that people on "both sides" agree that there is "one China" and Taiwan is a part of it (wording that was penned back when the government of Taiwan felt that way, but was a military dictatorship and therefore not representative of the will of the people).

These documents, however, are more of a recognition or acknowledgement of the situation rather than a formal statement about what the US believes vis-a-vis China. That is to say, the US government acknowledges China's position that their territory includes Taiwan, but does not say that the US necessarily agrees (or disagrees) - only that the issue should be settled bilaterally.

Leaving aside the fact that a bilateral solution is not possible, the clearest interpretation of the "One China policy" is that the US takes no formal stance other than that there should be no unilateral moves. That means Taiwan can't unilaterally declare independence, but also that China can't take Taiwan by force.

So why do so many people seem to think that it means "the US believes Taiwan is a part of China"?

First, because China's own "One China Principle" (which does say that Taiwan is Chinese) sounds so similar to the "One China policy" - and there's no way that's unintentional. Of course they want it to be confusing.

Second, because every time someone points out that Taiwan is already self-ruled, and that the US maintains close (unofficial) ties with Taiwan which include arms sales and trade as well as unofficial consulates, a bunch of yahoos butt into the conversation with "but One China Policy! The US says Taiwan is Chinese!"

Some of these are surely Dunning-Kruger Guys, but I suspect a fair number of them are PRC trolls who deliberately muddy the issue and crap all over these conversations, so that we Taiwan advocates spend time fighting with them rather than getting our message out to people who might listen.

Let me repeat: China wants you to think that the US agrees that Taiwan is a part of China, and so it (probably) deliberately gave its own policy a similar name in the hope of confusing you, and is all too happy to let Internet trolls (who may be on its payroll) further obfuscate the truth. 



* * *

It's quite late now and I've just spent my whole evening writing about the deliberate use of language to confuse non-experts into believing half-truths and untruths about Taiwan. Sometimes this is done through exploiting ambiguous translations into English, sometimes through promoting certain word choices and unhitching them, through repeated use, from their political origins. And sometimes through deliberate style choices and other means.

I can only hope the international media will wise up and start reporting on Taiwan and China with more accurate terminology and clearer explanations, but I've got to be honest. Most of the folks writing for said media don't know the region well enough, and I'm not holding my breath.

In the meantime, everyone reading this should take a long look at the language they use to talk about these issues, and start using accurate terms that make Taiwan's case to the world, rather than holding ourselves back with terminology deliberately put in place to make it more difficult for us to do so. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

This whole "English as the second official language" thing

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So you've probably heard that Premier William Lai has promised to make English the "second official language of Taiwan", with the idea that English, being an international language, will help raise Taiwan's visibility and competitiveness.

You may also recall that Lai enacted the same policy when he was governor of Tainan - this is clearly some sort of pet favorite project of his. Of course, if you've been to Tainan, you might notice that English isn't particularly widely-spoken there. That's not a critique of the programs in place, it's an observation from my trips there: the program may be fantastic, but I have not personally noticed a city-wide improvement in English proficiency.

This leads me to wonder whether Lai likes this particular policy because it looks sweeping and potentially transformative, it looks forward-thinking (and specifically focused on a world outside China), but is ultimately toothless. There will be no accountability when language proficiency goals aren't met, which is great for him.

And they will not be met, because the Ministry of Education, at the national level, doesn't know how to set second language proficiency goals that are based in real-world communicative competence. I doubt any study providing reliable data about overall English proficiency in Taiwan will be done.

Hell, forget communicative competence - I'm not even sure scores will go up on the crappy, useless, garbage English exams they've got now.

(Oh, sorry, I should use professional terminology. The tests lack most types of validity, are inauthentic, are so indirect as to be thoroughly unable to measure real-world ability, tend not to test at the discourse level and often don't even make sense.)

I don't mean to imply that I disagree with the general idea of making English a second official language. Many countries have English as one of their official languages, including India, the Philippines and Nigeria. At first glance, it also seems as though these countries do have high(er?) rates of actual English speakers.

That said, those same countries also tend to have a colonial history that is intertwined with English, which Taiwan does not. Generally, English as one of the official languages in those countries happened because of that colonial history, so while there may be correlation, there's no proof of causation. English-medium education in those countries is more likely to exist regardless of official language policy.

I'd still be otherwise on board though: there is a lot of evidence to support the idea of bilingual education, if this is where the policy were going to lead (but it's almost certainly not going to lead there.) A big question in multilingual education is whether policies create learners of languages, or users of languages. I would be strongly supportive of evidence-based, professional-led (as in, actual language teaching and second language acquisition professionals, not ministry officials with general Education degrees) movement towards an English education policy that sought to create users of languages, with assessments and measurements designed accordingly. (Check out the Routledge Handbook of Multilingualism for more on multilingualism in general, including this topic.)

If you want to know why Taiwanese kids study English constantly yet so many can hardly speak it, look right past your folk theories (though some are better than others) and look straight at that. Taiwan as a nation, whether in buxibans or the formal education system, simply does not seek to create language users. Target that, and you've cut the whole damn knot.

That's not likely to happen, however. Even if the programs in place in Tainan are good - and I have it on solid authority that they are, despite a lack of data about their overall effect on English proficiency in the city - national-level obstacles in how language education is viewed in Taiwan will almost certainly make it difficult to roll-out an effective, modern program nationwide.

The overall reliance on exams create absolutely terrible learning benchmarks (benchmarks themselves not necessarily being bad things, it depends on how they are designed and applied). Teacher training, when it is good, can't make up for this due to the pressure to give in to negative washback (I haven't read the material in that link but Kathleen Bailey is reliable, so I feel confident posting it).

The main issue, to my mind, is the overwhelming negative washback of the stressful national high school and university entrance exams. There is already some indication that the exams create a situation where elementary school teachers feel free to implement communicative language teaching (CLT - which is hardly a new concept; it was developed in the 1970s) whereas teachers at the junior high school level and above feel more pressure to teach using older methodologies that they feel better prepare learners for the test (rather than preparing them to actually use English).

If something so mild and mainstream as CLT can't even be successfully implemented nationwide at all grade levels, I don't see how a more innovative curriculum might overcome this obstacle.

This is not a criticism of the teachers themselves. I began my own teacher training career believing teacher training in Taiwan was abysmal; now I've seen enough of their knowledge base and classroom practice I have a more optimistic view. My only gentle critique is that there is a heavy focus on the Applied Linguistics/SLA side of teaching, and not enough on pedagogy/methodology/classroom management and how to apply them.

Others who would have a strong basis of knowledge for evaluating teacher cognition (including their knowledge of how to teach), who have talked to teachers in other contexts in Taiwan, tend to agree: the teachers may well know what they are doing, but there are a lot of barriers to being able to implement their ideas in the classroom.

However, I see no evidence that people in charge of managing language teachers and curricula at the national level know what they are doing, or can handle pushback from more traditionally-minded critics. That's not going to change overnight, and the best-trained teachers in the world will struggle with that hurdle.

On the plus side, multilingualism is not necessarily subtractive - the Taiwanese government got that wrong when they made it illegal for kindergartens to employ foreign teachers (which doesn't necessarily mean the same as not allowing English to be taught in them; I can't find any sort of law against that, but that was certainly what they were going for). The government assumed English would be subtractive and take away from local identity, when it never had to be that way.

Learning a second language at any stage - even at the stage where it could be a second native language, or L1 - doesn't take anything from knowledge of one's other L1. It may take a little longer for both native tongues to develop fully, with a long intermediary "interlanguage" stage, but research clearly shows there is no adverse long-term effect. (For more on this, I recommend Lightbown and Spada's How Languages Are Learned).

If adding English as an "official language" does not have to be subtractive to local languages, then wouldn't it be additive? As in, gaining an additional skill on top of the linguistic competencies one would gain simply being born and raised Taiwanese? Research does show that additive environments produce more successful learning outcomes. I would hope so, but I do question why English is prioritized for "official" status over Taiwanese Hokkien, Hakka or any indigenous languages as languages actually spoken natively in Taiwan. It's hard to make the case for English being an additive rather than subtractive language competency when it is being pushed to the forefront ahead of other neglected local languages. That's close to the definition of what it means to be subtractive!

A final thought: there will be people complaining about this policy as "linguistic imperialism" - I see where they're coming from, but I take a more, let's say, postmodern view. Modernism states that English can only be introduced as a language in a colonial or postcolonial context exploitatively: that it is always subtractive, never additive, and always seeks to overlay this new identity of "English speaker who therefore conforms to Western/Inner Circle norms" onto whatever original culture exists in any given place.

Look...sure. But Taiwan isn't some poor postcolonial backwater exploited by the West - it's a developed democracy exploited by China (where the idea of Mandarin as an official language originated!) If anything, Mandarin is more of a linguistically imperialist language to have as an 'official language' than English!

Taiwan, rather, tends to use English in an 'appropriative' way: those who really learn it want to learn it so they can use it to their own ends, to meet their own goals. Those goals might be as lofty as disseminating a message - perhaps writing an op-ed for the Washington Post about Taiwanese identity - or as workaday as advancing in a chosen career. Taiwanese use of English is far more in line with a postmodern, World Englishes or English as a Lingua Franca model of second language use than a "linguistic imperialism" model.

So, there ya go. This could work - it could be a great idea. We could come together to create a language learning paradigm that created users of English rather than just learners. We could torpedo the language exams, because they are useless trash. We could turn English into something additive to Taiwanese culture - and use it as yet another way to differentiate Taiwan from China.

But we won't, and Taiwan will probably suffer for it. Whatever might have caused the disconnect between Tainan's attempts to implement innovative English curricula and my anecdotal observation that proficiency has not improved, it likely exists at the national level as well and will cause the same problems.

Even now, I notice it is difficult for my students to effectively talk to foreigners (they generally get better after they work with me). Many have expressed a desire to promote Taiwan abroad. Some are actively trying to do this, or hoping to, but they come up against their own language competency limits, and get discouraged. It takes longer to communicate effectively when this happens, and people just don't have the time. As a result, the 'case for Taiwan', the soft power of the Taiwanese people themselves, never quite makes it out of the larval stage. And I see little to suggest that Lai's grand vision for English is going to help those who want to grow wings, because there is no indication that there is a plan to overcoming the obstacles it will face.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Crazy, Rich Nations

IMG_6812
Original photo from Wikimedia Commons
(to be fair this movie has actually made me want to return to Singapore, but mostly for the food)


You probably think I'm writing in to comment on Crazy Rich Asians because it's a cultural moment and it'll be good traffic for Lao Ren Cha. I'm not - I don't expect this will even be one of the more popular posts. I just have some thoughts on the movie and I'd like to share them.


It took me a few hours, because my mind was completely cleaned out by Henry Golding's golden washboard abs, but I'm over it now* so here we are.

Let me get one thing out of the way first: I really liked the movie, so let's talk about that first. If you don't care, scroll through a few paragraphs to get to my concerns. 

Why did I like it? Because despite some Chinese viewers thinking it "presents a stereotypical view of Asians" to Western audiences, I actually think it smashes these stereotypical views.

I can assure you, of my friends and family who have never been to Asia, very few of them think that Asians live like the Crazy Rich Asians. Most of them think "Asian" and they think "poor and full of gongs" or something. You know, like:


1024px-Phra_Ajan_Jerapunyo-Abbot_of_Watkungtaphao.
from Wikimedia Commons


Maybe with a dragon or some "ancient Chinese art of kung fu" thrown in. But definitely poor. To many Westerners, only the West is rich.

I am also reasonably sure a large percentage of people I know back home think that the only reason I don't live in a straw hut in a rice paddy and wear a conical hat to work is because I live in a city, which they might well imagine as some cement buildings scattered among the straw huts.

So, y'know, I'm actually happy to see a representation of Asia that doesn't look like the only people who live there are rice farmers or monks and their only purpose outside Asia is to run Asian restaurants and dispense religious wisdom to white protagonists. I live in a pretty developed country in a continent that, for much (but not all) of its breadth, is developed. It's about time the West woke up and realized that. Asians are not all still-suffering victims of Western imperialism (in Taiwan and elsewhere, there are currently-suffering victims of Chinese imperialism, but I'll get to that.) Much of Asia really is criss-crossed by ultra-wealthy families, many of whom claim Chinese ancestry, and all of whom know each other.


To imply otherwise is to say "what? but don't you like gongs and monks? Why are you wearing Versace? Don't you have some traditional robes? Don't let the white man force you out of the rice paddy!"

Which...barf.  


It's also about time they woke up and realized that Asia can't be described with a single word (like "collectivist" or "Confucian" or "ancient") - there are good, decent, down-to-earth people (like Astrid and Colin) and selfish jerks (like Eddie and Amanda), and people who think they are good and decent and self-sacrificing who are in fact kind of selfish (like Eleanor, in a way). You know, like everywhere else in the world.

I also liked it because, while people are writing about how it pits Western and Asian values (does it, though? I'll get to that too), I find it plays with the fundamental rightness of feminist values, and how they can exist in any cultural setting, adjusted to the needs and goals of women in any given culture. When I think "family values", even in an Asian context, I think "values that lift up everyone in the family, with everyone negotiating, cooperating, giving and receiving for the benefit of all, including women", not "women must always sacrifice for the family". That's a feminist value that can exist in Asia - Rachel even references those words in reference to a game of mahjong!

And I'm fine with it being called Crazy Rich Asians even though it's really only about "ethnic Chinese" - a good book needs a snappy title and Crazy Rich Overseas Chinese in Singapore...isn't. It's not a National Geographic documentary, after all. (Anyway those seem to skew toward the poverty and gongs, too - all the stuff Westerners like to feel both guilty over and enchanted by. Not a real place full of real, mostly normal people.) It's not about "Singapore" or "diverse Asia". It's about a group of crazy, rich and crazy rich people. Can't it just be that? Can't something be set in Asia and feature an Asian cast and be about something other than social justice?

I liked it despite the criticisms I've heard from some media and my social-justice oriented friends: that it only shows one kind of Asian (the only dark-skinned or even non-Chinese Asians we see are working in service positions), that despite it not being scheduled to open in China, that it presents a problematic pro-China orientation and presents a view of Chineseness that is frighteningly close to Communist Party ideology - an idea I'll quote from liberally in a moment - that of course it ignores deeper issues of inequality in Singapore.

Or, as my husband joked on the way home, "I'm happy now that we know what the inside of a typical Singaporean home looks like, since we have always stayed in hotels on our trips there!"

All of these things are true, and I can't wholly ignore them. They are very real:

From Kirsten Han writing for the Hong Kong Free Press (linked above and again here):


The Young family, for example, sit around and make jiaozi, a dumpling from northern China that’s unlikely to be part of the traditions of a long-established Chinese Singaporean family, since most of the Chinese who came to Singapore came from the southeastern coast.

It’s also odd that Nick Young’s grandmother, the elderly matriarch of the family, speaks perfect Mandarin, while the women one generation below her speak Cantonese—in real life, it’s far more likely to be the other way around, especially given the Singapore government’s efforts to restrict the use of dialects and promote Mandarin.


and:


On her trip, Rachel Chu learns the difference between the Asian American and Asian experience. But there isn’t an “Asian experience”, per se. It’s not as simple as East versus West, as the symbolism of the film’s mahjong game suggests. Even within tiny Singapore, we see diverging Chinese experiences every day. If anything, it’s the Chinese Communist Party in the People’s Republic of China that seeks to obscure these differences in their efforts to engender feelings of sympathy or even loyalty to the party through the idea of racial unity.


YUP. Hey Westerners - did you know that was a thing? It totally is.

This is echoed in Catherine Chou's piece in The News Lens (also linked above and here):


Repressive government initiatives to solidify Mandarin as the region’s common tongue have been so successful in Singapore, Taiwan, and China that Hokkien and Cantonese are now routinely mistaken in popular culture as mere dialects of Mandarin.

Mandarin thus functions in the movie just as it does in government policies: as an artificial marker of class and sophistication. Cantonese, and especially Hokkien, are used as signifiers of marginality and lower status.


Holy fishguts, this is spot on.

This isn't only a problem in Singapore - it's also a deep social divide in Taiwan. For a few generations now, the KMT colonizers (yes, colonizers) have promoted Mandarin as the lingua franca of Taiwan, a country they believe is "a part of China" but which a.) isn't, b.) fuck you, KMT and c.) was never a place where Mandarin was a native tongue, before it was forced on the Taiwanese. To do this, they not only made it punishable in some circumstances to speak Taiwanese Hokkien (and caused one to be 'under suspicion' in others), but made it so that Mandarin was the language of the upper classes, with Hokkien being the language of "ignorant farmers" (無知農夫). The language of the gauche. The language of the excluded.

And believe me, the point has always been to explicitly exclude. How do you get people who speak a totally different language, and who might rebel, to accept you as their sovereign masters? Make 'em think their language is merely a coarse dialect of the common tongue you share, and you are the learned scholars who have come to educate them in your common tongue's purer, better form. 


In the film, the good-hearted, nouveau riche Gohs (who, in their kindness, though perhaps not in their campier qualities, remind me of Taiwan a little) speak Hokkien, and are excluded from "society". The posh, old money Youngs should speak Cantonese, but instead speak Mandarin. Peik Lin points out the 'class' differences explicitly, but Western audiences aren't likely to notice the linguistic ones.

This leads to another concern I have: Taiwan is mentioned in Crazy Rich Asians, but it's always a sidebar. China gets a not-quite-appropriate quote at the beginning of the film (a point that Kirsten Han made in HKFP), Singapore gets the "Lives of the Rich and Famous" treatment: Taiwan, on the other hand, is portrayed as just another place where rich Chinese might live and do business with other Chinese - despite it being qualitatively different not just culturally, but economically. Taiwan isn't Singapore or Hong Kong - it's not rich and shiny. It's not a waking dragon like China. It is remarkably unpretentious and down-to-earth. Even its shiniest district - Xinyi - is only a little shiny, and not really at all glitzy.

I like it that way, but it does spell out for me the differences between "countries that cooperate with Chinese cultural imperialism" and "countries that tell China to eat it". And, as a smart friend of mine recently wrote in a paper you will almost certainly never read, a key difference between who can have a close relationship with the PRC and who must be suspicious of them and look for other options is whether or not China respects that country's borders. China and Singapore can be close, because China isn't threatening to invade it. Taiwan must be wary, and so Taiwan is shoved eternally, unfairly to the sidelines.

So, Singapore can sign on to this movie that promotes a certain ideal of "Chineseness" within its borders if it wants to. Singaporeans of Chinese heritage can call themselves Chinese, if they want, and claim common cultural roots with Chinese people in China. The movie clearly portrays those roots inaccurately, but Singapore isn't going to lose its sovereignty over it.

But there is no room for Taiwan as it is in the Chinese world of Crazy Rich Asians: it can try to claim its place as part of the "family", which many in Taiwan would like to do given their ancestral roots in China. But that means being eaten alive by the Communist Party's insistence that being Chinese means you are a part of China, are loyal to China the CCP and follow certain cultural prescriptions decided by China the CCP. Or, it can deny its links to China and Chinese cultural heritage, but always feel a sense of exclusion.

The CCP has, like Eleanor Young, made it so there is no winning hand for Taiwan: it can't turn away from the "Chinese" cultural roots that many would like to claim without being kicked out of the "family", but it can't claim its place at the table without being subsumed by China.


It's also worth noting that the values touted as "Asian" in the film were common in the West just a few generations ago - they're not "Asian", they're..."traditional". Therefore, the values that eventually stand up to "traditional" ones in the film aren't "Western", they're "modern". 

Considering this, even if there were a way for Taiwan to win this game, in the version of "Asia" that Eleanor (though not necessarily the movie as a whole) puts forward where "Asian" is (falsely) conflated with "traditional", there is no room to be both Asian and liberal/progressive. If "Asian values" include self-sacrifice, choosing family and duty over love and a whole pallet of misogyny, where the gay cousin is accepted - but not entirely (the actor who plays Oliver Tsien says of the character, "he knows he’s an outsider in his own family just by being queer") - 
where is the space for an Asian country like Taiwan that has, say, decided to enshrine marriage equality into law, has a strong social movement culture and actually attempts (though not always with success) to enforce gender equality laws in the workplace?

In short, in the version of Asia that Crazy Rich Asians puts forward, where traditional values are accepted unanimously by all, where does a country like Taiwan fit in? It's almost as if certain other, larger, crazier, richer nations don't want that country to exist at all...


So...I liked the movie. It was fun. It was well-made and well-acted. It was more thoughtful than a romantic comedy needs to be. It's a breakthrough moment for portrayals of Asian characters in film.

But I also...didn't. Because the portrayals of what it means to be "Chinese" in it are entirely the brainchild of a crazy, rich nation. And even if it wanted into this 'family' of Chineseness, Taiwan would always be rebellious, gay cousin Oliver. Though far less accepted for who she is.

Western academics and commentators love to point out that overarching cultural narratives are usually promulgated by the most powerful members of a group, and exclude the least powerful. We've become good at spotting this in our own cultural contexts: what it means to be American is projected as a white person's view of Americanness, what it means to be a businessperson is a male view of business culture, the notion of what "romance" means is a straight one, etc.

It's about time they realized that this happens in Asia too, and what it means to be "Chinese" or even "Asian" is a narrative that the Chinese government is actively trying to control - and of course, they are the ones with power. And money. Also, they (the government) are freakin' insane.

*not really over it, but I'm still fundamentally a Freddy Lim girl

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Yes, we DO love Hakka

As a child, when I'd go to large family get-togethers, my older relatives would take over a part of the living room, sitting on older chairs, to talk about the old days, in the Old Country. They spoke an extremely old language, the last to survive on its branch of Indo-European.

I didn't understand Western Armenian then, and I don't now. To me, it sounded like a series of guttural scrapes and growls strung together with something that was not quite Russian but also not quite Turkish (I later learned that it was on a completely different branch from Russian, and not related at all to Turkish - it just had a lot of Turkish borrowings given our family's Anatolian history).

One by one, those messengers from the Old Country died, including the last person from the generation that survived the genocide. Only my grandfather and great aunt (whom I haven't seen since 2000) were left. And then my grandfather recently passed away as well.

Grandpa didn't just not teach his children Armenian, he actively refused to do so. We were close and I loved him dearly, but that is the truth. When he moved to America he made himself as American as he could possibly be, and that included speaking English and having children who spoke it too. He didn't even like talking about his early years in Athens. He did such a good job that you wouldn't have known English wasn't his first - or even his second - language unless he told you, which he wasn't likely to do.

I never understood what it was I'd lost by not learning Armenian until I went to Turkey (and later to Armenia), passing through the ancestral hometowns of both my great grandfather and grandmother in the deep south, around Tarsus and Hatay. I lost a connection to the Armenians still there, only some of whom spoke English. I lost all of the details of the stories I'd learned as a child - about the genocide, the resistance on Musa Dagh, all the personal bits. Not just the cultural stories, but the personal details that involved my actual relatives. My grandpa didn't like talking about it, and my great grandmother died before I cultivated an interest (and there was a language barrier, as well). The stone engravings on the Armenian church in Vakifli. The old songs, which I could understand translations of but not really understand.

I come back to this thought periodically as I have experiences in Taiwan. The friend who couldn't really converse with her grandmother, because she'd never learned Hakka. The students who all spoke Taiwanese natively, but who were not actively teaching it to their children (and, as a result, the children were not learning it). Reading Rose Rose I Love You, and not getting all the jokes because I was reading it in a language other than the one it was written in. The translator did an excellent job explaining all of the wordplay, referencing and language-based jokes, but it wasn't the same as natively just "getting it". I imagine that if I see Tshiong in theaters, which I am planning to do, I'll feel similarly.

This mirrors my entire relationship to Taiwan. I have lived here for some time, but a lot of the references and in-jokes have to be explained to me. I don't speak Taiwanese natively and never will (even if I come to speak it well, which frankly is also unlikely), so I'll never just get it on a molecular level.

Imagine my disappointment, then, when I read this, um, questionable editorial in the News Lens about "letting Hakka go". Perhaps Eryk Smith is a "member of the tribe" by marriage - sure, fine - although I did wonder why, then, he'd reference lei cha as something Hakka. Every Hakka I know points to it as an invention for tourists. In any case, I'm not sure being married to a Hakka quite gives one enough credentials to speak for all Hakka people.

Anyway, that doesn't matter much. What does matter is that every point he makes goes against everything I know as a child of the Armenian diaspora and also as a kinda-sorta off-brand linguist.

There are some arguments in favor of cutting off the funding allocated to preserving Hakka - as a friend pointed out on Facebook:

The Hakka community gets a disproportionate amount of budget because they are traditionally “Blue” and a swing vote in many areas of Taiwan, which is why there’s budget for “we love Hakka” on ICRT, but not something actually useful to the foreign community like “we love Hoklo”. 
“Let it die” is too strong. Change it to “lose the pork” and I’m on board.


I agree - it doesn't need all the pork it gets (for the wrong reasons). But that doesn't mean we shouldn't preserve it. Do you know what doesn't cost a lot of money? Early childhood immersion programs and, later on, CLIL (content and language integrated learning). The curricula for these already exist - it's the courses students already take. They'd just be taught in Hakka. And what does that produce? Native speakers of Hakka who also have other native languages such as Mandarin, Taiwanese or even English.

In any case, saying it's fine not to pass on language as cultural heritage hurts to read - down to the cells, it hurts - because I am a product of that "who cares, it's a bad investment, let it die" attitude to language learning, and it was to my detriment.

First of all, any sociolinguist or even TESOL specialist (I can call myself the latter, perhaps not the former) will tell you that culture and language are linked, though not always inextricably so. If you lose a language, you lose something intangible but real and irretrievable about its culture. As Kumaravadivelu notes of Wierzbicka in Cultural Globalization and Language Education, "Culture-specific words...are conceptual tools that reflect a society's past experience of doing and thinking about things in certain ways; and they may help to perpetuate these ways."

While Wierzbicka goes on to say that these tools may be "modified or discarded" and do not make up the sum of a cultural or social outlook, there is a clear connection.

While this ability to adapt and discard may be true of Taiwanese society as a whole, by losing these words, we lose a sense of conception and culture unique to Hakka society, just as my family has lost its ability to relate to certain Armenian cultural concepts - and just as I was never given the chance to gain it.

Simply put, you cannot teach "cultural history" and "stories" in any language you like - or rather, you can, but you inevitably lose something. By teaching Hakka stories in Taiwanese, Mandarin or English, you lose some ways of thinking about these stories unique to Hakka. You lose what makes them whole. What you have is just a story on paper, from a culture you no longer know natively. You lose the textures, the cadences, the topography of cultural heritage - the things that make old stories alive, relevant and linked to who you are. Lin Shao-mao is a character in a story in Mandarin, Taiwanese or English. He's typed up. Flat on a page. Black-on-white, maybe with some pictures. He's a part of who you are as a people in Hakka.

In English, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh - a part of my cultural heritage - is a book I can read. It means something, but it lacks psychological topography. This hymn in Armenian (this is a video I took earlier this year in a monastery outside Yerevan) is beautiful, but because I can't understand it in any way, it lacks certain textures that I might have otherwise understood. Natively.

As language preservationists will also point out, the value of preserving a language is not in how "useful" it is, or the return on investment it provides, but in retaining that connection, those ideas from the past that cannot be fully rendered in another language. You don't save a language based on how many people speak it, you save it for the unique knowledge it contains. Not everybody has a capitalist view of language learning, in which only the languages with the highest ROI are learned - some people are after something a little more thoughtful and a little less cold.

I mean, I didn't marry Brendan because he was "a good investment" (although I could argue that he was, depending on how you define "investment"). I married him because I love him. I don't try to pick up Taiwanese because it's a good investment. I do it because I love Taiwan. Sometimes you do things simply because you love them.

In any case, is it not a good investment to understand the cultural connections inherent in the language of your ancestors, that no other language can fully convey? Someday, I'd like to learn Western Armenian. It's a terrible "investment" in terms of usefulness, compared to Chinese, Arabic, Spanish or even Turkish - but it's a great investment if I want to fully understand some of the intangibles of my heritage.

And, as language teachers will point out, there is a way to ensure that Hakka continues to exist without putting older children and young adults through pointless language classes: learning it natively. Although there is a lot to be criticized about the "critical period hypothesis", as Lightbown and Spada point out in How Languages Are Learned, they and others do acknowledge that research has not yet found a limit to the number of languages one can learn natively. If that government budget were spent ensuring that very young children learned Hakka as a first language, alongside Mandarin and perhaps Taiwanese (and perhaps even English), it wouldn't be a drain on young people's time. It would just come naturally.

There is truly no need to argue about this - although leave it to the Taiwanese government to screw up language education - language teaching theory has more or less settled it. It is no longer one of the Great Questions.

Finally, as I hope Eryk Smith surely knows, if some people pick up "a working knowledge" of Hakka from their grandparents, but then do not teach it to their children, Hakka won't continue to be a minority language. Nobody is trying to make Hakka the primary language of Taiwan - that will never happen. It won't exist at all, however, if nobody teaches it to their children.

And then we'll have lost something indeed. I wonder how many great-grandchildren who never learned Hakka will make the trip back to Miaoli or Meinong or Beipu or even Yangmei, just as I did on Musa Dagh, and sigh not only at what they'd lost, but what their short-sighted ancestors never allowed them to gain. 

Friday, May 22, 2009

Dai Gi

As most of us know, the Taiwanese language and the local language of southern Fujian (Minnanhua) are almost identical. In Chinese class - I'll post a nice long rant about that later, suffice it to say that I'm a bit fed up with the Mandarin Training Center - my teacher consistently calls Taiwanese "Minnanhua" and everywhere you turn people will testify that they are the same language.

Fair enough. For most purposes, they are. But I posit that "for most purposes" is not quite as comprehensive as it should be, and that Taiwanese is a dialect of Minnanhua...related to it, and more or less the same language, but not exactly. Rather like Indian English, which is, of course, "English" - but who reading this has been to India and can testify that Indian English is sounding the same as American English, only? People are speaking it quite differently isn't it? If you want to be communicating pukka Indian English, of course you have to be changing-changing a few leetle things, only, so it is not same. So then you are having New Yark people or all people in USA speaking in one kind of English only and Mumbai desi speaking other kind.

Now I'm no linguist, but perhaps someday I'd like to be (to be posted forthwith on my rant about Shi-da, the reasons why I'm equally likely to get an MA in Linguistics as I am in Chinese at this point). I don't even speak Taiwanese well...just a few phrases here and there, and the names of lots of food, because food is the ultimate bonding agent between new friends. Food and alcohol. The Chinese and Taiwanese understand this, hence the term jiu-rou pengyou ("liquor-meat friends" - friends who are more 'buddies' that you go drinking with, but wouldn't necessarily confide in).

Even someone like me, however, with a very limited knowledge of, well, stuff, can point out loads of differences between Dai-gi and Minnanhua. The first is the most obvious - if the accent of Taiwanese speakers as well as the slang used changes between Taipei and Kaohsiung (and it does - my Taiwanese-speaking friends from both cities have confirmed this), then how can one possibly expect it to be the same between Taiwan and southern Fujian? From student reports, the difference is minimal - the difference, maybe, between American English and British English. Some words and phrases are different and the accent is quite varied but they're generally mutually understandable.

The next point is a little less obvious, but still quite true: Taiwanese has a plethora of vocabulary that is quite different from that of Minnanhua. Huge swaths of even the most basic vocabulary for everyday communication is completely different. By completely different, I mean from an entirely different language. The most basic subsets of Dai-gi vocabulary do not come from Fujian; they come from Japan.

Here's just a short list of the ones I've discovered so far (some of which were brought to my attention by my friend Joseph, whose Taiwanese is better than mine...for now):

Dai-fu - doctor
Sian-si / Sian-sei - Teacher (from "sensei", which one student says came from "xiansheng"...?)
neku tai'u - necktie, from English via Japanese
hinoki - redwood, clearly from Japanese...the Japanese loved consuming the cypress tree resources of Taiwan
obasan - an older woman, also from Japanese

I could see the argument that having a few vocabulary words borrowed from Japanese makes no difference in the relatedness of Taiwanese and southern Fujianese...and indeed in terms of basic structure or language family lineage, it doesn't. Just like English isn't any more closely related to French than it was when it evolved simply because we borrowed a bunch of words from it.

However, I'd also note that English is a decidedly different language from a lot of languages spoken across northern Europe (most strikingly, Icelandic, which apparently is closer to Old English than the English we speak now is) and one for that is the sheer weight of word borrowings from other languages. There's also the fact that the words that come from Japanese seem to be the most basic vocabulary - we're not talking high-falutin' words or 'elite' or 'literary' terms (the way Korean borrows a lot of Chinese), we're talking words like "doctor", "teacher" and "old lady".

Seems to me that this makes a pretty good case for Minnanhua and Dai-gi to be dialects, not identical languages. But like I said, I'm no Linguist.