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Celebrating Non-Standard Language Varieties in Taiwan

Taiwan, a small island territory off of China, has a large population, made up mostly of Chinese descendants. This is where I teach English as a foreign language. The people of this island do speak several different regional dialects as well as different languages. Most of the people in Taiwan, approximately 98 percent, belong to the Han ethnic group (Taiwan GOVERNMENT OFFICE). Mandarin Chinese is the standard language variety. It is the language of instruction in schools, the language spoken outside homes and villages, and the language which dominates all forms of media, such as television, radio, and print. Although the Mandarin variety is the official language, about 73 percent of the people in Taiwan speak both Mandarin and Taiwanese, a variety of Chinese (Taiwan GOVERNMENT OFFICE). Most of the aboriginal tribes in Taiwan still speak their native languages as well as Mandarin Chinese. These native languages, unlike Taiwanese, are not derived from Mandarin Chinese but from the Proto-Austronesian language family (Taiwan GOVERNMENT OFFICE). Instruction in schools, as mentioned above, is given in Mandarin Chinese. English however is the preferred second language and is widely taught throughout the formal education system.

The Taiwanese education system is beginning to undergo a shift in the approach to its values of language and the instruction thereof. The sociological values and importance of language differences are slowly becoming recognized. However, the education system in Taiwan has yet to embrace linguistic differences. The system has undergone several changes in the past few decades in order to assist learning. Attitudes towards such variants of language held by people, teachers and students alike, however, are slow to change. The Taiwan education system must adapt Richmond’s (1986) recommendation which calls for an educational approach where students and teachers alike, are taught about non-standard language varieties in order to create student motivation, encourage creative thinking, bolster pride in their socio-ethnic background, and create eagerness in regards to attaining literacy in Standard English.

Richmond (1986) describes teaching about a language as ‘…a way of giving our pupils reasons for the celebration of variety in language’. Taiwan, historically has taught only standard language varieties. The teaching of the standard variety favours those who speak that variety. At the same time, it ‘diminishes all the other varieties and competing norms and those who use those varieties’ (Wardhaugh, 2002:30). Therefore, as theorized by Wardhaugh (2002), the ‘…chosen norm inevitably becomes associated with power and the rejected alternatives with lack of power’. This can be observed in the social structure of classrooms in Taiwan. I have observed this kind of social structure displayed in classrooms by students, even as early elementary school or at kindergarten levels. Students replying to the teacher in the non-standard variety are quickly associated with a less educated or an economically poor background. The non-standard variety of language is not celebrated, but stigmatized. The standardization process of the language norm further separates people into socially identifiable groups, those with prestige and those without (Wardhaugh, 2002:337). I have observed students in classrooms who can answer the teacher quickly using the standard language variety. They can do so because this is their native language. Other students upon hearing what the teacher has spoken must translate the sentence into their native dialect or language and then back into the standard variety, a time consuming process. These students are not seen as ‘more’ intelligent because they have the ability to translate languages quickly, but are identified as unintelligent because they cannot answer the questions as quickly as the others. The education system in Taiwan must embrace other language varieties whole-heartedly if students are to feel any type of pride in their natural speech or if they are to gain equality in the education system. If the students who speak the standard variety were asked questions in the non-standard variety, they would have a slower reaction time. If this were brought up in class, it would add a sense of pride and accomplishment for the other students.

At present, some elective courses are offered in non-standard forms of language in high schools. These courses are usually taken by students whom already speak the language so that they can easily receive a high mark. The Taiwanese education system is highly competitive so such high marks are difficult to obtain in other courses. The general academic population however, do not usually attend such courses. They feel that there is no need for studying a language which holds lower prestige. The major benefits of learning a non-standard variety of speech are all but lost. The education of such language varieties needs to be presented in normal classroom situations for the full effect to be realized. This way, all students will understand the importance of language variety and gain further understanding of language structures. This will increase the prestige non-standard varieties hold as well as giving students who speak non-standard varieties a sense of pride. The students can also excel at tasks which other students whose first language is of the major variety, cannot. These students will also gain an understanding of the workings of non-standard varieties, not to mention an increased knowledge about the workings one’s own language.

Currently in Taiwan, students whom speak minority dialects or languages outside the home often face negative attitudes towards their native speech. These negative attitudes are carried from the public or educational setting into the home and often internalized by the student. Being a foreign English teacher in Taiwan I have found that minority languages of Taiwan are generally viewed as inadequate, substandard and speakers of those languages to be inferior as opposed to those who speak Mandarin Chinese. Within the classroom setting, many students are pressured into using Mandarin Chinese as if it were their first or native language. Recently, I have noticed that students for whom Mandarin Chinese is not their first language are often the target of ridicule. Many of the teachers in the school view minority languages as lesser forms of communication not realizing the benefits of the languages and how students may profit from their usage.
While teaching, I have found that students who are instructed to think of answers to questions in their native language tend to be more creative than those who are forced use the second language. Many times, when teachers elicit answers from students, they require the students to reply in the target language, thus forcing the student to use their limited second language vocabulary. The answers given in this context are not creative, nor are they helping the student. When students are asked to give answers in their native language, they are more creative because they are able to use a larger variety of words and create meaning which is more specific to their original thought. The answer may then be translated to the target language and the students increase their target language vocabulary because they are not regurgitating words already learnt. As well as introducing new vocabulary to the students, the students are learning about their ‘ideas’ or ‘concepts in the target language, thus creating interest and motivation. When students are learning vocabulary from books or the teacher, all learning is focused on the ‘instruction’ rather than the students’ needs. When the instructor focuses on the students and allows them to communicate in their native language, it adds prestige to the use of that language, allows the student to be more creative with language, learn new vocabulary, as well as creating a level learning environment which does not favour any particular social group.

Trudgill (1994:2) states that “…it is the mark of a civilized society that it tolerates different dialects just as it tolerates different races, religions and sexes”. This view however, is inadequate. Taiwan has ‘tolerated’ different ethnic groups, religions and political views for several decades. This has not lead to an educational system which is free from prejudice. Teachers still insist that the teaching of, the use of, or the incorporation of minority languages in class are nothing more than a waste of time. Instruction in the standard language, Mandarin Chinese, is deemed as necessary for the students to realize their future goals if they want to exist in the general society. The negative aspects of instruction in non-standard dialects or languages are considered illegitimate as they only pertain to a minority of students. The students whom first language is a non-standard language or dialect is seen as gaining from the standard language variety of instruction because the instruction will allow them to continue their studies at a higher level, such as a college or university. This general view is false. If non-standard varieties are brought into the classroom, everyone will benefit. Those who speak it will no longer feel removed from the general population. Also, those who do not speak it will be able to critically analyze the differences between languages heightening their understanding of language variety.

The impact (backwash) of this type of teaching on society is relatively high. Students in Taiwanese society are taught from an early age to respect the views of teachers, to hold them in high regard. If teachers encourage the use of non-standard dialects and languages, the benefits are far reaching. Students feel a heightened sense of pride in their cultural background and pass on the feeling to their family and community. Instead of shunning such views, teachers who incorporate non-standard languages in their teachings will give students a chance to celebrate linguistical differences. Many of these non-standard languages are not viewed as languages by the teachers, students or even the communities themselves. They are perceived as variations on the standard language and only used by their community. When these varieties are introduced as varieties and not ‘bastardizations’, legitimacy is gained.

Such behaviour is far reaching. Students whose first language is a non-standard language or dialect often receive ridicule from students and teachers alike. In general, Taiwanese classrooms are typically large, with upwards of fifty students per class. Any embarrassment a student feels is multiplied because of the large audience which focuses on it. Such students will seldom venture out to participate in class for fear of such ridicule. The students’ studies are often undermined by the affects of the ridicule. A student does not even have to be the focus of the misguided attention to be affected by it. By simply watching others endure such prejudices, is enough to cause students to remain silent. Fluency in the target language is dependent the amount it is used, therefore students whom remain silent are not receiving equal instruction and find it difficult to obtain their goals.

In order to create an open, unprejudiced learning environment in Taiwan, teachers must be educated in the values of non-standard languages and dialects. ‘Toleration’ is not adequate for instructional purposes. To ‘tolerate’ something is to ‘put up with it’. It is not viewed in a positive light nor is it accepted into society. To celebrate something is to embrace it, learn all it has to offer, and enjoy the benefits derived from its use. While teaching in Taiwan, I have found it useful to include grammar usages from the students’ native language, be it of a standard or non-standard variety. Showing the differences in grammatical usages, causes the students to recognize and understand the usage of grammar in the target language. When this is realized, the student no longer applies their native language grammar to the target language usage. For one to understand fully the workings of a second language, one must be able to distinguish the grammatical structure from their own first language.

Students in Taiwan who use non-standard forms of languages seldom feel proud of their language. This lack of pride has a backwash effect into their community. For students to be able to achieve the same standards which speakers of standard language varieties, they must first overcome feelings of inadequacy brought on by the usage of their native tongue. Often students’ abilities are equated with their language use. Students whom use non-standard varieties of language are thus perceived as less intelligent than their fellow classmates.

Taiwanese schools have traditionally treated non-standard language varieties as merely sloppy and incorrect, not as evidence of skills and knowledge that the children can build on. The Taiwanese government proposed a new instructional plan that would assist children in learning standard Chinese by giving them a chance to study separately from other students. Once the students have received the proper amount of instruction on the Mandarin language, in their native language, they are introduced back into mainstream education. This approach does not promote pride in one’s language but points it out as a handicap which must be defeated and further isolates the student as well as stigmatizing them. This problem focuses on the students’ inability to communicate with the Mandarin speaking teachers as opposed to the teachers’ inability to communicate with the students. Thus, the onus is placed on the students to assimilate with the majority. For fear of being stigmatized, many students hid the facts of their socio-cultural backgrounds so that they would not be placed in such programs. The teaching of non-standard varieties of languages is seen as a tool to help the disadvantaged, not as a control to level the instructional playing field. All major subjects in Taiwanese schools are taught in Mandarin or English, even the instruction for native languages is taught in Mandarin. Until major subjects can be taught in the non-standard languages, the students who use such languages will be stigmatized, be inhibited from learning and marginalized from general society. All students will perceive that non-standard language varieties are of little value and importance. Once the educational system of Taiwan embraces and celebrates its non-standard languages and dialects, students will understand the value and importance these languages hold. Then, they will feel pride in their heritage and culture.

Works Cited

Richmond, J. (1986) The language of Black children and the language debate in the schools. IN D. Sutcliffe and A. Wong (eds) The language of Black Experience (pp. 123-135). Oxford: Blackwell

Siegel, J. 1999. Creole and minority dialects in education: An overview. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 20, 508-531.

Trudgill (1994) Dialects [Electronic Version]. Language Workbooks.

Wardhaugh, Ronald. An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. 4th ed. Cambridge: Blackwell, 2002.

Wikipedia: The free encyclopedia. (2007, March 21). FL: Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Retrieved March 21, 2006, from

Written by Aubrey Neil Leveridge for September 2008
Aubrey Neil Leveridge has a Masters of Education from Australia and is presently a teacher and lecturer.

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