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Taiwan: Draft Legislation on Indigenous Language Protection

(Dec. 3, 2015) On November 26, 2015, the Executive Yuan (Cabinet) of the Republic of China (on Taiwan) approved a draft law on the promotion of indigenous languages. (Cabinet OKs Indigenous Language Development Bill, TAIWAN TODAY (Nov. 27, 2015).) The Council of Indigenous Peoples (Yuan-chu min-tsu wei-yuan-hui, CIP) proposed the new legislation.  (Id.)

The draft text provides for all levels of government to have a role in helping to revitalize Taiwan’s aboriginal languages, with the central government assuming the task of administering language proficiency tests and funding research and field studies. (Id.)  The legislation further states that in indigenous areas the local languages should be featured on signage for government agencies and public facilities and that indigenous people may in the future use their native tongues in government proceedings and legal matters.  (Id.)

The draft law also sets forth tasks for the CIP; it should “hold accreditation tests for aboriginal language proficiency, work out policies to cultivate teachers of the languages, compile teaching materials and data, publish textbooks and promote the development and preservation of the languages by offering subsidies.” (Bill on Indigenous Languages of Taiwan Moves Forward, PINYIN NEWS (Nov. 28, 2015).) In addition, scholarly research on indigenous languages should be rewarded; college-level educational institutions should be encouraged to offer indigenous language-related curricula; and the 12-year national education program should offer indigenous language courses.  (Executive Yuan Approves the “Indigenous People’s Language Development Law,” to Comprehensively Rescue Indigenous People’s Languages, LIBERTY TIMES (Nov. 26, 2015) (in Chinese).)

“Indigenous peoples’ regions” are defined under the Indigenous People’s Basic Law as “areas approved by the Executive Yuan upon application made by the central indigenous authority where indigenous peoples have traditionally inhabited, featuring indigenous history and cultural characteristics.” (The Indigenous People’s Basic Law (Feb. 5, 2005, as last amended June 24, 2015), art. 2(3),  (toggle for Chinese text).) The Law defines “indigenous peoples” as

traditional peoples who have inhibited in Taiwan and are subject to the state’s jurisdiction, including Amis tribe, Atayal tribe, Paiwan tribe, Bunun tribe, Puyuma tribe, Rukai tribe, Tsou tribe, Saisiyat tribe, Yami tribe, Tsao tribe, Kavalan tribe, Taroko tribe and any other tribes who regard themselves as indigenous peoples and obtain the approval of the central indigenous authority upon application. (Id. art. 2(1).)

Related Provisions

One commentator noted that it was his impression that “most of what the bill … calls for has already been enacted,” questioning what was “really new” about it, while arguing that if such “painfully obvious points indeed have not yet been codified into law” it was about time that it was done. (Bill on Indigenous Languages of Taiwan Moves Forward, supra.)  In fact, the Indigenous People’s Basic Law, one of the laws related to Taiwan’s indigenous tribes, does cover aspects of the subject matter of the new legislation, but not in detail.  It states, for example, that the government will “proactively promote Indigenous language development by establishing specially designated units to undertake researches on Indigenous languages as well as adopting evaluation systems to carry out the assessing process with respect to Tribal Language Skills” and in general will “develop and protect the past, present and future manifestations of Indigenous cultures.”  (The Indigenous People’s Basic Law, arts. 9 & 10; for a list of Taiwan’s laws on indigenous peoples, see Laws and Regulations, CIP website (last visited Dec. 1, 2015).)

The Basic Law further provides that the government will restore the traditional names of “Indigenous tribes, rivers, and mountains within Indigenous Peoples’ Regions” and “protect, safeguard, and secure Indigenous Peoples’ rights and equitable access to broadcast media of all forms … .” (Id. arts. 11 & 12.)  Another provision broadly states that the Government is to “give due respect to tribal languages, Indigenous customs and practices, cultural diversity, cultural integrity, and the integrity of the values, practices and institutions of Indigenous Peoples in the process of dealing with Indigenous affairs, making laws or implementing judicial and administration remedial procedures,” etc.  (Id. art. 30.)

The Languages Concerned

There are reportedly 42 languages and dialects spoken by Taiwan’s indigenous peoples; according to a United Nations Educational , Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) list of endangered languages, five of them, Kanakanavu, Kavalan, Saaroa, Saisiyat, and Thao, are said to be “critically endangered” (only one step above extinct), while Siraya has been called “severely endangered.” Nine of the languages are deemed “vulnerable”; they are Amis, Bunun, Paiwan, Puyuma, Rukai, Taroko, Tayal, Tsou, and Yami.  (Executive Yuan Approves Indigenous Language Bill, CHINA POST (Nov. 27, 2015); Endangered Languages, UNESCO website (last visited Dec. 2, 2015) (scroll down to view color-coded terms for degree of danger); UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger (2010), UNESCO website (choose “China” from drop-down menu, click on “search languages,” and hover cursor over Taiwan to view languages in danger).