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Taiwan: New Indigenous Languages Act

(June 21, 2017) On June 14, 2017, the Republic of China on Taiwan government promulgated the Indigenous Languages Development Act in order to “achieve historical justice, further preserve and promote the indigenous languages, and guarantee that the languages are used and passed down … .”  (Indigenous Languages Development Act (May 26, 2017), art. 1, Legislative Yuan website (in Chinese); Indigenous Languages Development Act Takes Effect, TAIWAN TODAY (June 15, 2017).)  The Act is in 30 articles and took effect on the day of promulgation.  (Indigenous Languages Development Act, art. 30.)

The Act defines an indigenous language as a language traditionally used by an indigenous people and the words and symbols used to record that language.  A local dialect of an indigenous language is an indigenous language used in indigenous tribal areas.  (Indigenous Languages Development Act, art. 2 ¶ 1(1-4).)  The Council for Indigenous Peoples (CIP), the competent government authority at the central level, is responsible for formulating policies for the development of indigenous languages and giving priority to the revitalization of the endangered ones.  (Id. arts. 3 & 7; About CIP (last visited June 19, 2017).)  Under the Indigenous Peoples Basic Law, “indigenous peoples” are defined as

the 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.  (Indigenous Peoples Basic Law (promulgated on Feb. 5, 2005, as amended on Dec. 16, 2015), Laws & Regulations Database of the Republic of China on Taiwan (ROC Database).)

The CIP is to consult indigenous peoples in researching and developing new expressions, compiling dictionaries, building indigenous language databases, and actively preserving the indigenous language corpuses.  (Indigenous Languages Development Act, art. 9.)  In order to handle the research and development of indigenous languages, the CIP is to set aside funds and accept donations from private individuals, legal persons, or groups to establish the Foundation for the Research and Development of Indigenous Languages, to be governed by a separate law.  (Id. art. 27.)

The Act provides that indigenous peoples can use their dialects in administrative and legal affairs handled by government agencies and in judicial proceedings to express their views, and the government agency concerned should provide translation services.  The CIP is to establish a database of indigenous language experts to meet the need for translators.  (Id. art. 13.)  It is also to compile, published in the indigenous languages, ordinances related to indigenous peoples’ affairs.  (Id. art. 17 ¶ 1.)  Local government agencies, schools, and public facilities in indigenous areas, some 55 townships throughout Taiwan, “can also compose official documents in indigenous languages as well as Chinese.”  (Indigenous Languages Development Act Takes Effect, supra; Indigenous Languages Development Act, art. 14.)

Signage for government agencies, schools, and public facilities in areas of indigenous peoples must be in the local indigenous language and signage for the local topography, monuments, tribes, streets, and public facilities in such regions should feature the local dialect and traditional indigenous names.  (Id. art. 16 ¶¶ 1 & 2.)

The Act further provides that schools should offer indigenous language courses in order to meet the needs of aboriginal students and encourage the teaching of indigenous languages (id. art. 19), train indigenous language teachers (id. art. 22), and promote academic research in indigenous languages by encouraging tertiary institutions to set up courses on indigenous languages and establish departments or degree programs related to the languages of indigenous peoples (id. art. 20).  The Act requires state-run indigenous media outlets to produce programs and publications to promote and teach indigenous languages (id. art. 23), and central and local authorities are to assist, reward, and subsidize the film, television, advertising, and radio broadcasts using indigenous languages (id. art. 24). 

Legal Background of the Act

One of the legal bases for the Act is article 10 of the Additional Articles of the Constitution, which states:

The State shall, in accordance with the will of the ethnic groups, safeguard the status and political participation of the aborigines.  The State shall also guarantee and provide assistance and encouragement for aboriginal education, culture, transportation, water conservation, health and medical care, economic activity, land, and social welfare, measures for which shall be established by law.  The same protection and assistance shall be given to the people of the Penghu, Kinmen, and Matsu areas.  (Additional Articles of the Constitution of the Republic of China on Taiwan (announced May 1, 1991, as last amended June 10, 2005),  art. 10 ¶ 11, ROC Database.)

The other legal basis is article 9 of the Indigenous People’s Basic Law of 2005, which provides: “[t]he development of indigenous language shall be stipulated by law.”

Among other pieces of legislation previously enacted to advance aboriginal rights and cultures in Taiwan are the Indigenous Traditional Intellectual Creations Protection Act of 2007 (promulgated on Dec. 26, 2007, as amended on Feb. 4, 2015) and the Indigenous Peoples Employment Rights Protection Act (promulgated on Oct. 31, 2001, as amended on Feb. 4, 2015) (both in ROC Database).  The 2001 Status Act for Indigenous Peoples was adopted with the stated aim of recognizing the status of indigenous peoples and protecting their rights.  (Status Act for Indigenous Peoples (promulgated on Jan. 17, 2001, as last amended on Dec. 3, 2008), ROC Database.  See also Wendy Zeldin, Taiwan: Draft Legislation on Indigenous Language Protection, GLOBAL LEGAL MONITOR (GLM) (Dec. 3, 2015).)

Background on Indigenous People in Taiwan

According to the CIP, “there are 42 dialects of Taiwan’s 16 officially recognized indigenous languages,” and of those languages, “Saisiyat is listed as severely endangered on the UNESCO [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization] atlas of endangered languages, while Kanakanavu, Kavalan, Hla’alua and Thao are designated as critically endangered.”  (Indigenous Languages Development Act Takes Effect, supra.)  UNESCO has also reportedly deemed Bunun to be “definitely endangered” and eight other of the languages (Amis, Atayal, Paiwan, Puyuma, Rukai, Truku, Tao, and Tsou) to be “vulnerable.”  (Id.; UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger (last updated June 13, 2017).)

The CIP is quoted as saying that Taiwan’s indigenous languages “play a crucial role in understanding the distribution of Austronesian languages in the Asia-Pacific region,” because research indicates that the island is “the ancestral homeland of Austronesian-speaking peoples.”  According to CIP statistics, about 530,000 persons, or 2.3% of Taiwan’s total population, belong to the tribes associated with the 16 recognized indigenous languages, and the presence of indigenous Malayo-Polynesian peoples in Taiwan reportedly dates back 12,000 to 15,000 years.  (Id.)