Passing down Saisiyat language in Miaoli’s Hakka village

Saisiyat, one of Taiwan’s indigenous tribes, is mainly distributed in the Hakka area of Miaoli County, including Nanzhuang Township (南庄鄉) and Shitan Township (獅潭鄉), as well as the mountainous area of Wufeng Township (五峰鄉) in Hsinchu County. According to the latest statistics, the population is about 6,821 and it is one of the smallest indigenous tribes in Taiwan. The tribe's ethnic culture is on the verge of disappearing. According to studies by UNESCO and Taiwan's Council of Indigenous Peoples, the Saisiyat language is one of the endangered languages in the world.

Because of its small population and the influence of the environment on the tribal language, and the large Hakka population in Nanzhuang Township, Miaoli, most Saisiyat people living there speak Hakka, whereas the Saisiyat people in Wufeng Township, Hsinchu County are influenced by the Atayal tribe, which is more dominant there, so most of them speak in Atayal.

The indigenous people of Taiwan have experienced policies in the past that were damaging to the development of ethnic languages, such as the implementation of Japanese language in the Japanese Occupation Period (1895-1945); the dominance of the national language policy during the Nationalist Government's rule later. After the Council of Indigenous Peoples was established in 1996, it began to devote itself to the revitalization of the languages of all tribal groups. It implemented the "Six-Year Plan for the Promotion of Indigenous Peoples’ Culture" and developed the “Indigenous People’s Language Proficiency Certification” to promote the languages of all the tribes. However, in the past two decades, the loss of the ethnic language of the Saisiyat people is still worrying.

Website of the Council of Peoples
(All images: Hakka TV)

Saisiya people, who have no written language, have always been able to pass on their language from generation to generation by relying on the teachings of their elders. However, with the trend of young people moving from tribal villages to study or work in the cities, this tradition has been interrupted and few young Saisiyat tribespeople can speak the tribal language. As a result, Saisiyat language is gradually declining. 

Hakka language has experienced a similar fate, although the problem is not as severe. In 2005, the Ministry of Education officially announced the use of Roman pinyin to record and write down indigenous languages, so that tribal languages can be unified and standardized, systematically recorded and taught to younger generations, but the system is not accurate in reproducing the original sounds of the tribal languages, especially the Saisiyat language's complex syllables and tonal changes. Hakka language also has the same dilemma.
The use of Roman pinyin to record and write down indigenous languages

In order to save the tribal language that is about to disappear, the Council of Indigenous Peoples began to adopt a master-apprenticeship tribal language transmission program in 2018, allowing apprentices to follow their master to learn tribal languages eight hours a day, five days a week over a long period of time and cultivating a new generation of tribal language teachers.

Chao Tseng-shou (趙增壽), who is in his 60s and like many tribespeople of his generation, was discouraged from learning his tribal language when he was young. He didn't realize how depressing it would be to be unable to communicate with his fellow tribespeople in his tribe's language until he got older. A few years ago, Chao started to study Saisiyat by himself. Being able to chat in the tribal language made him feel more comfortable in the tribe and enabled him to get to know the people better. Chao succeeded in convincing Jih Fan-hsiung (日繁雄) to be his teacher, hoping that his tribal language ability would improve.
Chao Tseng-shou

Jih, a Saisiyat elder who lives in a Hakka village and is fluent in Hakka, is not only a traditional craftsman, but he is also proficient in woodcarving, bamboo weaving and rattan weaving, and is a tribal language teacher at a local school.
Jih Fan-hsiung

The master took his apprentice into the mountains to give him tribal language classes. Language is not only a tool of communication, but also a carrier of culture. Through the "Mountain and Forest Language Course", Jih helped his pupil understand the traditional culture of the Saisiyat people bit by bit, as well as the Saisiyat tribe's understanding of plants and animals in the mountains. Language and environment are closely related, and the mountain forest is originally the area where the Saisiyat people lived, and it is also the source of the tribal language. The entire mountain forest has become the "language classroom" for the master and apprentice.

Even though the task of passing down the tribal language is still difficult, Jih Fan-hsiung hopes that regardless of Saisiyat or Hakka, all mother tongues can become widely used in daily life.
The master took his apprentice into the mountains to give him tribal language classes