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Taiwan alters its approach to identity and education of its Indigenous inhabitants

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Taiwan's population may be majority ethnically Chinese, but it also includes Indigenous people who speak an array of languages. For decades, though, learning any language but Mandarin Chinese was forbidden at school. But as NPR's Emily Feng reports, this is slowly starting to change.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Singing in non-English language).

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: This is Tamorak, which means pumpkin in the Amis language. Tamorak is one of a handful of Indigenous language schools across Taiwan trying to provide a fully immersive language environment.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Diway Kacaw is one of the Amis parents who's enrolled both his sons in Tamorak, which teaches children ages 4 to 12. He says it's important to him that his sons learn Amis.

DIWAY KACAW: (Through interpreter) My mother made me swear on her deathbed that we would teach our children the Amis language and the Amis values and way of life encoded in the language.

FENG: An opportunity Kacaw was denied while growing up in the 1980s, when Taiwan was ruled under martial law by a dictatorship that once vowed to reunite with China.

KACAW: (Through interpreter) If I spoke my mother tongue at school, I would get punished, and the teacher would hang a sign around my neck saying I'd used the wrong language.

FENG: So for decades, Taiwan's only official language was Mandarin Chinese. But now Taiwan is a democracy, its bond with China is weakening, its identity is evolving, and its language policy is more inclusive and less Chinese-centered. But Indigenous language education ran into challenges as well, according to Sifo Lakaw, a professor of language policy at Taiwan's National Dong Hwa University.

SIFO LAKAW: (Through interpreter) Because the Indigenous languages were not given an opportunity to develop with the times, when we fast-forward to now, we find that we need many words that do not exist in our language, like the word for computer.

FENG: Demographically, Indigenous people are a tiny slice of Taiwan. Most residents are now ethnically Han. But Indigenous communities have an outsize impact culturally, in music, sports, activism, and they're at the center of a conversation about what it means to be Taiwanese today.

EVA HUANG: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: This is Kacaw's wife, Eva Huang. She's not Amis - she's ethnically Han - but she wanted her children to learn their father's mother tongue and its emphasis on nature.

HUANG: (Through interpreter) Language is a kind of magic through which you can know the true essence of something, and to understand nature.

FENG: What she's getting at is how thousands of years of knowledge about Taiwan's local flora and fauna is encoded in the Amis language.

ATOMO CANGLAH: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Out in the Tamorak school's garden, Amis speaker Atomo Canglah teaches students how to recognize the hundreds of vegetables and flowers native to the Amis people's homeland.

CANGLAH: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Knowing how to forage and to live with the land is integral to Amis culture. An example of how language is living - it needs to be lived. Atomo's mother Nakaw is the founder and head teacher at Tamorak. She began the school in 2015 after she noticed this...

NAKAW: (Through interpreter) I noticed the rate of language loss among young kids in the tribe was really steep, and I wondered, what's to become of this language, this culture?

FENG: But mother tongue education is almost entirely new in Taiwan. The first such mother tongue school was only started in 2016. So Nakaw had to create new Amis language curriculum from pre-K to grade six. She even commissioned local artists to write and illustrate custom Amis language textbooks.

NAKAW: (Through interpreter) If the Amis people lose their language, they lose the ability to understand themselves.

FENG: And if Taiwan's Indigenous people don't first understand who they are, she says, others won't either.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Hualien County, Taiwan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.