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Bishop praises past missioners for preserving indigenous languages

Updated: March 04, 2009 10:01 AM GMT
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Taiwan´s only indigenous bishop has lauded past missioners who contributed toward preserving native languages, most of which are now considered endangered.

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Indigenous Catholics offering agricultural products during a Mass. 
Auxiliary Bishop John Baptist Tseng King-zi of Hualien said he wants more efforts to promote indigenous people´s mother tongues, while admitting this is difficult because of the small numbers of such people. At the same time, the majority ethnic Han Chinese are not interested to learn indigenous languages because they see no economic benefit in doing so. Bishop Tseng, who heads the Taiwan bishops´ Commission for the Aborigine Apostolate, spoke on the issue on Feb. 25 in response to the release of the 2009 edition of the UNESCO Atlas of the World´s Languages in Danger. According to the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) website, the atlas aims to "raise awareness about language endangerment and the need to safeguard the world´s linguistic diversity." The atlas, presented in Paris on the eve of International Mother Language Day, Feb. 21, says that most of the 6,000 or so spoken languages in the world today are under threat due to the spread of a few dominant languages. It says in Taiwan, seven indigenous languages have become extinct within the past 50 years, another seven are "critically endangered," one is "severely endangered" and nine are "unsafe." Bishop Tseng recalled there were about 40 indigenous languages in Taiwan before the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) government fled here in the late 1940s after Communists took over power in mainland China. Afterward, indigenous people on the island were pressured into using Mandarin Chinese, the official language, and adopt Han Chinese customs. "Speaking our mother tongue was like a sin," Bishop Tseng, 66, recounted. In such circumstances, he pointed out, it was foreign missioners who helped preserve the indigenous languages, which did not have their own scripts. The missioners, who came to Taiwan from the early 1950s onward, created scripts for these languages using the Roman alphabet. The missioners then wrote dictionaries and books in these scripts. They did this despite many odds against them. Under past governments´ policy of assimilation, foreign missioners who translated the Scripture into an indigenous language would lose their visas and could not return to Taiwan. However, the bibles they left behind became a precious asset. "Even if our languages were to become extinct within this century, at least they have appeared ... as a record for future generations," Bishop Tseng remarked. Authoritarian rule under the Kuomintang gradually ended through a transition to democracy in the 1980s. In 2000, the year the Democratic Progressive Party came to power, the constitution was amended to protect and preserve indigenous culture and languages. Today, in a country of 23 million people, it is estimated that only 35 percent of about 490,000 indigenous people belonging to 14 tribes can speak their mother tongues. People who live in the mountains, having less contact with outsiders, still speak their own languages while native languages in the plains have become extinct. In some rural villages, priests still continue to celebrate Masses and other liturgies in indigenous languages, although some indigenous priests cannot speak their mother language fluently, or they tend to switch to Mandarin Chinese for the sake of the young people. Puyuma, Bishop Tseng´s mother tongue, now has about 10,000 speakers and is categorized by UNESCO as "unsafe." He said almost nobody under the age of 60 can speak this language fluently. "What a pity elderly people have to learn Mandarin Chinese to communicate with their grandchildren at home," he lamented. "Young indigenous people gradually forget their mother tongue, as they rarely use it after leaving home to work in cities," Bishop Tseng said. He added that in his parish in Taitung, eastern Taiwan, he insists on celebrating Mass in Puyuma even if only half the congregation can understand it. The readings and his homily, however, would sometimes be in Puyama and Mandarin Chinese for the benefit of the younger people. More than 90 percent of indigenous people are Christians, said the bishop, adding that they form about a third of the 300,000 Catholics in Taiwan.

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