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The soft power of openness to other languages

Shift in thought

Taiwan has begun to officially recognize its various languages, a sign of its values of openness and tolerance – and independence from China and its imposed language policy.

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Femmei Niahosa, left, of the Tsao people of Taiwan, attends the United Nations forum on indigenous issues April 16 at U.N. headquarters.

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A country’s attractiveness to the rest of the world can come in many forms, such as cultural exports, foreign aid, high-tech inventions, or its degree of freedom. One type of “soft power,” however, is often overlooked: a generosity toward languages.

In recent months, the island nation of Taiwan, which has been conquered by several foreign forces in recent history, is moving fast to embrace its language diversity. Last year, it gave “national status” to the mother tongues of minority indigenous groups, many of whom live in the mountains. And soon legislators are expected to define Taiwanese, which is widely spoken, as a national language.

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The move may seem strange, but it is an effort to free Taiwan of a language imposed on it – Mandarin Chinese – in 1949 when the army of Chiang Kai-shek fled from the mainland to escape the takeover of China by the Communist Party. Chiang tried to end the use of Taiwanese and other languages, enforcing Mandarin in schools and official documents on the assumption that his Nationalist Party would eventually rule the mainland again.

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If anything, it is now Beijing’s ruling party that is bearing down on Taiwan and its 22 million people, claiming the island is simply a renegade province. In recent months, China has sent war planes and naval ships closer to the island’s maritime border.

Taiwan has never officially declared independence out of fear of retribution from China. Yet it has effectively claimed independence in other ways. Since 1987, it has moved steadily toward democracy. It maintains diplomatic ties with many nations. And now it has broadened its official languages beyond Mandarin.

Its language policy is in sharp contrast with that in China, where a law enacted in 2000 requires Mandarin as the sole national language – despite the presence of more than 100 local languages. Beijing has imposed the language in the classrooms of ethnic minorities and has jailed at least one activist, in Tibet, who campaigned to maintain the local language. And the policy has caused a backlash in Hong Kong, whose identity is embedded in the Cantonese language.

Many nations, such as Canada and India, have learned how to tolerate different languages while still finding a way to conduct business and the work of government. Their openness to other tongues is an attraction more than a nuisance, especially in a global economy.

Young people in Taiwan have taken to calling themselves the “natural independence” generation. They do not need to declare official independence from China, only to claim an identity based on the values of tolerance and empathy toward others on their island.

Its military power cannot match that of China’s. But Taiwan’s soft power keeps getting stronger.