The Perpetual Colonial Situation: Language and Dominance in Taiwan

University essay from Göteborgs universitet/Institutionen för globala studier

Abstract: In Taiwan today, 96% of the population speaks Mandarin. Yet, Mandarin speakers were rare, if not totally absent, on the island before 1945. How should we understand this transformation? Throughout history, the island had been governed by various colonial regimes, and official language policies and language use in Taiwan have been altered several times in accordance with their political agendas. My TV-services observation, on-site observation, media content analysis, and interviews demonstrate that there is a clear pattern within the Taiwanese society: Mandarin is the ‘high-end’ and dominant language, while Hoklo, the language of the majority of the island’s population, has become a ‘low-end,’ subaltern language. In this thesis I analyse this fundamental linguistic change since 1945 from a colonial perspective, drawing on Pierre Bourdieu’s theories of habitus, field, and symbolic capital. Using a range of data from popular media, public observation, and interviews of three different generations of Taiwanese people, I show how symbolic and physical practices that elevate Mandarin and denigrate Hoklo have brought about today’s Mandarin domination among Taiwanese people, accompanied by a severe decline of local language use. While the local Taiwanese elites who took control of the government in the 1990s have implemented Hoklo and other local language revival efforts, I argue that the symbolic power of Mandarin, which I understand as a form of colonialism, has caused these initiatives to fail.

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