Switch or Shift? Facts and Notes from the Field about a “Language Turn” while Campaigning


Every direct observer of the vibrant campaigning Taiwan who does not just rely on TV News reports and texts in English or Chinese is struck by the noice, soundtracks, polyphony and multilinguism of the campaign. Indeed, beyond the historical political liberalization process, the Taiwanese electoral culture is also the product of the different linguistic fields for which different forms of linguistic capital and language proficiencies are expressly required for candidacies to ROC top positions.

Social representations of language use in the Taiwan society, and basic sociolinguistic-like analysis might stress the sole official language – Mandarin Chinese referenced as “National Language” –  and a classical diglossia between this “higher” language versus “lower” ones including other mutually unintelligible Sinitic languages or “dialects” and marginally Aborigine Autronesian languages. Ethnic and political boundaries would complete this demolinguistic panorama with Taiwanese and Hakka languages for DPP Southern middle class versus KMT urban Northern high-educated upper-class in Mandarin.

The legitimate agents of such statements are the reporters and academic observers who are themselves conditioned by linguistic habitus, did not study this topic or rely on very smooth corpora. However, an ethnographic approach of language strategies of electoral candidates might fine-tune this description by pointing the struggle between two social fields with different linguistic economies resulting of the social integration process of the ROC to the Taiwan society at the turn of 21st century.

The fact is that grassroots elections preceded the arrival of the ROC in Taiwan, and local elections were held as soon as ROC institutions settled in the island. By proscribing the Japanese colonial language, Taiwanese languages became languages for campaigning. The other fact is that the Media were strongly held by the State and the Party with an exclusive promotion of Mandarin while the top positions were reserved to Nationalist Party leaders.

From the late 80s, these two fields went in contact with memorable clashes such as CHU Kao-cheng using Taiwanese for the first time at a national institution. With the direct election process for top positions of the ROC, KMT Mainlander political staff who was not proficient in Taiwanese languages had to start to learn them as soon as the early 90s with James SOONG and the younger generation whose the best representative is MA Ying-jeou.

Notes from the 2012 field:

This on-going process may seem to come to a critical point for this 2012 presidential bid. Indeed, since 1996, at least one candidate was able to make the show in Taiwanese languages – i. e. LEE Teng-hui, CHEN Shui-bian or Frank HSIEH – but among the candidates of the on-going race, none of them is at ease with the linguistic habitus of electoral meetings. Ethnicity is not relevant as an explanation because if SOONG and MA might be categorized as Mainlanders, the loudly advertised Hakka identity of TSAI Ying-wen does not induce automatic Hakka performance in front of an assembly of Hakka supporters.

The point is not the strategy which does not look like to have changed, but the problem of proficiency of the candidates in Taiwanese languages. All the candidates are multilingual but as learners of “foreign” languages for legitimate languages such as English at school and then Taiwanese languages with special coaches for special purpose : electoral campaigning. As learners of any foreign languages, they need to practice or might regress : preliminary observations point that SOONG, MA and even TSAI are not proficient as they were able to be ten years, four years ago or even just last year!

Finally, multilinguism remains beyond the symbolic initial speech for TV debates during which every candidate greet the audience in three or four different Sinitic languages;  or the candidates for vice-presidency who are outstanding performers in Taiwanese such as WU Dun-yi and SU Chia-chuan. Plurilinguism is also changing from Taiwanese languages to English in which both heavy weights candidates feel more comfortable to speak, and these striking speeches performed in English at the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei last November 22th by TSAI and MA.

The final rush will show if it is a temporary switch to be forgotten during the three ultimate weeks whether it is the beginning of the irrevocable shift of the linguistic practices in public life in Taiwan.

Yoann GOUDIN is a Ph. D Candidate in Didactics at INALCO (Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales) in Paris. He is currently a visiting scholar at the Institute of Linguistics at Academia Sinica, and recipient of the TFP (Taiwan Fellowship Program) awarded by the Center for Chinese Studies, ROC.