The Fall of Great Orators and Rise of the Prompter

As promised in an earlier post, I kept notes from the field on the language practices of the campaigning candidates, and there is much to say!

First, as an observer of how the candidates frame the issues for voters, it is equally interesting to stress the importance of silence. Indeed, the most important and widely commented on language act of this campaign was when Tsai Ing-wen remained quiet during the national anthem on January 1st. What also rings loudest to me is another kind of silence; the newly adopted low profile President this year, who merely walked the streets shaking hands with the electorate. This was in stark opposition to the once challenging and often flaming Ma Ying-jeou, a candidate who used to juggle languages for hours.

Second, as soon as they delivered their speeches, we were able to infer the same observations as we did in the field since 2005 over four electoral campaigns:  during Taipei and Kaohsiung mayoral elections in 2006, 2008 presidential bid and Five Special Municipalities in 2010. Once again, I propose the existence of a linguistic habitus compelling the candidates to perform in Taiwanese languages during electoral rallies independently of factors such as language proficiency, ethnic background, political leanings, geographic location etc.

This recollection underscores one of the main elements of this campaign; that is, the breaking of this electoral linguistic field. Indeed, when Taiwanese languages were supposed to be required for electoral performances, I was struck by the prevalence of Mandarin. This language shift is not only a result of the lack of proficiency or ease in these languages, but rather the fact that Ma and especially Tsai read texts rather than “performed” speeches. The former had sheets on his lectern, while the latter also introduced a new tool in the Taiwanese electoral space: the tele-prompter. My point here is that the act of reading is socially conditioned by schooling experiences, which in the R.O.C.—or at least when the candidates were in school— is exclusively in National Mandarin Language.

These facts are contrasted by all other observations. On the one hand, the old lion James Soong although he has lost his proficiency in Taiwanese languages, definitely belongs to the former generation that was able to perform 40 minute long speeches haranguing the crowd without notes. On the other hand, the eldest lion of all, the former President and for many the father of democracy in Taiwan,  Lee Teng-hui, now 89 years old, is able to read in Taiwanese in spite of the fact that it is not his mother-tongue nor the language he had to learn at school. However, he was able to render the Banciao Stadium into raptures.

Beyond these two political heavyweights, I want to stress the relevance of the existence of the electoral linguistic field with a newcomer on the stage, Lee Yuan-cheh. Indeed, it is interesting to note that in spite of his Nobel Prize and his previous position as President of the Academia Sinica— the highest authority in Academia and in which only the Mandarin language is legitimate— , he performed his very first speech on stage at an electoral rally mainly in Taiwanese. Of course, this is his mother tongue, but also the language he thought appropriate in this context. In addition, the parallel legislative campaign stresses this “contradiction” between academic curriculum and language practices during campaign activities. Indeed, the candidates loudly proclaim their legitimacy by underlining their academic background– mainly their Ph Ds and often faculty positions –but lead their campaign mostly in Taiwanese languages.

Last but not least, my final observation is that reading, as well as the use of Mandarin, was almost exclusively reserved for the presidential candidates. Even their partners for the vice-presidency performed in Taiwanese. Lectern notes and texts that were probably written by speech writing aides were the exclusive purview of Ma and Tsai, while the tele-prompter was solely for Tsai.

Preliminary interpretations point towards a constantly rising control of the communication of the candidates running for presidency by spin doctors and campaign advisers at campaign headquarters. They may be highly-educated and specialized professionals, trained mainly in western universities where multilingualism is not as much an issue as it would be if these advisers included in their framework the sociolinguistic reality of the Taiwanese society and the linguistic background of the electorate. Instead, they are conditioned by a co-lingualism of Mandarin Chinese and English, which is already present in academia, the media and the top ranking institutions of the ROC to which they all belong to.

If the Taiwanese democracy is still characterized by its vibrant multilinguism, it seems that this language pluralism is endangered by the specialized and newly cosmopolitan professionals within the campaign staff. The question then becomes, is the accomplishment of the more and more ineluctable monolinguism process of the Taiwanese electorate a step towards the “ROC-ization” of society,  and/or a first imagined “re”unification with “Chin…ese”?

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.