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Encounters with the ‘National Language’ from Colony to Nation: Taiwan, 1935-1955

Sat, March 28, 8:30 to 10:30am, Chicago Sheraton Hotel & Towers, Floor: Level 4, Sheraton Ballroom II


When officials from the Nationalist regime arrived on Taiwan in August 1945, after the Japanese surrender ended WWII, they encountered a population speaking in unintelligible tongues—mostly varieties of southern Min and Hakka, with educated adults and school children also fluent in Japanese, known as kokugo/囯語. After fifty years of colonial rule, which coincided with the birth of guoyu/國語 on the mainland, few Taiwanese had any familiarity with the concept of a unified Chinese spoken language. “Those younger than forty years-old,” one official observed, “have no idea at all what China is, much less the language and culture of the motherland.” In the GMD’s crusade to bring them back into the embrace of the nation, a top priority was teaching the people of Taiwan to identify with and speak the true “national language,” rather than the Japanese version that had been masquerading as such. This paper examines the Nationalist regime’s efforts to erase the linguistic vestiges of Japanese imperialism, through the experiences of children and teachers caught between two “national languages” and local forms of speech. Arriving from Chongqing in 1946, members of the National Language Promotion Committee discovered that, despite their mainland experience, they were ill prepared to deal with the peculiarities of Taiwan’s linguistic diversity. Accustomed to “using dialect to teach the national language,” a method deployed with some success in the past, linguists and educators were dismayed to find that locals approached guoyu as a “foreign language,” with a comparable level of enthusiasm as for learning English.