05/28/2023, 12.02
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The 'gift of languages' and the future of Taiwan's youth

On Pentecost Sunday a reflection posted on the Missions Etrangeres de Paris website by Fr. Claude Louis Tisserand, who has been a missionary among Taiwan's aboriginal communities for more than 45 years. The dilemma between local cultures to be preserved and the need of parents and the Church itself to educate them to speak and profess their faith in Mandarin, the language of the cities.

Milan (AsiaNews) - The ability to give voice to the Gospel in all languages is one of the great signs of the Spirit that on the Solemnity of Pentecost the Church celebrates today. But it is also a theme that has always been central to the life of the Church in Asia. Generations of missionaries and local Christians have translated the Gospel and the texts of the liturgy into indigenous languages, and it is an effort that continues today.

But in a continent where more and more peoples are moving and meeting, can this still be the only way to address the issue of languages? This is the theme at the center of an interesting testimony by Fr. Claude Louis Tisserand, a missionary in Taiwan for over 45 years, published this week on the website of the Missions Etrangeres de Paris (Mep).

In his reflection - entitled "The Puzzle of Languages and the Disappearance of Aboriginal Languages" - the deilleMep missionary reflects from the concrete situation of Taiwan's Aboriginal communities. "The language problem in their communities is twofold," he recounts.

"The first is the difficulty of learning a second language after studying Mandarin, the official language. The second headache is the choice of language to be used for the Mass readings, homily, prayers and especially the songs. The choice depends on the people present that day, which can vary from Sunday to Sunday. Family celebrations often attract a large group of cousins, nieces, and other relatives, usually younger, who have just returned from the cities where they work and have never learned well or forgotten the Aboriginal language. It is these irregular attenders, who have arrived suddenly, who need to be connected to the Church and thus need a liturgy that speaks to them."

In Taiwan today, the common language for interethnic exchanges is Mandarin, the official language, taught in all schools and widely used in television, administration and department stores. However, the Minnan dialect of Chinese endures, especially in the cities and countryside in the south and west of the island.

"The use of the Chinese dialect hakka," Fr. Tisserand notes, "on the other hand, is declining because parents are reluctant to speak to their children in their mother tongue. They prefer to speak to them in Mandarin so that they feel comfortable with everyone they meet. This is even more true for the languages of the various Aboriginal tribes, which together make up only 2 percent or 3 percent of the population. Only a few isolated families want to maintain their identity and teach some rudiments of the language to their children, who will never dare to use it outside the family."

"Initially, like most missionaries, I tended to encourage parents to use Aboriginal languages," reflected Fr. Claude Louis, "so that they would not disappear, seeing the language as a cultural asset to be preserved. But now I understand better the attitude of mothers who, while deploring the disappearance of the language of the elders, still choose to speak to their children in Mandarin from the beginning of their lives. As in many other countries, the race for good schools starts early in Taiwan, and parents do not want to penalize their children by delaying learning the common language. Language is the basic tool for accessing scientific knowledge and cultural riches around the world. With Mandarin, one has access to the essentials."

Faced with this situation, what can the Church do? "Christians generally like to keep traditional songs in the language of the tribe," the missionary relates. The melodies, many of which are very beautiful, are more expressive for them. Prayer and the whole liturgy seem to be more a matter of feeling than intellectual understanding, and since the elders are often the majority, the use of Mandarin is less necessary." But Fr. Tisserand sees a danger: "One might think that the early Christians, sixty or more years ago, did not ask themselves many theoretical questions and accepted what they were told without much thought. Life was harder in those days and people had to worry about eating before philosophizing. The danger is not to prepare young people for the world of tomorrow and the parishes in the cities where everything is done in Mandarin. Under the guise of preserving culture, we risk losing everything."

"Cultures have not been promised eternal life," the French missionary concludes his reflection. "They are like all living things: they are born, they grow, they develop, they live their lives and they die. Like the pharaohs, we only have to take them away and put them in museums. May the Holy Spirit inspire us to find other ways to infuse the life and love of Christ into people's hearts."

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