In church yesterday the choir sang three pieces in an indigenous language of Taiwan called Atayal. Arrogantly assuming that if there were a language I hadn’t heard of it must be because it is critically endangered and no one else has heard of it either, I went home to see what the Ethnologue had to say. Turns out, Atayal is not classified as endangered and at last count had almost 85,000 speakers. It also turns out that I know/knew basically nothing about languages in Taiwan.
The dominant language in Taiwan is, of course, Chinese (specifically Mandarin). But Taiwan is also home to a few hundred thousand of what the Ethnologue calls “tribal people,” and there are almost two dozen different languages, of varying sizes, spoken on the island. In fact, Taiwan is regarded as the origin of the entire Austronesian language family, which also includes Polynesian languages such as Maori and Hawaiian, southeast Asian languages such as Tagalog and Indonesian, and even Malagasy all the way over in Madagascar. All of this makes Taiwan very linguistically interesting indeed.
And it’s not true that “no one else” has ever heard of Atayal. It’s a widely studied, actively used language. In fact, one of the internet’s polyglot superheroes even has a youtube video describing strategies for people who want to learn the language:
And here is an adorable person practicing a speech in the language (you can hear very clearly that it is entirely unrelated to Chinese):
While I’m a little ashamed of my initial arrogance and cluelessness, I absolutely love the fact that I still have so much to learn. I love that there are so many languages, in so many different places, spoken by so many different people. I love that there is always something new to discover.
I hope we can maintain a world where there are still these kinds of discoveries to be made.