Pingtung leads in all-Hakka classes

Beginning with just three classes in one kindergarten and two nurseries, Taiwan's southernmost county of Pingtung was the first and still is the only county in which preschool teachers conduct classes exclusively in the Hakka dialect.

The Hsueh Cheng Kindergarten, the Hsiang Tan Nursery School and the Hsiao Po Shih Nursery School each began to run an all-Hakka class in September 2007, under strong persuasion by Ku Hsiu-fei, director of the Hakka Affairs Department of the Pingtung county government.

Ku, formerly an official with the Cabinet-level Council of Hakka Affairs, said she launched the push to promote the Hakka dialect and rekindle Hakka culture in the county after she found that the Hakka language is dying out in Taiwan.

"Current measures to allow the younger generation to gain a better understanding of Hakka culture do not enable the youngsters to learn and speak the language," Ku said.

She said the measures used at present, including introducing Hakka ballads and children's folk rhymes and storytelling in Hakka, have been in vain, quoting the results of a survey conducted by the Council of Hakka Affairs in 2002 that showed that only 11.7 percent of the children aged under 13 from Hakka families around the country had a good command of Hakka.

Taiwan's Hakka people are mainly concentrated in the counties of Hsinchu, Miaoli and Taoyuan in northern Taiwan and Pingtung in southern Taiwan, according to a 2008 survey conducted by the council.

"The environment for the Hakka dialect has fast dwindled in Pingtung, " Ku said, adding that Hakka parents there would rather spend a fortune sending their children to learn English at cram schools than bothering to speak to their children in Hakka.

Noting that even Hakka grandparents have begun to learn mandarin Chinese from their grandchildren, Ku said Hakka families are now unable to play a role in passing their mother tongue from generation to generation.

She said that if Hakka families cannot be relied upon to preserve the Hakka dialect, she will race against the clock to accelerate her efforts, adding that Hakka children could learn the language if they are taught Hakka or are exposed to a Hakka-language "total immersion language environment" during their preschool years.

Ku said she launched her Hakka learning campaign based on the way New Zealand's indigenous people, the Maori, have saved their language, how Welsh was saved in Wales and how Hawaiian natives have saved their mother tongue -- all based on a total immersion method for preschool children in which the students hear and use only their native language.

After one year of the immersion method in the Pingtung kindergarten and nurseries, Ku invited Professor Chen Jen-fu of National Pingtung University of Education and Chen Ya-ling, an associate professor, to assess the results.

Chen Jen-fu, himself a Hakka man, said a survey his team conducted over the past year found that parents or guardians of Hakka children in Pingtung have not been opposed to the immersion class experiment.

The preschoolers have actually performed better in terms of flexible thinking, creative thinking and linguistic intelligence than their counterparts who are not in Hakka-language classes, said Chen Ya-ling.

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