Amis Hebrew School (Learning an Endangered Language Part 8)

[This is the 6th 8th1 installment in an ongoing series.]

I'm officially a student again.

Above is a picture of my student ID from the “Hualien Tribal College.” Actually the official English name on their web page is “Hualien Indigenous Community College” which sounds better to my anthropological ears. Indigenous Community Colleges in Taiwan are not degree granting institutions. Courses tend to be short-term classes focused on indigenous culture, although they offer subjects like documentary filmmaking to help students learn to document their own culture. I’ve enrolled in an eight week course in the Amis language. (At the same time I’m continuing to audit indigenous language classes at my own university.)

While these classes have been great for my research, I still don’t feel I’ve made much progress with my language skills. Unlike DJ, who recently spent half a year living in a village with a large number of old people who still are able to speak Amis, I spend most of my time with young students who have very little competence. But more than that, I’ve come to realize that my research focus on official language revitalization efforts is actually something of a handicap when it comes to language learning. This is what I wanted to write about today.

In many ways it reminds me of my time in Hebrew School when I was preparing for my Bar Mitzvah. Although Hebrew is now a living language, in Hebrew School in NY, at my reform synagogue in the late seventies and early eighties, it was taught as one might teach a dead language. There was no expectation that we would go on to actually use the language in daily life. It was enough to be able to pronounce the words and be able to translate some simple prayers into English so we knew what we were saying when we read it aloud.

This point was really hit home to me when I was discussing with another student that I would like to have better communicative competence. It took a long time for me to explain what I meant, and it slowly dawned on me that other students really had no expectation of being able to use the language in such a way. They were interested in using language learning as a way of learning more about their own culture, and the course is perfectly set up for such goals. Each week we read a text which is transcribed from oral interviews with Amis elders. We then learn a number of vocabulary words and proceed to translate the text. Finally, the class recites the text in unison. There is no expectation that students will construct their own grammatically correct sentences.

The students in the class are from a wide variety of backgrounds. There is a village headman and some older women who speak the language quite well already but can’t read or write very well and then there are grade school and college students, some of whom know even less Amis than I do. The teaching method adopted in the community college has the distinct advantage of working for everyone despite their level, although very little is expected of them. But basically the language is being taught as a dead language, not a living one, and I worry about the implications of that.

On a side note, another thing which reminds me of Hebrew School is that most of the Amis teachers are priests. They also all seem to have a deep interest in Judaism. I’m not really sure what that is about. It is something I have to investigate further… But I think it is different from what this reporter experienced in China.

UPDATE 4/17/2014: Title and series numbers updated.

  1. After we moved to the new site and restored our archives it became clear that I’d written more posts in this series than I had realized so the numbers are off. The full series can now be found here

5 thoughts on “Amis Hebrew School (Learning an Endangered Language Part 8)

  1. Kerim, I briefly encountered something perhaps even closer to the way in which you were taught Hebrew in Puli (1969-71). There were classes in classical Chinese at the local Confucius temple. As I recall, the students (a mixed lot similar to what you describe) were memorizing the Thousand Character Classic using Hokkien instead of Mandarin pronunciations.

    Also, of course, there was my wife’s experience. As a graduate student in Japanese literature at Yale, she was required to pass an exam in either French or German. Having previously studied Latin for five years, she taught herself enough French to translate the set piece required to pass the test and, to the best of my knowledge, has never spoken a word of the language.

  2. Kerim,

    What’s the situation like for children – do they have the option to learn Amis at school, or is it the same kind of dead-language-tuition style even if they choose it? Also, are there any good textual resources you can use? I picked up a few books on indigenous languages when I was last in Taiwan, in 2009, including a good reference grammar of Seediq (賽得克語參考語法, 張永利 [2000]). Anything like that for Amis?

    Sorry if you’ve answered these questions elsewhere!

  3. @John My father had a similar experience with French in college.

    @Al: Native Language education (including in Hoklo and Hakka) is taught for one 40 min period a week in elementary schools. This class is often skipped if there is something else, like preparation for a test, which the school feels is more important. Texts are very basic and mostly involve a few simple dialogs and some songs. Yes, there are a few grammar books, and one of my teachers is preparing to work on a more definitive one.

  4. sigh. at least your class isn’t dominated by the need to game the testing system. this analogy, i think, is a useful one, and might show the disadvantages of evaluating languages as a component of heritage. once again, i’m reminded of the bold–and useful–thinking behind suming’s experiments in ‘amis language media

  5. @DJ For now I’m focusing on more official initiatives, not so much the use of the language in popular culture, though I’d love to hear more about your thoughts on this. But testing is a big part of my research and has a big impact on how the language is taught. I’ll probably write more about this in another post.

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