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Rejuvenating the Hla'alua Language

 

Rejuvenating the Hla'alua Language

◎Written by Chen Zih-yin

◎English translation: Hou Ya-ting

◎Photos courtesy of You Jhih-jie, Taoyuan District Office

 

 

 Kaohsiung's diverse geography gives the municipality a fascinating range of landscapes. Several mountainous districts feature breathtaking natural scenery much loved by outdoors types. Two of Kaohsiung's most rugged districts, Taoyuan and Namasia, are high above sea level, and home to members of the indigenous Bunun, Paiwan, and Hla'alua tribes.

 Both indigenous people and outsiders recognize the traditions and mother tongues of these Austronesian population groups as cultural pearls scattered amid jade-green mountains. The Hla'alua tribe, in particular, are endeavoring to rejuvenate their language, and have pushed the learning of Hla'alua into the spotlight.

 Ms. You Jhih-jie, a member of the Hla'alua tribe and a teacher of the language, believes that passing down the aboriginal language instills a sense of belonging to tribesmen and women. Ms. You's father, Mr. You Ren-guei, is a veteran tribal-language instructor. Now in his seventies, Mr. You has long promoted the Hla'alua language via linguistic and cultural programs. Twenty years ago, his efforts required him to shuttle between the tribe's homeland in the hills and lowland cities. Initially undaunted by these long journeys, eventually his accumulated fatigue led him to ask his daughter, Ms. You Jhih-jie, to join him in his work to promote use of and proficiency in the Hla'alua language.

 Ms. You admits that the language is on the brink of disappearing, yet her father's persistence motivates her to do what she can to save it. Inspired by her father's determination, Ms. You quit her job as a nurse in order to serve in her homeland. Among the dilemmas she has faced since returning home are diverging opinions between different generations and conflicting concepts.

 In 2014, the Hla'alua people were recognized by the central government as being distinct from the Tsou tribe, and so became a tribe in their own right. With fewer than 400 members, it is one of Taiwan's smallest ethnic groups; preserving its language is thus an urgent and challenging task. Ms. You Jhih-jie says that her father expects every member of his family to speak their mother language at home. However, Hla'alua lacks an extensive vocabulary, so Mr. You Ren-guei asks family members to use their powers of description to make for smooth conversation. This is how he reinforces mother-tongue fluency in his own home.

 Significantly, Ms. You Jhih-jie is an exception to the old custom that only males can inherit the tribe's cultural assets. She has convinced her father to pass down archaic phrases and expressions, traditional songs and dances, as well as myths and legends, to his daughters. Father and a daughter now work together to hand the cultural torch to the next generation.

 Mr. You Ren-guei has established an apprentice system to help spread the language. Through it, one teacher instructs three students. Ms. You Jhih-jie's pupils have attained excellent results in indigenous vocabulary contests and aboriginal drama competitions. That Ms. You looks up to her father is obvious, and their joint enthusiasm to promote Hla'alua language and identity has won the support of Mr. Guo Ji-ding, principal of Taoyuan District's Singjhong Elementary School. The principal has set aside additional class time so students can learn their mother tongue and tribal tales that weave together local plants, rivers and mountains. The “Miatungusau” (Ceremony of the Sacred Shells) is a key annual event, during which the tribe worships its deities while praying for peace, bountiful harvests, and a flourishing community.

The Hla'alua Creation Myth

 Legend has it that Hla'alua and Tsou were siblings, but separated by a flood. The siblings were reunited in what is now Tainan. Later, the Dutch invaded Tainan. The siblings could not bear the humiliation of Dutch rule, so they escaped into the interior, relocating to today's Taoyuan and Namasia districts. According to tribal elders, if a Hla'alua person could speak their archaic language, he or she would be able to communicate with a Tsou person in Chiayi County's Alishan Township.