- Southern Min (Hokkien) as a Migrating Language: A Comparative Study of Language Shift and Maintenance across National Borders by Picus Sizhi Ding
With recent political developments, first among them the May inauguration in Taiwan of president Tsai Ing-wen, research on the languages of the greater China region is as important as ever. This study of Hokkien by Picus Sizhi Ding both is timely and stands as a contribution in two fields: to sociolinguistic research on the language itself and to work on language attrition as an aspect of bilingual development. For the latter in particular, the suggestion in the book for future investigation highlights the need for greater collaboration between studies of language shift as a social phenomenon and research on language attrition from the psycholinguistic point of view. As the book shows, these two subfields have now become [End Page 128] more closely related, especially in regard to the future of minority languages of the region.
The overriding merit of the study is its clarity of purpose and objectivity in the assessment of research evidence. Always requirements of science, these twin guideposts of our work take on greater importance as the stakes are raised in the realm of broader implications. There is of course nothing wrong with bringing implications to the forefront in the discussion of research (e.g., for policy considerations). This review, in fact, will conclude with the consideration for future discussion of one in particular. The starting point, however, needs to be a clear and unbiased evaluation of current findings and proposal for follow-up investigation, again starting from how the facts on the ground, so to speak, can be explained with recourse to available theoretical models.
Chapter 1 begins with a valuable outline of the variation among the major dialectal variants of Hokkien (Southern Min): the relationship representing the closest contact obtaining between Taiwanese Hokkien and the related variants spoken in South Fujian centered in Xiamen, Quanzhou, and Zangzhou. A more distant separation (within, nevertheless, mutual intelligibility) can be marked in regard to Teochew, for example. Readers will appreciate the unambiguous categorization of Hokkien as a separate language belonging to the Sinitic family of languages (p. 2), a linguistic category (as opposed to political) based on verifiable measures of mutual intelligibility. Table 1.7 sets out the Scale of Language Functionality to which all subsequent discussion will refer: from the highest levels V and IV (vernacular language and lingua franca) down to the lowest II and I (inner language and private language). The study traces the erosion of Hokkien in two overseas communities, Burma and Singapore, and compares this erosion to the parallel tendencies, down from level V, in its homeland region, Fujian and Taiwan.
In chapter 2, the account of language shift across four generations of migration begins with the 1940s journey from Fujian to Burma; the report of findings comes from a participant observer case study, the author a member of the immigrant family. The descriptions differ from previous studies by including estimates of actual linguistic competence, alongside those of language use (within the family unit). These estimates, in turn, are correlated with an evaluation of shift on the Scale of Language Functionality (within the larger community of speakers).1 The chapter concludes with the presentation of the Youngest Child Model of language erosion. The author’s working hypothesis can be summarized as follows: Minority to majority language shift, as evidenced in erosion within the family unit, does not proceed uniformly within each generation as a whole, but rather the attrition in native language competence tends to be evidenced first among the youngest members of the child generation as the erosion moves upward among older siblings.
The overview of the evolution of Hokkien in Singapore, Taiwan, and Fujian (Chapters 3, 4, and 5) forms a separate unit of study all its own. The author’s [End Page 129] assessment of displacement...