When Paul Jen-kuei Li studied linguistics at the University of Hawaii in the late 1960s, Austronesian (tree) was not a family many linguists chose to work on. But Li performed field work in Vanuatu (then the New Hebrides) followed by work on a Micronesian language.
When he returned home to Taiwan, he focused on the indigenous languages, a task made difficult by poor transportation and communication conditions. Many times, he traveled alone into the mountains to record tribal speakers.
His efforts include collaboration with Shigeru Tsuchida to produce Kavalan and Pazih dictionaries. His paper “The Internal Relationships of Formosan Languages” is available from a link on the Ethnologue.
Li was awarded honorary membership in the Linguistic Society of America in 2008 among other awards. He calls on the government and people of Taiwan to step up efforts to protect Taiwan’s aboriginal languages. He notes that because language is the essence of a culture, that culture and its knowledge depend on the language being kept alive.
Today, about 14 indigenous languages remain in Taiwan.
Much of the information in this blog post is from the article “Linguist urges preservation of Taiwan’s Austronesian languages” on the Taiwan Today Website.