It is not Mandarin Chinese nor Taiwanese but a variant form of Japanese that is spoken by villagers at a general store in a thickly forested mountain valley in eastern Taiwan.

Aohua village in Nanao township in Yilan County is home to indigenous Atayal people, whose language stems from the days when Japan pushed thorough Japanese-language education and promoted Japanization during its 50-year colonial rule of the island up to 1945.

Sicyang Isaw, 55, who runs the store, said, "My father repeatedly told us before he died that Japanese people did us two good things and two bad things."

"They helped us make our life better by introducing agriculture and taught us to be hard-working. On the other hand, their tight rein and forcing us to speak Japanese were bad," she said.

The Atayal people originally lived by hunting in the mountains and were known as fierce fighters.

Sicyang said, "Even after Japan left Taiwan, our parents raised us using familiar Japanese. So our common language in the hamlet is still Japanese."

The Japanese language has continued to be covertly used for more than half a century and has evolved into a unique variant, with postpositions frequently omitted.

During her high school years in an urban area, Sicyang was asked by one of her Han Chinese friends if she could speak the Atayal language. She answered yes and spoke some.

But the friend denied that she spoke an ethnic language and reminded her that she spoke Japanese.

Her four children are unable to speak the Atayal language. Her grandchildren started taking an ethnic language class at school while speaking Chinese in their daily conversations. Sicyang herself regularly studies the Atayal language at an adult education class.

The ethnic-language education started during the administration of Lee Teng-hui, Taiwan's first directly elected leader who promoted democratization, and progressed largely under the following 2000-2008 Democratic Progressive Party presidency of Chen Shui-bian.

Indigenous people accounts for about 2 percent of the estimated 23.6 million population in Taiwan. Among them, the Atayal are quite numerous, scattered in many parts of Taiwan.

Vivian Hsu, a TV personality active in Japan, is one of the notable Atayal people as her mother is a native Atayal.

Indigenous people face not only the language problem but also environmental issues.

At a gathering of Aohua villagers at a community center for a briefing on development plans for another stone pit on the upper side of the hamlet, they voiced concerns about the plans, with one saying, "It may further the destruction of the environment" and another saying, "It might have adverse effects on the younger generation."

There are numerous quarries on the nearby mountain and many men from the village make their living as truck drivers, carrying the stone quarried from the pits.

When Sicyang was a child, crabs could be caught in a mountain stream, but they have long gone as sediment deposits have increased due to the quarrying.

Sicyang has launched a group to protect their ethnic identity and to try to conserve the environment of the hamlet and revitalize their traditional culture.

"I believe there are similar problems around the world. The strong foist what they do not want on the ethnic minority's land," said Hayung Noqan, a 47-year-old elementary school teacher, after the briefing at the center. Born in Aohua, Hayung has studied the hamlet's history.

Aohua and its vicinity once became one of the candidates for a final disposal site for radioactive waste from a nuclear power station in 2014.

The Aohua elementary school, where Hayung teaches, is the only primary school in the hamlet, which has a population of 1,000 people and 77 students in total.

In a classroom of first graders, a 69-year-old female teacher wearing traditional costume teaches the Atayal language. The teacher, who is from another hamlet, said she grew up speaking the language at home. She also speaks Japanese.

Sicyang's grandchild, Toli Iban, 9, is a third grader at the school. At her store, Toli was asked to speak Atayal and spoke some bashfully, quickly drawing loud laughter from the people around -- because what he said was Japanese meaning "Where are you going?"

The environment for learning the Atayal language at school is much better than before. But Sicyang said, "Taking a class once a week is too little."

"We grew up hearing the Atayal language our parents and grandparents spoke in conversation. But our grandchildren have little opportunity to listen to the language in everyday life, so it's the same as a foreign language."

"We have a sense of crisis that our own language may disappear. I hope we all will talk in Atayal, not in Japanese, in the future," she said, while weaving an ethnic-patterned cloth.