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There is a lot of confusion out there when it comes to the languages of Taiwan. Is Taiwanese the same as Mandarin? Or is Taiwanese a dialect of Chinese? What does Taiwanese sound like? Does the Taiwanese language have writing? How many people speak Taiwanese? And is this language worth learning?
In this article, I’ll explore these and several other questions about Taiwanese and the other main languages of Taiwan. I’ll also give some examples of spoken Taiwanese, ways of writing Taiwanese with the Roman alphabet, tips for learning Taiwanese, and my personal experiences studying language in Taiwan.
Although I don’t speak Taiwanese myself (besides a few greetings and swears), my wife does, and I was frequently exposed to it in my decade plus of of living, working, and raising my kids in Taiwan.
Like most big-city foreign residents, I primarily learned and used Mandarin while living and traveling in Taiwan.
What are the official languages of Taiwan?
One of the many interesting facts about Taiwan is that is has four official languages. These are Taiwanese, Mandarin, Hakka, and the Formosan languages (Taiwanese aboriginal languages) collectively. English is not an official language of Taiwan, but it is widely spoken and studied there.
Taiwanese Hokkien (Taiyu or 臺語)
Taiwanese Hokkien (also referred to as Taiwanese, Taiyu, Holo, Taiwanese Minnan, or Formosan) is considered the “local” language of Taiwan. 81.9% of people in Taiwan speak Taiwanese to some extent at home.
Variations in the Taiwanese language today reflect variations that existed in different parts of the Minnan region of Fujian Province, Southern China where the language was spoken before it was carried over to Taiwan in the last 400 years. And like any language that has been geographically separated for hundreds of years, Taiwanese Hokkien has morphed and developed traits of its own. This includes many loan words from Japanese and Formosan aboriginal languages. Nevertheless, speakers of Taiwanese Hokkien and Minnan Hokkien can still understand each other.
To generalize, Taiwanese is more commonly spoken by the older generation of Taiwan, in the country more so than in the city, and in informal contexts such as street markets more so than in formal contexts such as schools and public institutions. It is also more commonly spoken in the larger cities of southern Taiwan, such as Kaohsiung and Tainan, than in the capital city Taipei and the north of Taiwan. Members of the lower class are also more likely to speak Taiwanese, while the upper class are more likely to use Mandarin, as the latter is the primary language of education and government.
Listen to some common Taiwanese phrases here to see what the language sounds like:
In my experience, it is common for Taiwanese to switch between Mandarin and Taiwanese depending on the context. For example, a taxi driver will chat with a foreign passenger in Mandarin, then proceed to answer a phone call and chat with his friend in Taiwanese. Similarly, my wife will speak Mandarin at the bank, then Taiwanese to the local street food vendor outside the bank’s front door. In other words, most Taiwanese can speak at least some of both languages; it’s seldom a one-or-the-other thing.
Because my wife spent a lot of time at her grandparents’ house in the countryside of Chiayi when she was growing up, she speaks virtually fluent Taiwanese. Her younger brother and sister, on the other hand, struggle to answer even simple questions in Taiwanese from relatives at Lunar New Year gatherings, because they only had limited exposure to it as kids; namely a few classes in elementary school, and an annual trip to the countryside to visit relatives on LNY.
When it comes to dirty and swear words in the Taiwanese language, though, it seems that just about every person in Taiwan, including the elementary-aged kids I taught for years, is quite proficient!
Taiwanese Mandarin (guoyu or 國語)
Mandarin is the most commonly spoken form of the Chinese language in the world. Considered a group of languages, Mandarin originated in Northern China. Mandarin includes the Beijing dialect, which in China is considered the Standard form of Chinese across the country, despite the many regional dialects that exist.
Mandarin was made the official language of Taiwan by the KMT party, who lost the Chinese Civil War and fled to Taiwan following WWII. Today, Mandarin is almost universally understood in Taiwan. Around 83.5% speak it to some extent at home (but many of that figure ALSO speak Taiwanese Hokkien at home). Mandarin is the lingua franca of Taiwan, and the primary language of government, education, television, business, and so on.
For casual visitors, anyone planning to travel around Taiwan, or migrants planning to spend any length of time in Taiwan, it makes the most sense to pick up Mandarin. One can almost always get by with Mandarin, but there is a sizable percentage of the population (especially among the younger generation, or people who migrated from China to Taiwan in the last 80 years) who speak little to no Taiwanese.
Taiwanese people usually call Mandarin zhongwen (中文) or guoyu (國語/ national language’), while in China, it’s more common to hear Mandarin be referred to as Putonghua (普通話).
Also, notably, Taiwanese Mandarin is still written in traditional Chinese characters (fantizi or 繁體字), while in China Mandarin is most commonly written in simplified Chinese characters (jiantizi or 簡體字).
Taiwanese Mandarin speakers can understand Beijing Mandarin speakers and vice versa. The level of difference could be compared to the difference between American and British English.
Taiwanese vs. Mandarin
As you can see, Taiwanese Hokkien and Mandarin Chinese are quite different, but they have historical connections. Mandarin is a group of Chinese languages, and Standard Mandarin is the standardized form used all over China, and which is based largely on the Beijing way of speaking. Taiwanese is a regional dialect (or topolect; I’ll get more into that below) of Chinese which is derived from the dialect used by the Hokkien people of Fujian province in Southern China.
In a sense, you could consider Taiwanese a dialect of Chinese, but it its origins go so far back, and it has been isolated for so long, that the two languages are not mutually intelligible, and you could practically consider it a different language.
Last but not least, while only about 20 million people speak Taiwanese Hokkien, and 40 million speak all types of Hokkien, there are nearly a billion Mandarin speakers in the world.
I’ll talk more about the differences between Taiwanese and Mandarin in the below sections on “Is Taiwanese a Mandarin dialect” and “What does Taiwanese sound like”.
This video also gives a good introduction to Hokkien and you can hear what the language sounds like, including the characteristic nasal sounds and “throat scratching” that accompanies the k sound.
Taiwanese Hakka (kejia yu or 客家語)
The Hakka are a once nomadic group of people that originated in Central China. Hakka were among the first Chinese to migrate to Taiwan, and today they comprise 15-20% of the population of Taiwan. For the casual visitor, you are unlikely to be able to tell the difference between Hakka and other Taiwanese.
The Hakka live primarily in rural areas of Hsinchu, Miaoli, and Kaohsiung. They are known for their strong working ethic and hearty, filling cuisine. Today, about 6.6% of Taiwanese speak Hakka at home.
Formosan Languages (Aboriginal Languages)
Aboriginal Taiwanese make up just under 2.5% of the population of Taiwan. They belong to the Austronesian family group, and Taiwan is thought to be the original homeland from which all Austronesian people sailed out and populated islands throughout Southeast Asia, the Pacific, and as far away as Madagascar. They have been living in Taiwan for 6000 or more years.
Today, there are 16 officially recognized Taiwanese aboriginal tribes. Of the 26 languages collectively known as the Formosan Languages, 10 are extinct, 5 are moribund, and several others are at risk of dying out.
One aboriginal word you are likely to hear in Taiwan is naruwan, or welcome, which is often used in tourism bureau campaigns.
Is English a national language in Taiwan?
English learning is a multi-billion dollar industry in Taiwan, and virtually all Taiwanese students learn it in schools, cram schools, from private tutors, and so on. Most Western expats living in Taiwan are English teachers, Taiwanese universities offer programs in English, and almost everyone in the country can speak at least some very basic English. English is also vital for business professionals, government workers, and more.
However, English is not presently one of the national languages of Taiwan. The government has a goal of making Taiwan “fully bilingual” by 2030. According to this article, this replaces an earlier goal of adding English to the list of national languages of Taiwan, which was somewhat abandoned due to the high cost of translating all government documents to English. A majority of Taiwanese do seem to still support making English one of the national languages of Taiwan.
Which languages are heard on the Taipei MRT?
The MRT system in Taipei is considered one of the best in the world, and riding it nearly everywhere you go is one of the great pleasures of traveling in Taipei or living there.
You will soon notice that announcements on the Taipei MRT are made in four languages. These don’t correspond exactly to the four languages of Taiwan. Rather, they are: Mandarin, Taiwanese, Hakka, and English. In 2018, a fifth language was added: Japanese. This wasn’t done due to Taiwan’s Japanese colonial past, but rather because of all the Asian tourists who visit Taipei every year, nearly half are Japanese.
Here’s a video showing the MRT station announcement in all five languages:
History of the Taiwanese Language
Hokkien is the language of the Hoklo people of Fujian Province in Southern China. Linguistically, it is a Southern Min language, spoken people in the Minan (South Min) region of Fujian. This coastal region includes the cities of Xiamen, Quanzhou and Zhangzhou. Linguists suggest that the Hokkien language diverged from Chinese as early as the Han Dynasty (202 BC–220 AD). The fact that it remained largely isolated from the north for much of history explains why the language has become so different from Northern dialects of Chinese.
Fujian was historically a center of trade and migration, and a majority of Taiwanese people today can trace their ancestry to Fujian. Fishermen first began migrating from Fujian to Taiwan around 400 years ago, and this immigration accelerated during the Qing Dynasty. These immigrants of course brought the Hokkien language with them. Minnanese also migrated to much of Southeast Asia, so Hokkien is also the most common form of Chinese spoken in that part of Asia.
Related article: Thailand vs. Taiwan: A detailed comparison
When Taiwan became a colony of Japan (1895 to 1945), the Taiwanese language was discouraged. Japanese became the official language of government and education. Then in 1949, the KMT fled to Taiwan and made Mandarin the official language, continuing a policy of discouraging the commoners’ language, Taiwanese. Using Taiwanese in public was banned, and transgressions were punished with beatings, fines, and public humiliation.
After Martial Law in Taiwan was lifted in 1987, the Taiwanese language began undergoing a revival that continued into the 1990s. This snowballed in 2000, when the first non-KMT party ever won a Taiwanese election. Chen Shui-bian’s independence-leaning DPP party would for the following eight years promote the localization of Taiwanese culture, including its indigenous languages. This resulted in an increased sense of national identity as one that is distinct from that of China, and Taiwanese language classes were added the curriculum in elementary schools.
Is Taiwanese a dialect of Mandarin Chinese?
Taiwanese is a regional expression of Hokkien, and Hokkien itself could be regarded as a dialect of Chinese. In the Chinese language, the word fāngyán (方言) is often used to refer to the various regional dialects of Chinese, such as Hokkien, Shanghainese, and Sichuanese. While in Mandarin the word simply means “the language patterns of a certain place,” it is commonly associated with and used for describing the various regional dialects of China, including Taiwanese. In English, this word is usually translated as dialect or topolect.
So can Taiwanese speakers understand Mandarin speakers, and vice versa? Unlike comparing Taiwanese Mandarin and Beijing/Standard Mandarin speakers, the differences here are much starker. While Taiwanese and Mandarin have historical connections, with similar grammar, sentence structures, and some words that sound vaguely similar, overall, they are not mutually intelligible. You could compare it to speakers of two different Romance languages, such as Spanish and Italian.
Taiwanese Hokkien speakers can, however, easily communicate with Hokkien speakers in Fujian Province (including those in Xiamen (Amoy dialect), Quanzhou and Zhangzhou), as well as the many Hokkien speakers dispersed throughout Southeast Asia.
Is Taiwanese a dying language?
After being repressed by the Japanese for 50 years, then by the KMT for another 50 years, it is hardly surprising that the practice of speaking Taiwanese has taken a real hit.
A shrinking number of people in Taiwan, mostly born before the 1950s, still speak Taiwanese only. For example, when I go to visit my wife’s extended family in a small farming community in Chiayi for Lunar New Year, there are some elderly relatives that I can barely communicate with because they can’t speak Mandarin and I can’t speak Taiwanese (we often resort to the language of drinking, instead). Younger people speak varying levels of Taiwanese, from fully fluent to only a small number of words and phrases.
In this paper, Beaser argues that the revitalization of the language in the last few decades is just a short-term reaction to decades of marginalization, and that significant decline or even, in the worst case scenario, extinction of the language, is inevitable.
Yet Beaser also argues that the Taiwanese language may remain as a cultural legacy, but how much as a legacy depends of how hard the government strives to preserve it. One key to preserving the language is to developing a standardized script and inputting system for Taiwanese, in the same way that pinyin and zhuyin (Bopomofo) are used for writing Mandarin in China and Taiwan, respectively. This comes with its own complications, though, and leads to the next series of questions.
Writing Taiwanese Languages
Here are some questions pertaining to the various writing systems for the languages of Taiwan. As I already mentioned above, one major difference between China and Taiwan is that Taiwan mainly uses traditional Chinese characters for writing Mandarin, while China uses simplified ones.
Does Taiwanese have a writing system?
Taiwanese does not have a strong written tradition. For most of its history, it has adopted traditional/classical Chinese characters. What this means is that when a Hokkien speaker and Standard Chinese speaker look at the same character, they would simply pronounce it differently, but what they say carries the same meaning.
It is more complicated than that, though. There are some characters that are unique to Hokkien/Taiwanese, especially in informal writing. Moreover, Taiwanese speakers sometimes use traditional Chinese characters for words or phrases that don’t etymologically match their meaning in Mandarin; rather, they just sound similar and thus convenient to use.
The Taiwan ministry of education currently publishes a list of around 700 Chinese characters that are ideal for writing Taiwanese.
How are Taiwanese languages transliterated?
The transliteration of languages means the development of systems for writing them using other alphabets, most commonly the Roman (Latin) alphabet. This gets messy and complicated in Taiwan, not only because there are several different languages, but also because no one system has been universally adopted (like pinyin in China).
Anyone who learns Mandarin anywhere in the world (including native Chinese speakers) usually starts out by learning a system of phonetic symbols that represent the sounds of Chinese. Several systems have been proposed and used over the decades for transliterating Mandarin Chinese.
In China today, Hanyu pinyin (漢語拼音) is also universally known and used. It is also the system most commonly preferred by non-native learners of Mandarin, as it is mostly intuitive and similar to English. For example, “b” in pinyin is the same sound as “b” in English, and tai + wan = Taiwan. Kids learn pinyin in kindergarten in China, and you can see pinyin alongside Chinese characters on signs across China. Pinyin is also often used for typing Chinese characters on keyboards and phones in China. It often appears with accents over the vowels to indicate the four tones of Chinese.
In Taiwan, most people use zhuyin (注音), commonly referred to as ‘Bopomofo’. This is a system of 37 phonetic symbols (for example b, p, m, f =ㄅ, ㄆ, ㄇ, ㄈ) which can be combined to form all the sounds of Chinese.
Young kids begin formally learning Mandarin by memorizing this alphabet, and most adults use it to type Chinese characters (on keyboards, the little symbols are written on the corner of the Latin alphabet keys).
While some expats in Taiwan pick up zhuyin, a lot of them still prefer and use pinyin, which is also more common in language textbooks.
In children’s Mandarin textbooks in Taiwan, little Bopomofo characters are commonly written beside the traditional characters, giving readers a “hint” for how to pronounce the word. However, Bopomofo never appear on signs, websites, and so on, like pinyin does in China.
Because Taiwan has sporadically used and at different points officially adopted a few other pinyin systems in the past (notably Wade-Giles, Tongyong pinyin and Hanyu pinyin), words written using these systems do sometimes appear on public signs, often incorrectly, and the average Taiwanese person does not have a clear understanding of how to read or properly use them.
Is pinyin political in Taiwan?
Sometimes, it seems that Taiwanese people’s refusal to learn or use standardized pinyin stems from a desire to not be like China. This was clearly the case in 2010, when Taiwanese groups created petitions against using the letter ‘x’ to represent the “xin” (new) in Xin Bei Shi (新北市) when New Taipei City was formed. Instead, they wanted it spelled “Hsin”, the way it is spelled in Wade-Giles, the preferred system in Taiwan in the past.
For many Taiwanese, though, it is simply a matter of habit, as they grew up learning Chinese with Bopomofo, and spelling their names using the Wade-Giles system (this is why the same surname would be spelled Xu in China or Hsu in Taiwan). Learning a new system is annoying and few want to bother. Officially, the government has adopted China-style Hanyu pinyin since 2009, and that’s why you may noticed that the Taipei MRT stations actually follow the correct rules of pinyin, but after 10 years, most of the population still doesn’t care and hasn’t bothered to learn it, even though doing so only takes about 30 minutes.
The end result is that pinyin in Taiwan (beyond the Taipei MRT) is a jumbled mess. I used to live in Banqiao (pinyin spelling), which I’ve also seen spelled as Banciao, Panchiao, and in some cases, my Taiwanese friends just seem to mash their keyboards with their first and/or just add every letter they think could possibly fit, resulting in something like “Bancqiuao.”
For expats learning Chinese, we do tend to prefer using China’s pinyin system rather than zhuyin simply because the former is more intuitive, as it uses the same letters as English. Also, most textbooks and online Chinese dictionaries use pinyin. For most of us, this preference has nothing to do with the politics of Taiwan and China.
Hakka and aboriginal language transliteration
Hakka, like Taiwanese, has roots in China and makes use of traditional Chinese characters. Hakka also has a Latin script developed by Western missionaries.
The aboriginal people of Taiwan did not have writing systems. Some missionaries developed Latin scripts for various Formosan aboriginal languages. In 2005, the Taiwanese government developed an official alphabet for the 16 officially recognized aboriginal tribes of Taiwan.
Several orthographies have been proposed for writing the Taiwanese language using the Roman alphabet. These are largely the domain of linguists and academics; none are well known or used by the general population in Taiwan.
The oldest is Pe̍h-ōe-jī , which later branched into the Taiwanese Romanization System and Taiwanese Language Phonetic Alphabet. These include around 24 letters, including diacritics for tones and “ to represent a nasal mark.
The Taiwanese government has attempted to reconcile the differences between these systems under one common system, but it has yet to be universally adopted.
Here’s a guide to pronouncing Romanized Taiwanese.
What does Taiwanese sound like?
Taiwanese is considered to have eight tones (there are some overlaps, though, and some consider it to be only five). There are also complex tone sandhi (tone-changing) rules. Consonant sounds can appear and the beginning or end of words, and vowel sounds can have distinct nasal or non-nasal forms.
These nasal sounds, as well as a kind of throat scratching that accompanies the ‘k’ sound, are major differences that distinguish the sound of Taiwanese from Mandarin. Do hear an example of throat scratching, see the video “Mandarin Chinese vs. Hokkien” that I shared in the “Taiwanese vs. Mandarin” section above.
Better than trying to “explain” what Taiwanese sounds like, it’s better to just share some videos with you of Taiwanese people teaching some common Taiwanese phrases:
Is there a Taiwanese “accent”?
Without a doubt, when people in Taiwan speak Mandarin, they have an accent that is quite different from that of Standard Mandarin. While Standard Chinese is supposed to be uniform, and is based on the Beijing dialect, the way people speak it varies in every region of China, due to the influence of local dialects, and Taiwan is no exception.
As someone who began studying Chinese in China (and using a lot of China-made textbooks and podcasts, such as the excellent Chinesepod.com), I noticed some pretty huge differences in the language when I first moved to Taiwan.
In some ways, Taiwanese Mandarin is more similar to the Mandarin spoken in Southern China rather than Beijing and the North. Some describe Taiwanese Mandarin (and Southern Chinese Mandarin) as ‘softer,’ with less use of Erhua, the adding of an ‘er’ (ㄦ) sound to the end of many words.
In Taiwanese Mandarin, sounds like shi, chi, and zhi are often softened to the point that they sound more like the way si, ci, and zi are pronounced in the Mainland. As someone who learned Chinese using pinyin, this really threw me off when I moved to Taiwan. Every time I learned a new word with one of these sounds, I would have to subsequently look it up online to confirmed what the correct pinyin was. Taiwanese Mandarin speakers also sometimes use different tones for the same words that the ones used in China.
On top of this, many Taiwanese Mandarin speakers sprinkle their speech with words from Taiwanese Hokkien. Moreover, even when using Mandarin words only, some of the word choices are often different in Taiwan, even for the most basic and common things. For example, as soon as I moved to Taiwan, I noticed that they called the color brown kafeise (咖啡色, literally “coffee color) instead of zongse (棕色), pineapple is fengli (鳳梨) rather than boluo (波羅), and cheese is called qi si (起司 or 起士) not nai lao (奶酪). Also, these words likely vary across China, too; they were just the ones commonly used in the Chinese city I used to live in.
Besides this, Taiwanese Mandarin also has some loan words from Japanese, many of which were first incorporated into Taiwanese Hokkien. An example is kanpai (cheers, which is heard just as often in Taiwan as the Mandarin ganbei). Younger Taiwanese also tend to randomly toss in English words when they speak, and the more they’ve studied English (or been abroad), the more they tend to do this.
Because Taiwanese television shows and pop stars are well known across China, people in China are familiar with and can pinpoint a Taiwanese accent when they meet someone from Taiwan. And despite the political tensions between Taiwan and China, people in the Mainland don’t “look down” on people with a Taiwanese accent. There are different accents in every part of China, and people in China mostly consider Taiwan to be one part of China.
On the other hand, Taiwanese Mandarin speakers sometimes like to poke fun at Beijing-style Mandarin (in my personal experience), and this can be just as much a way of expressing animosity for the Chinese as it is making silly jokes about what they aren’t used to.
Taiwanese are quite familiar with Beijing Mandarin from Chinese historical dramas (which are hugely popular in Taiwan) and able to copy it very well. They tend to find it abrasive and even comical. For example, to call a boyfriend or girlfriend baobei (baby) in Taiwanese Mandarin sounds much softer than the bao bei er (寶貝兒) you might here in China. Similarly, the doubling of sounds that Taiwanese often do, like “yi dian dian” (a little) sounds much cutesier than the “yi dian er” (which comes out like “yi diar”) in Beijinghua.
Foreigners more used to the Taiwanese accent even describe the Bejing accent as sounding “pirate-like”, with so many “er!” sounds.
Learning Taiwanese Language
Are you interested in learning how to speak Taiwanese? Fortunately, there are some good resources out there. Glossika offers an online Taiwanese Hokkien course, while Taiwanese Grammar and Spoken Hokkien are extremely useful guides. Also check out the Bite-Size Taiwanese podcast.
If you’re lucky enough to be living in Taiwan, the best way is to just pair up with a local Taiwanese for language exchange (I teach you English, you teach me Taiwanese) or look into Taiwanese classes or tutors offered by local language centers in Taiwan.
How to say “hello” and “thank you” in Taiwanese
So what should I learn: Mandarin or Taiwanese?
This is a subjective question, but in my opinion, learning Mandarin is far more useful. Mandarin spoken and understood by the vast majority of Chinese speakers in the world. As the world’s most spoken language, it can provide you with multiple opportunities both in or outside of Taiwan.
For living in or traveling around Taiwan, Mandarin is also more useful. Almost everyone you have to deal with will be able to speak it, while the same could not be said about Taiwanese. Moreover, there are more resources, apps, courses, and textbooks for learning Mandarin.
In my 10+ years of Taiwan, I’ve never been in a situation when I regretted not putting in the countless hours it would require to learn Taiwanese. Sure, Taiwanese people (especially in the countryside) love to ask whether I can speak Taiwanese, and when I provide the obvious answer, they explode with laughter and start making fun of me in Taiwanese.
Still, this doesn’t mean learning Taiwanese would be a bad idea. Particularly if you plan to visit or live in Southern Taiwan, or anywhere in the countryside, Taiwanese could prove to be more useful to you. Ideally, it would make sense to pick up some Taiwanese alongside Mandarin.
If you really want to impress locals, then learn even just a little Taiwanese. Taiwanese people already overly praise foreigners who learn even the slightest bit of Mandarin. If you go the extra mile and pick up some Taiwanese, I guarantee the locals with love you for it.
Finally, considering that Taiwanese is a potentially endangered language, I would by no means discourage anyone who is interested from learning it. The more people who speak Taiwanese, the more likely the language is to survive. But ultimately, the fate of the Taiwanese language will lie in the hands of Taiwanese themselves.