In this blog post we explore the primary languages are spoken in Taiwan as well as a few of the benefits to studying Mandarin on the Island.
“Language exerts hidden power, like the moon on the tides”– Rita Mae Brown
Language is a funny thing. So much of who we are, how we think, and what we do are defined by the languages that we speak. No less, our preferences for what “should be” or “what is right” connects back to the grammar and lexicon that we feel most comfortable around.
In the case of foreigners trying to appreciate and understand a country such as Taiwan, examining the languages spoken and their legacy within Taiwan’s history can be an incredible way to reflect on the uniqueness and identity of the Island.
The four official languages spoken in Taiwan include: Mandarin, Taiwanese, Hakka, and Formosan Languages (set of languages native to the indigenous tribes of Taiwan). English has long been promoted and more recently, the Taiwanese ministry of education has made a commitment to increase the presence of other Southeast Asian languages offered in schools.
In 2022 the government took steps to set a goal for the Island to be bilingual or fully functional in English by 2030 while additionally pushing forward a comprehensive plan that promotes the language use and acquisition of all of its national languages.
For the foreigner new to Taiwan, this can all feel like a lot to keep track of – after all, “isn’t Taiwan where someone is supposed to go if you just want to learn Chinese?”
In the pages below, we will break down the different languages spoken in Taiwan as well as a little of how they arrived on the Island.
When foreigners who have lived in China arrive in Taiwan, one of the first things that they often comment on is one, how “clear” the standard Mandarin on the Island is and two, how it is so challenging to read the traditional characters!— An Expat in Taipei
Westerners have the unfortunate habit of conflating the words “Mandarin” and “Chinese” when in fact the term Chinese encompasses all of the languages and dialects spoken within China, including Cantonese, Shanghainese, Hokkien, Hakka, etc., while Mandarin or guoyu (國語), is the prominent language or dialect that is the official language China and one of the official languages of Taiwan. The pronunciations in Mandarin are based off of a northern Chinese dialect close to what was traditionally spoken in Beijing.
Mandarin is the dominant language in Taiwan and operates as the lingua franca. It is the primary language for government, education, business, television, etc. While its spoken and written history on the Island extends back further, the rise of the prominence of Mandarin in Taiwan can be traced to the arrival of Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang following their defeat in China’s Civil War. In an effort to consolidate control over the Island the KMT instituted a mono-language policy during Taiwan’s period of martial law that permitted people to only speak Mandarin in public. This was similar to the single language restrictions under Japanese Colonial Rule where Japanese was likewise mandated.
While the Mandarin language policy was abolished following the democratization of the Island towards the end of the 20th century, it has resulted in the prominence of the language spoken on the Island today. Most studies suggests that around 80-85% of the Island speaks Mandarin at home (often in addition to other dialects/languages) in addition to its use in public.
Two major differences between the Mandarin in Taiwan versus mainland China are in some cases word choice (think American and British English) and the use of traditional versus simplified characters. 話vs. 话 meaning to speak. It’s often easy for those who know traditional characters to read simplified characters but not the other way around – that’s why it’s better to study Mandarin in Taiwan! See our blog post about where to learn Mandarin in Taipei.
Taiwan also uses a system called or Zhuyin or Bopomofo (注音符號), as the official phonetic system. Mainland China uses a system called pinyin which is the romanized pronunciation of the characters with accompanying tone markers (although certain language schools in Taiwan will teach pinyin to foreigners if they have been learning it previously).
If Mandarin is the language of governance in Taiwan, then Taiwanese or Taiwanese Hokkien (also referred to as Taiyu, Holo, Taiwanese Minnan, or Formosan) is the local language of the Island. The language comes from the Minnan region of Fujian with variations and influences that have occurred over the past 400 years. Taiwanese Hokkien has in many instances also borrowed words or phrases from Japanese and Formosan indigenous languages but it retains the same primary lexicon.
In general, Taiwanese is spoken more often in informal contexts. It is also more common in rural areas as well as the south of Taiwan but you can hear it in Taipei as well. Roughly 80 percent of people in Taiwan speak Taiwanese to some extent with older generations often using it more frequently. Although it was suppressed by both the Japanese and the KMT, Taiwanese has seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years as a means of helping cultivate the identity of the Island. Taiwanese, Hakka, and Formosan Indigenous languages are now mandatory classes in school in Taiwan.
The Hakka are another linguistic group that migrated to Taiwan from mainland China beginning in the 17th century. Hailing traditionally central China, Hakka groups later traveled to Taiwan from Guangdong and Fujian areas. These days it is more common to hear Hakka spoken or find people of Hakka descent in the western, southern, or more rural parts of Taiwan. The Hakkas in Taiwan were for a long time considered outsiders until the arrival of the Japanese and later the KMT. Although it is one of Taiwan’s official languages, Hakka is not widely spoken among the population.
At just under 2.5%, Aboriginal Taiwanese make up a small portion of the population of Taiwan. They belong to what is referred to as the Austronesian family group that includes other people of Southeast Asia and the Pacific. In some cases they are believed to have been living in Taiwan for over 6000 years. Today there are 16 officially recognized Taiwanese aboriginal tribes and 26 languages collectively known as the Formosan Languages. Of the Formosan languages, 10 are extinct, 5 are dying, and others are at risk, however, the government as well as local communities are making a concerted effort at preserving these languages and passing them onto the next generation. The east coast of Taiwan has the highest number of aboriginal groups and descendants on the Island.
English is growing in influence and popularity in Taiwan. The English learning is a massive industry and roughly a third or more of the population can speak English to some degree. Foreigners who visit Taiwan are often surprised and relieved at the degree of English proficiency. Although there has been support for making English a national language, the government has made it a priority for Taiwan to be fully bilingual by 2030 in terms of signage and amenities.
As part of the legacy of the Japanese colonial period you will see certain Japanese influences in Taiwan in terms of loan words and cultural practices. Although it is not widely heard, a segment of the older population in Taiwan still speaks or can understand Japanese. Nowadays Japanese tourists make up nearly half of all Asian tourists in Taiwan and as a result Japanese has been added as a language on the Taipei MRT.
Other languages such as Tagalog, Vietnamese, and Spanish are increasing in popularity in Taiwan as a result of immigrant workers and Taiwan’s relations with countries in Central and South America.