Languages of Taiwan

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Languages of Taiwan
Formosan languages.png
Official languages Standard Mandarin Chinese
Indigenous languages Formosan languages
Vernaculars Taiwanese Hokkien, Hakka Chinese, Taiwanese Mandarin
Main foreign languages English, Japanese
Sign languages Taiwanese Sign Language

The language with the most native speakers in Taiwan is Taiwanese Hokkien, or "Taiwanese" for short, spoken by about 70% of the population.[1][2] Hokkien is a topolect of the varieties of Chinese originating in southern Fujian and is spoken by many overseas Chinese throughout Southeast Asia. Recently there has been a growing use of Taiwanese Hokkien in the broadcast media.

Members of the Hakka Chinese subgroup, who are concentrated in several counties throughout Taiwan, often speak Hakka Chinese. The Formosan languages are the ethnic languages of the aboriginal tribes of Taiwan, comprising about 2% of the island's population. It's common for young and middle-aged Hakka and aboriginal people to speak Mandarin and Hokkien better than, or to the exclusion of, their ethnic languages.

Persons who emigrated from mainland China after 1949 (12% of the population) mostly speak Mandarin Chinese.[3] Standard Chinese is the official language and is almost universally spoken and understood.[4] It has been the only officially sanctioned medium of instruction in schools in Taiwan since the late 1940s, following the handover of Taiwan to the government of the Republic of China in 1945.

As a result of the half century of Japanese rule, many people born before 1940 also can speak fluent Japanese.[citation needed]

National language[edit]

Mandarin Chinese[edit]

In 1945, following the end of World War II, Taiwan was placed under the control of the Kuomintang-led Republic of China (ROC). Standard Chinese ("Mandarin") was introduced as the official language and made compulsory in schools. (Before 1945, Japanese was the official language and taught in schools.) Since then, Mandarin has been established as a lingua franca among the various groups in Taiwan: the majority Taiwanese-speaking Hoklo (Hokkien), the Hakka who have their own spoken language, Mainlanders whose native tongue may be any Chinese variant in mainland China, and the aboriginals who speak aboriginal languages.

Until the 1980s the Kuomintang administration heavily promoted the use of Mandarin and discouraged the use of Taiwanese and other vernaculars, even portraying them as inferior. Mandarin was the main language for use in the media. This produced a backlash in the 1990s. Although some more extreme supporters of Taiwan independence tend to be opposed to Mandarin in favor of Taiwanese, efforts to replace Mandarin either with Taiwanese or with a multi-lingual standard have remained stalled. Today, Mandarin is taught by immersion starting in elementary school. After the second grade, the entire educational system is in Mandarin, except for local language classes that have been taught for a few hours each week starting in the mid-1990s.

Taiwanese Mandarin (as with Singlish and many other situations of a creole speech community) is spoken at different levels according to the social class and situation of the speakers. Formal occasions call for the acrolectal level of Standard Chinese (Guoyu), which differs little from the Standard Chinese (Putonghua) of the People's Republic of China. Less formal situations may result in the basilect form, which has more uniquely Taiwanese features. Bilingual Taiwanese speakers may code-switch between Mandarin and Taiwanese, sometimes in the same sentence.

Mandarin is spoken fluently by almost the entire Taiwanese population, except for some elderly people who were educated under Japanese rule. In Taipei, where there is a high concentration of Mainlanders whose native language is not Taiwanese, Mandarin is used in greater frequency than in southern Taiwan and more rural areas where there are fewer Mainlanders.[citation needed] Many Taiwanese, particularly under the age of 45, speak Mandarin better than Hakka or Hokkien.[5]

Written Chinese[edit]

Taiwan uses Traditional Chinese characters. In mainland China these characters have been replaced by Simplified Chinese characters. Although Traditional Chinese characters are also used in Hong Kong, a small number of characters are written differently in Taiwan; the Standard Form of National Characters is the orthography standard used in Taiwan and administered by the ROC Ministry of Education, and has minor variances compared with the standardised character forms used in Hong Kong. Such differences relate to orthodox and vulgar variants of Chinese characters.

Written Vernacular Chinese is the standard of written Chinese used in official documents, general literature and most aspects of everyday life, and has grammar based on Modern Standard Mandarin. Vernacular Chinese is the modern written variant of Chinese that supplanted the use of Classical Chinese in literature following the New Culture Movement of the early 20th Century, which is based on the grammar of Chinese spoken in ancient times. In recent times, following the Taiwan localization movement and an increasing presence of Taiwanese literature, Written Hokkien based on the vocabulary and grammar of Taiwanese Hokkien is occasionally used in literature and informal communications.

Chinese phonetics[edit]

Main article: Bopomofo
Zhuyin and Hanzi location.svg

Zhuyin Fuhao, often abbreviated as Zhuyin, or known as Bopomofo after its first four letters, is the national phonetic system of the Republic of China for teaching the pronunciation of Chinese characters, especially in Mandarin. The system uses 37 special symbols to represent the Mandarin sounds: 21 consonants and 16 rimes, though it also has extensions for Hakka and Taiwanese.

These phonetic symbols sometimes appear as ruby characters printed next to the Chinese characters in young children's books, and in editions of classical texts (which frequently use characters that appear at very low frequency rates in newspapers and other such daily fare). In advertisements, these phonetic symbols are sometimes used to write certain particles (e.g., ㄉ instead of 的); other than this, one seldom sees these symbols used in mass media adult publications except as a pronunciation guide (or index system) in dictionary entries. Bopomofo symbols are also mapped to the ordinary Roman character keyboard (1 = bo, q = po, a = mo, and so forth) used in one method for inputting Chinese text when using the computer.

Unlike pinyin, the sole purpose for Zhuyin in elementary education is to teach standard Mandarin pronunciation to children. Grade one textbooks of all subjects (including Mandarin) are entirely in zhuyin. After that year, Chinese character texts are given in annotated form. Around grade four, presence of Zhuyin annotation is greatly reduced, remaining only in the new character section. School children learn the symbols so that they can decode pronunciations given in a Chinese dictionary, and also so that they can find how to write words for which they know only the sounds.

Pinyin, on the other hand, is dual-purpose. Besides being a pronunciation notation, pinyin is used widely in publications in mainland China. Some books from mainland China are published purely in pinyin with not even a single Chinese character. Those books are targeted to minority tribal groups or Westerners who know spoken Mandarin but have not yet learned written Chinese characters.


Although the Wade-Giles system is commonly used for romanization of Chinese in Taiwan, romanization tends to be highly inconsistent. Unlike mainland China, Taiwan does not use the Latin alphabet in teaching Mandarin pronunciation in schools but rather uses a system called Zhuyin. There have been efforts by the educational system to move toward a Roman-based system, but these have been slow due to bureaucratic inertia, political reluctance to follow mainland China's footsteps and the huge cost in teacher retraining. The central government adopted Tongyong Pinyin as the official romanization in 2002 but local governments are permitted to override the standard as some have adopted Hanyu Pinyin and retained old romanizations that are commonly used. However, in August 2008 the central government announced that Hanyu Pinyin will be the only system of romanization in Taiwan as of January 2009.

Other languages[edit]

The most commonly used home language in Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu, 2010.

Taiwanese Hokkien[edit]

Main article: Taiwanese Hokkien

Taiwanese Hokkien, commonly known as "Taiwanese", is a variant of Hokkien spoken in Taiwan and is part of a group of Southern Min Chinese dialects. Taiwanese is officially seen as a Chinese dialect within a larger Chinese language, though there are issues of mutual intelligibility with other Chinese varieties.

There are both colloquial and literary registers of Taiwanese. Colloquial Taiwanese has roots in Old Chinese. Literary Taiwanese, which was originally developed in the 10th century in Fujian and based on Middle Chinese, was used at one time for formal writing, but is now largely extinct. A great part of Taiwanese Hokkien is mutually intelligible with other dialects of Hokkien as spoken in mainland China and South-east Asia and has a degree of intelligibility with other varieties of Min Nan languages such as Teochew. It is not, however, mutually intelligible with Mandarin or other Chinese languages.

Recent work by scholars such as Ekki Lu, Sakai Toru, and Lí Khîn-hoāⁿ (also known as Tavokan Khîn-hoāⁿ or Chin-An Li), based on former research by scholars such as Ông Io̍k-tek, has gone so far as to associate part of the basic vocabulary of the colloquial language with the Austronesian and Tai language families; however, such claims are not without controversy.


Main article: Hakka Chinese

Hakka is mainly spoken in Taiwan by people who have Hakka ancestry. Hakka is officially considered Chinese dialect within a larger Chinese language.

The most common of the five Hakka dialects on Taiwan are Sixian and Hailu.[6]

Aboriginal languages[edit]

Main article: Formosan languages

The Formosan languages are the languages of the aboriginal tribes of Taiwan. Taiwanese aborigines currently comprise about 2% of the island's population.[7] However, far fewer can still speak their ancestral language, after centuries of language shift. Of the approximately 26 languages of the Taiwanese aborigines, at least ten are extinct, another five are moribund,[8] and several others are to some degree endangered.

All Formosan languages are slowly being replaced by the culturally dominant Mandarin Chinese. In recent decades the government started an aboriginal reappreciation program that included the reintroduction of Formosan mother tongue education in Taiwanese schools. However, the results of this initiative have been disappointing.[9][10]

Sign language[edit]


The Japanese language was compulsorily taught while Taiwan was under Japanese rule (1895 to 1945). Although fluency is now largely limited to the elderly, some of Taiwan's youth who look to Japan as the trend-setter of the region's youth pop culture now might know a bit of Japanese through the media, their grandparents, or classes taken from private "cram schools".[citation needed]

As of 2005, few of the younger generations (under 65) could speak Japanese well, but many continue to (electively) study Japanese, as many high status families are active in business, law, and medicine and send their children to Japan.[5] It has been written that "when many of Taiwan’s most prominent business executives gather for lunch one Friday a month in Taiwan’s traditional downtown business center, the common language is Japanese, liberally interspersed with Taiwanese and some Mandarin, even though few of them learned Japanese before 1945 [...] Even these business executives, however, cannot begin to match the linguistic and cultural skills of older Taiwanese such as Lee Teng-hui."[5]


English is a common foreign language, with some large private schools providing English instruction. English is compulsory in students' curriculum once they enter elementary school. English as a school subject is also featured on Taiwan's education exams.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Cheng, Robert L. (1994). "Chapter 13: Language Unification in Taiwan: Present and Future". In Rubinstein, Murray. The Other Taiwan: 1945 to the Present. M.E. Sharpe. p. 362. ISBN 9781563241932. 
  2. ^ Klöter, Henning (2004). "Language Policy in the KMT and DPP eras". China Perspectives 56. ISSN 1996-4617. 
  3. ^ Liao, Silvie (2008). "A Perceptual Dialect Study of Taiwan Mandarin: Language Attitudes in the Era of Political Battle" (PDF). Proceedings of the 20th North American Conference on Chinese Linguistics (NACCL-20) (Columbus, Ohio: The Ohio State University) 1: 393. ISBN 9780982471500. OCLC 895153060. 
  4. ^ "Chapter 2: People and Language". The Republic of China Yearbook 2012. Executive Yuan, R.O.C. (Taiwan). 2012. p. 24. ISBN 9789860345902. Archived from the original on 2013-10-14. Retrieved 2013-12-18. 
  5. ^ a b c Noble (2005), p. 16.
  6. ^ "Chapter 2: People and Language" (PDF). The Republic of China Yearbook 2010. Government Information Office, Republic of China (Taiwan). p. 42. ISBN 9789860252781. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-08-05. 
  7. ^ Council of Indigenous Peoples, Executive Yuan "Statistics of Indigenous Population in Taiwan and Fukien Areas".
  8. ^ Zeitoun, Elizabeth & Ching-Hua Yu "The Formosan Language Archive: Linguistic Analysis and Language Processing". Computational Linguistics and Chinese Language Processing. Volume 10, No. 2, June 2005, pp. 167-200
  9. ^ Lee, Hui-chi (2004). A Survey of Language Ability, Language Use and Language Attitudes of Young Aborigines in Taiwan. In Hoffmann, Charlotte & Jehannes Ytsma (Eds.) Trilingualism in Family, School, and Community pp.101-117. Clevedon, Buffalo: Multilingual Matters. ISBN 1-85359-693-0
  10. ^ Huteson, Greg. (2003). Sociolinguistic survey report for the Tona and Maga dialects of the Rukai Language. SIL Electronic Survey Reports 2003-012, Dallas, TX: SIL International.


  • Noble, Gregory W. (2005). "What Can Taiwan (and the United States) Expect from Japan?". Journal of East Asian Studies 5: 1–34. JSTOR 23417886. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Weingartner, F. F. (1996). Survey of Taiwan aboriginal languages. Taipei. ISBN 957-9185-40-9. 

External links[edit]