Mandarin Chinese (Kuo-yü, or national language) is the first language of about 20 percent of the population, mainly in Taipei (Taipei dialect) and other large cities, and is spoken as a second language by many others. The Taiwanese dialect (T’ai-yü, also known as Minnan) is spoken by about 70 percent of the population and is becoming widely used in the broadcast media. Although there are about 4 million Hakka in Taiwan, the Hakka dialect is spoken mostly by the older generation. [Source: Library of Congress, March 2005 *]

The Wade-Giles system of romanization of Mandarin Chinese words prevails in Taiwan even though in 1984 the Ministry of Education adopted a modified system of Mandarin romanization called Gwoyeu Romatzyh (National Phonetic Symbols), which was devised by the Republic of China government in 1928. Then, in 2002 the government officially adopted the Tongyong (universal) Pinyin (combined sound) system—similar to Hanyu (Han language) Pinyin used in mainland China—as recommended in 1996 by the Educational Reform Council. *

Aboriginal peoples once spoke 24 Austronesian languages, but seven of these languages are extinct, with only a few elderly people knowing a few words. The population includes a few thousand Japanese speakers; Japanese is spoken mostly among elderly aboriginal populations and as a second language by Mandarin, Taiwanese, and Hakka speakers. *

Chinese Languages in Taiwan

Languages: Mandarin Chinese (official), Taiwanese (Min), Hakka dialects. Mandarin Chinese is the official language. As is true with people living in the Fujian province on the mainland, most Taiwanese speak Mandarin, Hokkien, Hakka and/or the old Fujian dialect of Min-nan hua (also known as Taiwanese or Fukein dialect).

Taiwanese Mandarin is different enough from the Mandarin spoken in Beijing that dictionaries have been published to help people understand the different dialect. Mandarin is not only the most widely spoken language in China, it also has many speakers in Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. The Chinese spoken by Taiwanese is filled with scholarly references and Confucian sayings. Chinese spoken on the mainland sounds crude and unpolished to many Taiwanese.

Hokkein, the Southern Min dialect of Fujian, is the primary dialect of many Overseas Chinese communities in Malaysia, Singapore Indonesia, and the Philippines whereas Teochew, the Southern Min dialect of Chaozhou is the primary dialect of the Overseas Chinese communities in Thailand.

Because many Taiwanese are from families originally from Fujian Province, the language-dialect from that region—Minnan (the Southern Min dialect or Heluo)— is also widely spoken. The smaller groups of Hakka people and indigenous tribes have also preserved their own languages. Many elderly people can also speak some Japanese, as they were subjected to Japanese education before Taiwan was returned to Chinese rule in 1945 after the Japanese occupation, which lasted for half a century.

Most native Taiwanese speak a variation of the Amoy (Hokkien) dialect for southern Fujian province on the mainland. The Hakka dialect, originally from Guangdong Province, is spoken mostly in the two northwestern counties of Hsinchu and Miaoli and parts of southern and eastern Taiwan. Many Hakka speakers live around Hsinchu Science-based Industrial Park.

Peter Harmsen of AFP wrote: “At home, most speak Fujianese, which came to the island with immigrants from the mainland as long as 300 years ago and is now the dialect identified commonly as Taiwanese. Millions of others speak Hakka, another dialect imported from the mainland, or one of numerous Austronesian languages that have nothing to do with Chinese. [Source: Peter Harmsen, AFP, July 29, 2010 *]

Some Mandarin Words

How are you — ni hao Thank you — xie xie Excuse me — dui bu qi See you — zai jian Please do me a favor — qing bang ge mang Please wait a moment — qing deng yi xia That's all right — mei guan xi It's a pleasure to meet you — hen gao xing ren shi ni Don't mention it — bu yong ke qi Could you please repeat that? — qing zai shuo yi ci Please speak more slowly — qing shuo man yi dian How much? — zhe ge duo shao qian Turn left — zuo zhuan Turn right — you zhuan taxi — ji cheng che bus — gong che police office — jing cha ju lavatory — xi shou jian public telephone — gong gong dian hua hospital — yi yuan supermarket — chao shi bookstore — shu dian department store — bai huo gong si railway station — huo che zhan MRT station — jie yun zhan pharmacy — yao ju Where can I exchange US dollars? — na li ke yi dui huan mei jin Where is the nearest bank? — zui jin de yin hang zai na li Could you tell me where the MRT station is? — qing wen jie yun zhan zai na li Could you tell me where I can catch the bus? — qing wen na li you gong che Excuse me, could you tell me the time? — qing wen xian zai ji dian Please bring me a menu — qing na cai dang gei wo I would like to order this dish — wo yao dian zhe dao cai Can I sit here? — wo ke yi zuo zhe li ma Could you tell me where (the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall) is? — qing wen (guo fu ji nian guan) zai na li Could you help me take a photo? — ke yi bang wo zhao zhang xian ma Where can I buy tickets? — na li ke yi mai dao piao I'm lost. Could you please help me? — wo mi lu le, qing bang bang mang Could you draw a map for me? — ni ke bu ke yi bang wo hua zhang di tu Could you take me there? — ni ke yi dai wo qu na li ma Please hurry up — qing kuai yi dian Could you give me discount? — pian yi yi dian ke yi ma How much is it? — duo shao qian How much are these clothes? — zhe jian yi fu duo shao qian Is there anything good to eat here? — zhe li you she mo dong xi hao chi Excuse me, does anyone here speak English? — qing wen you ren hui shuo ying wen ma Numbers: — One — yi; Two — er; Three — san; Four — si; Five — wu; Six — liu; Seven — qi; Eight — ba; Nine — jiu; Ten — shi; Twenty — er shi; Thirty — san shi; Forty Dollars — si shi yuan

Advantages of Speaking Mandarin

Peter Harmsen of AFP wrote: “The ability to speak Mandarin means Taiwanese can, without difficulty, communicate with all 1.3 billion people on the mainland, taking advantage of the startling economic boom over the past three decades. "Taiwanese can do business much more easily than Hong Kong people, because Chinese find it's much easier to communicate with them," said Wang Horng-luen, a sociologist at Academia Sinica, a think tank in Taipei. The Cantonese dialect is dominant in Hong Kong. [Source: Peter Harmsen, AFP, July 29, 2010 *]

"Many Chinese people say Taiwanese people speak Chinese even better than they do themselves. There are many dialects in China, so many people speak Mandarin, but do it with a very strong accent," he said. Language may have been the single most important factor in allowing Taiwan to latch onto the Chinese juggernaut, with Taiwanese investors placing more than 100 billion dollars in the mainland. *

“Paradoxically, given the Nationalist government's original aims, the Mandarin now in use in Taiwan may actually contribute to developing a special identity on the island. This is because the island's people have no common language other than the Mandarin they all learned at school, according to Academia Sinica's Wang. "The Mandarin spoken and written in Taiwan is very different from the Mandarin in use in mainland China," he said. "When Taiwanese people nowadays try to distinguish themselves from people from the mainland, language serves as a cultural marker." *

Taiwan is also a good place to learn Chinese. There are numerous language schools that offer Chinese classes, ranging from hourly-based classes to recognized university programs. Many foreigners from Europe and the United States, as well as other areas, come to Taiwan to spend their holidays, or one or two years, studying Chinese.

Endurance of Native Chinese Languages in Taiwan

Taiwan offers a good example of how multiple languages can co-exist. James Pomfret and Farah Master of Reuters wrote: “After the defeated Nationalists were driven into exile to Taiwan following the Chinese civil war, the promotion of Mandarin was upheld as a pillar of unity and link to the motherland.Taiwan's dominant Hokkien dialect — also spoken in China's coastal Fujian province and parts of Southeast Asia including Singapore — was repressed by the Nationalists and children could be beaten for speaking it at school. [Source: James Pomfret and Farah Master, Reuters, November 22, 2010]

“Yet in the 1990s its usage surged again after democracy took root. Politicians now speak Hokkien as much as Mandarin and Hokkien soap operas are a mainstay on Taiwan television. "You restrict a language for so long then when it's suddenly OK, it becomes excessively popular," said Hsu Yung-ming, a political scientist at Soochow University in Taipei. "It has always been the dominant language."

Difference Between Mainland and Taiwanese Mandarin

The BBC reported: “A Taiwanese visitor to mainland China was shocked to see sliced "tu dou" on a menu. The word means peanut in Taiwan — but potato in mainland China. A Taiwanese professor ordering coffee at a Beijing cafe was asked if he wanted a "coffee companion" — China's way of saying cream. The stunned academic thought they wanted him to hire a hostess to keep him company. He told the waitress: "I didn't bring enough money." Taiwan and China may share the same linguistic heritage — like Britain and the United States — but more than six decades of separation and political tensions have led to the Chinese language evolving in very different ways on each side; sometimes causing confusion, frustration or embarrassment. [Source: Cindy S, BBC News, May 21, 2011 ]

“One of the biggest differences is that China, starting in the 1950s, has required its people to use simplified Chinese characters to raise literacy. Taiwan continues to use traditional characters, which have more strokes, insisting they best represent the culture behind the language. When it comes to speaking, while both sides use Mandarin Chinese as the official dialect, they say even simple words like rice, hot water, and panda differently — "mi fan," "bai kai shui," and "xiong mao" in China, versus "bai fan," "re shui" and "mao xiong" in Taiwan.

“These differences might seem slight, but some are not. In China, you refer to your spouse as your "ai ren", but that means your lover in Taiwan. Some words have been created on one side but not the other because of the influence of local dialects and each side's unique history. For example — "dong xuan" means frozen garlic in China, but in Taiwan it's a slang derived from the widely spoken Minan dialect and means winning an election. And the word for boxed lunch is "bian dang" in Taiwan, borrowed from the Japanese word "bento" during Japan's colonial rule, but in China it's "he fan" — literally box rice.

“There are also variations in tones. And each side uses different characters to translate new scientific, medical and English terms, as well as names of important foreign places and people. Such differences can sometimes cause confusion even at a high level. On a groundbreaking visit to China in 2005, Taiwan's current ruling party Kuomintang's then-chairman Lien Chan used the phrase "yuan jing", meaning a positive goal for the future, to express his hopes for good bilateral ties. Chinese journalists had no idea what he meant because they had never heard of the phrase.

Battle Between Mainland and Taiwanese Mandarin

The BBC reported: “As interaction between China and Taiwan increases, people wonder which side will win out on the language front. Will Taiwan move towards its giant neighbour's way of writing and speaking, or will the small island, which prides itself on being the repository of traditional Chinese culture, have more influence over China? [Source: Cindy S, BBC News, May 21, 2011 ]

“In terms of numbers, China has a clear upper hand. Besides its population of 1.3 billion, an estimated 40 million non-Chinese nationals are learning simplified characters, with more than 200,000 studying in China. In contrast, only around 30 million people use traditional characters daily — mostly in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau — that's only about 2 percent of Chinese speakers. And only about 12,500 foreigners come to Taiwan to study traditional Chinese each year.

“To counter this trend, Taiwan has stepped up scholarships and marketing. It plans to open its version of the British Council beginning this year. And its top school for teaching foreigners Chinese — the National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU) — recently launched a free internet-based Chinese learning programme to encourage more people to learn traditional Chinese. There is also growing interest among Chinese people in traditional Chinese culture, including the language. Increasingly, they wonder for example how the simplified word for love can be missing the character for heart, and the word for noodle the character for wheat. Both are included in the traditional versions.”

Cross-Straits Dictionary

Even though both mainland Chinese and Taiwanese speak Mandarin Chinese, particular phrases and words, even when composed of similar characters, have different meanings. This led to the creation of the Cross-Strait Common Vocabulary Dictionary. The Global Times reported that a the press conference for the release of the dictionary, Taiwan leader Ma Ying-jeou said he did not completely understand a speech given by mainland writer and blogger Han Han, when Han visited Taiwan. "He used the word 'maoni.' What is 'maoni?' I then learned it means shady and conspiratorial. 'Shihua' means shocked and extremely surprised," said Ma. Ma saw the creation of the dictionary necessary in easing communication, especially entering an age of frequent dialogue between Taiwan and the mainland. [Source: Global Times, September 17, 2012 /]

“Twenty days after the Taiwan edition of the dictionary was released, the mainland edition published by Higher Education Press came out. The Taiwan edition includes 5,700 Chinese characters and 27,000 phrases while the mainland edition includes 6,400 characters and 35,000 phrases. Created with the effort of almost 100 experts from both sides, the cross-Straits dictionary is paving a linguistic bridge. It took two years and seven meetings between two sides to produce the dictionary. Jiang Lanzhi, an editor of the mainland edition, told the Global Times that communication between the two editorial teams never ceased. Both sides discussed what to include in the dictionary, working individually then combining results. /

“Jiang said the majority of the content in the two editions is the same, but the two dictionaries have separate focuses and contain different characters. For example, the "feng" character in "fengshou," which means to harvest, is found in many words. The mainland edition includes more than 10 words containing the character "feng," while the Taiwan edition includes only a few. Jiang gave an example of the original draft that had the sentence: "Airplanes use petroleum." Editors had to later correct this, after discovering that airplanes use kerosene. /

There is another Cross-Straits dictionary out there, named the Great Chinese Dictionary, which will be free and put online. The BBC reported: “A preliminary version containing more than 28,000 commonly used words and phrases will be unveiled by the end of 2011, while a more comprehensive version will be available by 2015. It remains to be seen whether the dictionary, which will be presented in both traditional and simplified Chinese, will have an impact on the two sides' language rift. For now, all agreements signed between them — including a landmark free trade agreement — are printed in simplified Chinese for China, and traditional Chinese for Taiwan. Taiwan's former premier Liu Chao-shiuan, who's heading the dictionary project, says the goal is not to convert one side to the other's way of writing or speaking, but to create a database of words and let the users decide "on both sides of the Taiwan Strait and for all the people who want to learn Chinese". [Source: Cindy S, BBC News, May 21, 2011 ]

Culture and Mainland and Taiwanese Mandarin

The Global Times reported: “Since 1949, following the retreat of Kuomintang, 2 million people migrated from the Chinese mainland to Taiwan. Different accents and dialects influenced spoken and written language in Taiwan, with some words gradually being integrated. "Woxin," for instance, means happy in Taiwan but has the opposite meaning in the mainland. According to Yang, the word "woxin" did not exist in Taiwan before. It came with the arrival of people from Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, reflecting a spread of language. [Source: Global Times, September 17, 2012 /]

“Language is also a way to understand cultural differences. The dictionary contains many terms about Taiwan's election. Without an understanding of Taiwan's local political system and cultural context, it is difficult to understand. Jiang said the differences in language across the Taiwan-Straits are quantifiable. The basis of language is culture. Because we share a similar culture, linguistic differences are minor, coming down to particular words or phrase. Jiang finds that despite local characteristics, people easily pick up the different words cross-Straits. For example, "jiguang" and "leishe," both mean laser. Although the two words are different, it is easy to adapt. "I would say that there is a 98-percent similarity. As long as we build communication, it is not difficult for us to understand each other," said Jiang. /

“People watch television series and films made by both sides. There is also an increasing amount of tourists coming from Taiwan to the mainland and vice versa. With frequent communication as well as the development of social networking websites, words from each side have been incorporated and accepted by the other. Words like "yuanjing" (vision) and "huqiang" (arguing with strong words) from Taiwan, and "shanzhai" (copycat) from the mainland are now widely used by both sides. /

"Language is a product of [society] and life," said Yang Tu, the Secretary-General of the Taiwan's General Association of Chinese Culture. He said that he felt the historical significance while editing the dictionary. He felt lucky to have the chance to contribute to Chinese culture and language, sharing his work with a large audience. He emphasized that the differences in languages and dialects provide diversity to a culture. The plurality in Chinese culture makes it lively and interesting, and the culture behind the words reflects the nuances in ideas. Li Xingjian, the editor-in-chief of the Chinese mainland edition, said that this dictionary not only contributes to communication between two sides but is also a way to pass down a shared Chinese culture.” /

Popularity of "Micro" (Wei) and "Little" (Xiao) in Taiwan

Alan Fong wrote in the China Post, “You might not have seen a "micromovie" or been in a "microrelationship", but if you are a Chinese-speaking person living in Taiwan, chances are you have heard about terms that started with the words "micro" (Wei) or "little" (Xiao) quite a lot lately. The recent proliferation of phrases like "microtrips", "microlove", "small days" and "little but certain happiness" in Taiwan point to a trend of limitation or lack of ambition. The underlining social forces, however, are more complicated. [Source: Alan Fong, China Post, January 14, 2013 -]

“The use of the prefix "micro" came in part as a parody of the abuse of niche micromovies in Taiwan. Mostly running from five minutes to half an hour long, micromovies originated in the mainland as a format for smart-device users. The idea was to make films that can be consumed in one bus trip or even an elevator ride. Microfilms in Taiwan, however, are sometimes seen as half-baked low-budget films. Netizens in Taiwan coined terms such as "microrelationship" or "microtrip" to jeer at what they see as a sleazy practice of using a chic name to package a cheap project. The popularity of the prefix is symbolic of the nation's plight of limited resources and slowed economic development after the "Taiwan miracle" in the last century. -

“The word "little", on the other hand, is in vogue for more positive reasons. Buzz terms starting with "little" generally have a Japanese connotation of small scope and high quality. The term "little but certain happiness", which has mushroomed in the pages of local newspaper, was coined by Japanese author Haruki Murakami in his 1996 essay "How to Find a Whirling Cat". Also translated as "little happiness in hand", the term was used by Murakami to represent a sense of fulfilment through self-restraint in everyday life, such as the joy of having a cold beer after intense exercise. -

“In Taiwan, however, "little but certain happiness" is associated more with coffee rather than beer. It is a term loved by hipsters, known in Taiwan as wen-qing (arty youths), popularly identified as people who love black retro spectacle frames, eco-friendly lifestyles (or known in Taiwan as LOHAS), grainy photos, indie music and costly coffee, among other things. -

Despite its apparent dislike of mass consumerism, the recent incarnation of local hipster culture is a new form of instant gratification that emphasises nourishment of the mind — an anti-consumerism consumerism. The indie brands, arty bookstores, organic food stores and cafes might not all be the product of mass consumerism, but they took lessons from its distribution and marketing techniques. The operative word of the term is "certain". The focus on having certainty in happiness reflects the anxiety of Taiwan's young generation that the lifetime goal of their parents' generation — owning a home — is no longer surely obtainable. -

“A cup of NT$250 (Bt262) boutique coffee is expensive, a NT$120 cup of chain store coffee is expensive, even a NT$55 cup of convenience store takeout is expensive. But they are affordable prices for a small dose of "certain happiness", especially when people know it will take an average office worker decades of modern-day slavery to not be able to buy even a small apartment in Taipei. This trend, however, is not all bad as it highlights a more sophisticated way to appreciate life that comes with better-educated and more resourceful youths compared to their parents. It also points to the idea of pursuing happiness through extra-economical means.” -

English and Foreign Languages in Taiwan

The most popular foreign language in Taiwan is English, which is part of the regular school curriculum. English is spoken by some people and widely used in the tourist industry. When taking a taxi in Taiwan, it is advisable to prepare a note with your destination written in Chinese to show the taxi driver. Speaking English has become quite fashionable among affluent Taiwanese. English is taught in schools and after school institutes and many businessmen, university students and housewives study it in their free time. There are a several thousand Japanese speakers in Taiwan. Japanese is spoken mostly among elderly aboriginal populations and as a second language by Mandarin, Taiwanese, and Hakka speakers. *

English-language learning is a big deal. Businessmen feel they need know the language to compete. Parents push their children to learn it. Catering to them are tons of language institutes that teach English. Taiwanese parents are willing to shell out a good portion of their incomes for their children to learn English. In some places there are even trash truck that blast out daily English lessons.

American terms and accents are preferred over British and Australian ones. British English teachers are encouraged to say “bathroom” and “trash” rather than “rubbish” and “loo” and pronounce the word banana as “ba-NAH-na” rather than “ba-NAW-na.”

In 2000, school children started learning English in the fifth grade rather in junior high school as was the case before. The government had wanted students to begin learning English earlier but there weren’t enough teachers. As has been the case in the past, English taught in schools today tends to focus on reading and writing rather than speaking and listening and students approach grammar as if it were a series of mathematical formulas.

English for Three-Year-Olds in Taiwan

Increasingly , younger and young children are taking English lessons in Taiwan. In Taipei, in the early 2000s, there were even all-day intensive courses for three-year-olds that lasted from nine in the morning until five in the evening and cost about $500 a month, about half the average monthly salary at that time. Many schools that offered these classes had waiting lists.

The schools that teach English to toddlers are often more like day care centers with English-speaking staff than traditional schools. Most of the lessons involves games and there is plenty of time for snacks, goofing around and playing.

Half of all Taiwanese kindergartens now consider themselves bilingual. And this is only the beginning. Most primary and secondary school students take two-hour after-school English conversation classes twice a week. Most have native speakers who use a lot of games.


Taipei’s No.1 clan is the Chens. Ancestral shrines are traditional meeting places for clans. Even today the concept of clan relationship (often determined by family name) is very strong among the Chinese.

Some Taiwanese have Chinese-style names with the family name first. Others have Western-style names with the family names second. Some have both.

Rong-Gong Lin II wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “My grandmother never liked my name. Her eldest son, my father, had given me his name, though everyone knew that was taboo in Chinese tradition. So my grandmother insisted on calling me by the name she had given me: Lin Da. Last name first, in the Chinese way. Loudly, in her way. I called her Ah-Ma — Taiwanese for grandma. When I didn't understand what she was saying, which was often, she would utter a few sentences in Taiwanese that I knew from years of repetition: "Why don't you understand Taiwanese? You are so American!" [Source: Rong-Gong Lin II, Los Angeles Times, March 11, 2010]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism Bureau, Republic of China (Taiwan), Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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