Chinese and the many Languages of Taiwan - Taiwanese, Mandarin, Hakka

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Once your ears have adjusted to the cacophonous traffic and the reverberating techno vibes at your favorite disco or lounge bar you may begin to notice that numerous languages, dialects, and hybrids are spoken by the locals. The official language on this island is Mandarin Chinese. This is also the official language of mainland China, though it is sometimes spoken with such as strong Taiwanese accent that it sounds quite different from the Chinese you may hear in Guangzhou or Beijing. Mandarin Chinese is taught in schools, but many people speak Taiwanese or even Hakka at home or amongst their  friends, especially many of the older people who prefer to communicate Taiwanese.


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The Taiwanese dialect originated in Fujian province and is also called the Minnan language. Fujian province is located in Mainland China, where the Min River is located. It is a spoken language and does not have written characters of its own has most of the same characters with Mandarin Chinese. There are four tones in spoken Mandarin Chinese, whereas there are eight tones in Taiwanese to the older generation but Mandarin to their peers. The farther up  north you travel, the more you will find that Mandarin is the predominant language.


Older generations educated during Japanese rule will speak Japanese as well. The Hakka minority also speak of their own. Each aboriginal tribe has a language of its own, some similar to Tagalog (spoken in the Philippines & Pacific Island areas) as their histories stretch south into the Philippines. Hakka dialect and aboriginal languages are more likely heard in distinct cultural pockets on the island.


Nowadays, student are taught English in elementary school or even at a younger age in cram schools. English is required from junior high school and onward. While the students are very good at reciting grammar rules, they may not feel at ease with speaking English. This may be changed with the plethora of English radio programs, TV programs, government tests, and magazines that try to coax the language out of the classroom. You will often be able to communicate in basic English with students, recent graduates, and office workers by speaking slowly (not more loudly) and incorporating some writing


Most people are enthusiastic about helping a foreigner but are afraid their English is not good enough – and making mistakes is generally looked upon as losing face in the Chinese culture. In a hospital or in the business world, you may find many fluent English speakers. A lot of doctors and business people studied or were educated abroad on a high English language level. But in the mom and pop shops, on the street , in the bars or in the market you can barely communicate in English, so some basic Chinese is surely necessary.

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