Graduation speech by a West African student at National Taiwan University

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Stunning speech (7:49) by Achille, a graduating student from Burkina Faso at the NTU commencement on June 6:

At first I was amazed at the perfection of his Mandarin — grammar, tones, enunciation, intonation, stresses, pauses, pace, delivery — everything was so natural and just right.  By the time I got to the end, my whole face was covered with tears.  Not only was his language itself so incredibly beautiful, the content of what he was saying was deeply touching, and he said it all with great dignity and grace, not the least bit maudlin.

If you are only familiar with PRC Putonghua (Mainland Modern Standard Mandarin [MSM]), you may think he got some of his consonants and vowels slightly wrong, but he was actually speaking proper Taiwan Guóyǔ 國語 ("National Language", i.e., "Mandarin").

Achille's homeland, Burkina Faso, is one of the poorest countries of the world and its people have among the lowest life expectancy (61 years).  The irony of Achille's situation in Taiwan is that, up until the middle of May, 2018, Burkina Faso had diplomatic relations with the island nation, but that it derecognized Taiwan and shifted its diplomatic relations to the PRC.

All of these things made life economically difficult for Achilles, but he persisted.  He emphasizes that, despite the challenges, he recognized the importance of education and constantly strove to study and increase his knowledge.  He had learned French, the official language of his country, but his inability in English made it difficult for him to seek higher education and study abroad.  When he came to Taiwan, he couldn't speak a sentence in Mandarin. But he persevered by going to Fu Jen University for language training and in four months learned enough English and Mandarin to be admitted to eight colleges and universities in Taiwan, and chose to matriculate at NTU.  Subsequently, he quickly gained mastery over Mandarin to the point that he was able to participate fully in the academic and social life of the university.

In his speech, Achille also says a few words in Taiwanese:

大家好! > Ta̍k-ke hó! ("Hello, everybody!")

我就聽無啦 > Góa chiū thiann bô lah ("I didn't understand").  What I've written here differs from what's in the subtitles.

Near the end of his speech, he also speaks in his native language, Mòoré.



Search under:  Taiwan Mandarin; Taiwan Guoyu; Taiwanese; Hoklo; Hokkien


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    June 10, 2020 @ 4:37 pm

    It was certainly most impressive. But was it all extempore, or memorised in advance ? There was no evidence whatsoever of a teleprompter or a script, his eyes were on those he was addressing, so how on earth did he do it ? Truly remarkable, regardless.

  2. Thomas Lumley said,

    June 10, 2020 @ 11:48 pm

    If I were giving an eight-minute speech at an important occasion, in a language I learned as an adult, I would certainly want to memorise it.
    I probably should have memorised the graduation speech I gave a few years ago and not brought notes.

  3. Mark S. said,

    June 11, 2020 @ 8:18 am

    Hǎo bàng! How I wish my Mandarin were that good.

    But you can tell he's not Taiwanese by the fact that he spoke that long without sprinkling in any English ;-)

    Well, he did say "Seven" (for 7-Eleven), but that's the universal term here for that store.

  4. Rose Eneri said,

    June 11, 2020 @ 9:56 am

    I there an English translation available?

    Has anybody studied the brains of people who can easily master L2 languages in adulthood?

  5. Andrew Usher said,

    June 11, 2020 @ 5:55 pm

    Yes, I'd expect any important speech in any language to be memorised at least to an outline, if not verbatim. And before 'the teleprompter', I have no doubt public figures did, even though it consumes time.

    It is the only way to get (close to) the word-for-word precision available in writing while sounding like normal speech, and yes I have personal experience with this from both sides.

    k_over_hbarc at

  6. Victor Mair said,

    June 12, 2020 @ 6:34 am

    From Chau Wu:

    The short answer: 我就聽無啦 > MSM 我就聽不懂啦 "I could not understand." [I think the "聽" here can be interpreted as "perceive". So, literally, the Tw expression means, "I then perceive nothing – lah!"]

    You touched on a favorite topic of mine, I cannot help but say a few words about it. Compare the following Taiwanese expressions regarding "not hearing well" (Reference: Taiwanese-English Dictionary, Maryknoll Taiwan, page 979):

    (1) 聽未明 thian bē bêng > MSM 聽不清(楚) [unable to hear clearly or distinctly, such as phone connection is bad.]
    (2) 聽未著 thian bē tio̍h > MSM 聽不見 [the voice is too far away or too low.]
    (3) 聽未曉 thian bē hiáu > MSM 聽不懂 [hear, but unable to make out the meaning.]
    (4) 聽未明白 thian bē bêng-pe̍k > MSM 聽不明白 [I do not quite understand; I did not hear clearly; I cannot understand (what the other is talking about); I cannot hear well or comprehend.]
    (5) 聽無 thian bô > MSM 聽不懂 [listen, but find that there is nothing to be heard or that nothing is heard; listen, but could not understand.]

    In Matthew 13:13, Jesus says, "…though hearing, they do not hear or understand." A recurring theme in his preaching. I think he meant all of the above.


    [VHM: Added explanation from Chau Wu about superscript letters in comments.]

    In my email to you, I wrote thian ["n" as superscript] but the Comment Section always negates the superscript function and so turns it into thian (the sound of 天). Would you please change all the thian into thiann? [VHM: I have not changed all the thian into thiann, but instead have decided to add this note from Chau Wu by way of explanation and amplification.]

    In the traditional orthography of Taiwanese Lo-ma-ji, a superscript n following a vowel indicates the preceding vowel is nasalized, very much like the tilde sign. In the modified orthography approved by the Ministry of Education of Taiwan, the superscript n is substituted with a double n, to make it typewriter-friendly. Both versions are accepted. In elementary schools in Taiwan, the modified version is taught. As I indicated in SPP-262, I tend to use the traditional version because it is the one used in the corpus of Taiwanese literature.

  7. Philip Taylor said,

    June 12, 2020 @ 7:19 am

    Although the Taiwanese system has more orthogonal axes, there are some similarities to the R-S-T system "used by amateur radio operators, short-wave listeners, and other radio hobbyists to exchange information about the quality of a radio signal being received. The code is a three digit number, with one digit each for conveying an assessment of the signal's readability, strength, and tone" (from the corresponding Wikipedia text).

  8. John Swindle said,

    June 13, 2020 @ 6:05 am

    Tangentially related via Mandarin 聽 tīng ʻlisten': In Taiwan in the early 1970s a college dean was hosting a group of summer students from Hawaii. As we boarded the bus for an excursion, the dean's 3-year-old daughter explained to bus driver, "Tāmen shì wàiguó rén. Tāmen bù huì tīnghuà." ("They're foreigners. They don't know how to listen.")

  9. Chau said,

    June 13, 2020 @ 2:40 pm

    After several days of rumination on the graduation speech by Achille Wendyam Tapsoba from Burkina Faso, I would like to share my reflections on an interesting aspect of his speech, that is, his effective use of code switching. As we know, his entire speech was in Mandarin. In two strategic places he switched to Taiwanese in much the same way as crowd-attracting public speakers would do in Taiwan.

    The first place is right at the opening greeting. After formally addressing “Mr. President (of the university), professors, and my dear fellow students,” he said (with a Bang!) in Taiwanese, “Ta̍k-ke hó! (Hello, everybody!)” The audience was, I imagine, most likely unprepared for it to come out of a foreign student from West Africa, yet, if I may further conjecture, their hearts ought to be instantly won over because the greeting was so down-to-earth familiar to them. For any speaker in Taiwan such as politicians in election campaigns hoping to connect with the audience, this opening greeting is de rigueur. I guess Achille must have attended enough political campaign rallies to pick up this magic trick. Anyway, the magic worked, for he won loud applause right then (if he had used Mandarin for the greeting, I suspect, he probably would not have received such a decibel level). For a West African young man in Taiwan speaking in Mandarin in a formal commencement exercise, this familiar opening shot in Taiwanese should effectively break down all the barriers.

    The second place is when he was reminiscing the third challenge he was facing in his study due to language difficulties. “When my calculus professor began to say x 平方/x péngfāng (x square), y 的開根號/y de kāigēnhào (square root of y),” then he switched to Taiwanese, “góa chiū thiann bô lah! (then I couldn’t understand a thing – lah!)” The “lah!” at the end of the sentence is a hallmark of “street-wise” vernacular Taiwanese, something you will never hear in a formal speech. After rolling off lofty mathematical terms, he switched immediately to an earthly slang-like expression. Simultaneously he made a contrast by switching from Mandarin to homey Taiwanese, which was brilliant. This dramatic contrast is a stratagem often used by charismatic speakers to highlight their points. Indeed, as Achille expected, he drew laughter and chuckles. After a brief pause, he finessed the drama with feigned indignation by saying (back in Mandarin), “Don’t laugh at one’s suffering!” The mention of “suffering” (Mandarin tòngkŭ 痛苦) reinforced the notion of “I couldn’t understand” (in Taiwanese), making it a marvelous finishing touch!

    National Taiwan University is my Alma Mater, and like other alumni, I am very proud of him!

  10. David Marjanović said,

    June 14, 2020 @ 7:11 am

    ⁿ is available in Unicode, between the superscript and the subscript figures. The HTML entity ⁿ should generate it: test: ⁿ

  11. David Marjanović said,

    June 14, 2020 @ 7:12 am

    The test worked; interestingly, the usual trick to demonstrate the test did not. The entity is & # 8319 ; without the spaces (but with the semicolon).

  12. Philip Taylor said,

    June 14, 2020 @ 9:11 am

    One could, I suppose try MathJax : thia${}^{n}$. Ugly, illogical, and I can't even guarantee that it will work …

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