Speaking Taiwanese as a Second Language in Taiwan

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Provocative Twitter thread:

The lengthy thread goes on to describe various people's reactions to her speaking Taiwanese to them as well as the writer's own thoughts.  It takes into account the cultural, economic, political, and linguistic dimensions of the problem.  Highly recommended for anyone who is interested in the future of Taiwanese or, for that matter, the future of local languages everywhere.


Selected readings


[Thanks to Ciarán]


  1. AntC said,

    September 28, 2021 @ 4:59 pm

    Thank you Victor, an interesting series of tweets.

    I don't speak Taiwanese, nor much Putonghua, but I can tell which people are speaking on the streets in Taiwan. (I've mostly travelled there outside Taipei, whereas Catie's experience seems mostly in the capital.) I don't find Taiwanese speaking to be limited to 'Old Rural Males'. I've also heard Hakka/been to Hakka cultural centres, and indigenous language/culture festivals (near Taitung, Sun & Moon lake, Taroko Gorge, Kenting).

    I find her railing against the "ROC … imperial state" to be misplaced. Yes historically under Martial Law/the KMT, languages other than Putonghua were suppressed/were regarded as signs of resistance. That hasn't been the case since ROC became democratic. Heck there's even a Taiwanese soap on early-evening TV.

    Catie appears to be Chinese but conspicuously not Taiwanese/has an American accent in any language she speaks. It would be unusual for a visitor to speak Taiwanese rather than Putonghua. It seems a big stretch from the difficulties she's experiencing to a claim the _State_ is "robbing people of their mother languages". Perhaps if she were more proficient/her accent didn't stand out, and just listened to people rather than asking confrontational questions (so un-Chinese!), she would arrive at a more nuanced understanding.

    When will democracy in Taiwan be complete? Not until we have schools teaching in every Taiwanese language.

    That seems a tall order — in any country with diverse languages. I'm in New Zealand, we've just celebrated 'Maori Language Week'. Some Te Reo is now taught in all schools. But English is the language of instruction for the bulk of the curriculum.

  2. ióng ·a said,

    September 28, 2021 @ 9:46 pm

    AntC good analysis, mostly.

    The only points I disagree with are: languages other than Putonghua are certainly still suppressed (albeit more indirectly, through things like budgets, for example), and Taiwanese most definitely should be available as a language of instruction in some schools (it could be regional). The fact that the ROC has and continues to rob people of access to their native language is undeniable.

    However, yes, Taiwanese has a very narrow spectrum of understandability (for lots of reasons, but that's the reality). I speak Taiwanese as a second language and I know my accent is good because I've spent years tweaking it to make sure I'm (nearly) always understandable.

    Taipei is simply not a Taiwanese (-speaking) town, but a Chinese / Mandarin town. It's no surprise at all to me when people can't understand me or give a rather rude response in Taipei. I've had people in Taipei tell me point blank "I no speak Engulish" after I said something in clearly understandable Taiwanese.

    But in most of the rest of the island that is a rare occurrence, and people are most often genuinely excited and touched to see foreigners taking the time to learn the language.

    Totally agree with you that getting a nuanced understanding requires a lot more time outside of Taipei and a lot more time listening as opposed to asking uncomfortable or confrontational questions.

    I think the Tweet thread shows something else interesting, however, which is the insistence on always making Taipei the center of attention, even when Taipei has really nothing to do with the topic in question, as well as a lack of awareness of same by either the author or commenters.

  3. KIRINPUTRA said,

    September 28, 2021 @ 10:13 pm

    I think a point is being missed… She doesn't present Taiwanese as a "local" language under the umbrella of a legitimate national language.

    (Nor is Taiwanese to Formosa what Maori is to Aotearoa. If anything, it's the English of Formosa.)

    To be fair — and I don't think she addressed this — the colonial Chinese state has not been the only proponent of Mandarin (esp. written) on Formosa.


    If she spoke fluent, accent-free Taiwanese, the disbelief & negativity would still be there. It would be much worse, untempered by the knee-jerk humility most urban Formosans feel in encounters with English speakers. Keep in mind that men & women are treated different. This would really kick in if she was fluent.

  4. Jonathan Smith said,

    September 30, 2021 @ 7:54 am

    my main reactions were
    (1) "ROC is/was a colonial state" is a typical (and IMO defensible) stance among Taiwanese-language (and related) advocates, so nothing novel here (maybe no one is suggesting there was)
    (2) given that expansion of the Chinese administrative state and attendant subjugation of the indigenous population goes back to the 17th century, insistence on the stance in (1), including rhetorical association of Taiwanese- and Hakka-speaking populations with indigenes, feels short of intellectually honest;
    (3) and yet elevation of Taiwanese in the public sphere nonetheless strikes one (here speaking from afar) as a productive and deeply meaningful enterprise — and also an eminently practical one, in contrast with the oft-lip-serviced notion that yes, naturally, "all" of Taiwan's indigenous languages should find equivalent representation in education, media etc.

  5. Rodger C said,

    September 30, 2021 @ 9:56 am

    @Jonathan Smith: The layered situation you describe resembles the one that Appalachian scholars wrestle with.

  6. WGJ said,

    September 30, 2021 @ 12:39 pm

    She should tell the Indonesians that their country can't be a democracy until every subject matter imaginable is being taught in every one of their 300+ native languages.

    Her stance isn't "controversial", it's patently absurd.

  7. AntC said,

    September 30, 2021 @ 5:55 pm

    given that expansion of the Chinese administrative state and attendant subjugation of the indigenous population goes back to the 17th century, …

    And it's the Europeans who started the Han 'invasion' of Formosa by bringing them in as indentured workers …

    Yes, history is a great deal more layered and problematic than Ms Lilly groks. What became of the Portuguese speakers, and the Dutch? A few of their assets are still standing.

    Do we also credit the Japanese for Taiwan's extensive railway network? Japan administered Taiwan for 50 years, sufficient for some to have settled and had families and stay on after 1945. Japanese is taught in the schools, but it's not a language of instruction.

  8. Lisa RR said,

    October 1, 2021 @ 6:51 am

    Do read the full thread and comments.
    The lead poster is Taiwanese-American, and grew up speaking Taiwanese at home. Now she seems to be living in Taipei.
    Other thread participants discuss their experiences trying to use Taiwanese in other parts of Taiwan, or among different generations of their family.
    Quite thought-provoking!

  9. John Rohsenow said,

    October 10, 2021 @ 8:08 am

    A retired native TW speaker prof. of Linguistics who has taught in the US
    and TW for many years,= writes:

    I agree w/ AntC in general, who seems to know more a lot about TW lang usages.
    W/o govt restrictions, community usage and parental influence are crucial.
    Even after 50 yrs of Japanese occupation (1895-1945) and education in Japanese in the schools there, TW local speech was still dominant, and it survived without literacy, which demonstrates that wtg is not essential
    Of course, literacy would strengthen it.

    The KMT’ govt's s high pressure tactics to impose Mandarin succeeded in almost killing many off TW local langs. The DPP has encouraged all schools to provide TW lang’s with texts and instructors. Unfortunately many parents think these classes will hinder kids’ learning of English and other foreign lang’s.

    This also happened in HK after 1997: When,under PRC pressure, the HK govt tried to close down most of English stream schools, parents were upset and still tried to squeeze their kids into the remaining English schools. Singapore also promoted bilingual ed with ethnic mother tongues, but they artificially chose to teach Mandarin as the local 'mother tongue' for Chinese speakers there, which also almost killed the local Chinese topolects. You would think that Malay and Tamil would have a better chance to preserve their mother tongues, but in fact again the parental focus for their kids was English, so all local lang’s suffered a similar decline.
    As a native TW speaker (who btw in my early years attended primary school in Japns until 1945) I use TW wherever I go there and with whoever I speak to in TW. I may get response in Mdn, but at least the responder still understands passively. Longer speech and specific topics may bog down w/ younger people. TW media has no restriction on lang’s and you’ll find code mixing almost all the time. TW soap operas and talk shows are everywhere. Taxi drivers talk to me in TW right away, because they can tell my age.

    So, it’s the community usages that we have to continue to observe in the future…

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