The status of Mandarin in Taiwan

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Article by Keoni Everington in Taiwan News (11/19/22):

"90% of Taiwanese say learning Mandarin beneficial to job, relationships"

'Mandarin education should not be a victim of politics,' say National Taiwan Normal University professors

From AntC:

I'm puzzled by this headline, and the article doesn't elucidate: is anyone in Taiwan _not_ learning Mandarin? What would that mean?

The last paragraph:
…the younger generation is experiencing a phenomenon called "language degradation," such as more frequent nonsensical expressions and less precise sentences.
Is this perhaps talking about failing to master the writing system?

Topics for discussion

1. Is this just normal language attrition?

2. The result of making more space for Taiwanese?

3. Encroaching English?

4. The burgeoning of internet language (e.g., Martian, video game lingo, etc.)?

5. The overwhelming influence of relying on computers to write Sinoglyphs?

Martian language (Chinese: 火星文; pinyin: huǒxīng wén; lit. 'Martian script'), sometimes also called brain-disabled characters (simplified Chinese: 脑残体; traditional Chinese: 腦殘體; pinyin: nǎocán tǐ), is the nickname of unconventional representation of Chinese characters online. "Martian" describes that which seems strange to local culture. The term was popularised by a line from the 2001 Hong Kong comedy Shaolin Soccer, in which Sing (Stephen Chow) tells Mui (Zhao Wei): "Go back to Mars. The Earth is so dangerous."

In the 2006 General Scholastic Ability Test of Taiwan, students were asked to interpret symbols and phrases written in "Martian language" based on contexts written in standard language. Controversies which followed forced the testing center to abandon the practice in future exams.

In 2007, Martian language began to catch on in mainland China. The first adopters of Martian language mainly consisted of Post-90s netizens. They use it in their nicknames, short messages, and chat rooms in order to demonstrate personality differences. Later, they found that their teachers and parents could hardly figure out their new language, which quickly became their secret code to communicate with each other. Chinese online bloggers followed up the trend to use Martian language, because they found that their blog posts written in the new language can easily pass Internet censorship engines, which are currently based on text-matching techniques. The Martian language became so popular in cyberspace that software were created to translate between Chinese and Martian language.


One thing is certain, written language in the Sinosphere is transforming so radically that it is hard to predict or even imagine what it will be like 5, 10, 15 years from now.


Selected readings


  1. Jerry Packard said,

    November 23, 2022 @ 8:47 am

    I think the headline represents a political tug-of-war between the leftists pushing for Taiwanese and the rightists pushing for Mandarin.I really don’t understand the Martian theme at all

  2. Victor Mair said,

    November 23, 2022 @ 8:54 am

    I should have mentioned in the o.p. that, as between Mandarin and Taiwanese, it is the latter that is threatened, not the former. The declining ability of individuals in Taiwan to speak Taiwanese is a topic that I've often touched upon in previous posts.

  3. Jenny Chu said,

    November 23, 2022 @ 9:20 am

    In the original article on UDN, the survey seems to have been done in response to "negative comments on the internet". Without quoting the comments, the defensive tone leads one to infer that the comments are complaining about the onerous, traditional Mandarin curriculum.

  4. Jonathan Smith said,

    November 23, 2022 @ 10:33 am

    what Jenny Chu said; the survey was about the Guoyuwen kecheng 國語文課程 i.e. the National Language a.k.a. Mandarin Language Arts curriculum — of which e.g. classical texts are one component, with younger survey respondents wishing for greater emphasis on speaking over reading (good idea) — not about "learning Mandarin"

  5. AntC said,

    November 24, 2022 @ 1:21 am

    Thank you Victor.

    My take is the headline is talking about learning academic or ‘Classic Mandarin’; equivalent in an English-language education system to learning Latin or Shakespearean English(?) In a survey with a biased premiss like that, everyone’s going to agree there should be more Motherhood and Apple-pie.

    From the article “ speaking and writing are actually a comprehensive expression of logic.” sounds a lot like my Latin master peeving against split infinitives, or complaining no-one can recognise a passive these days.

    The more realistic way to express the question: given that poor Taiwanese kids already spend many more hours at schooling and after-schooling [**] than their English/American counterparts; and the curriculum is already cram-full; what topics should be _cut_ so as to spend more time on Classics?

    Re Victor’s topic 5, yes my anecdotal observation is that nobody hand-writes characters any more — beyond their own name and a few stock phrases. Everybody uses voice-to-text or some simplified keyboard-based inputting system. Hand-written placards at market stalls or restaurant dish-of-the-day cause much merriment for their mistakes (especially with near-homophones).

    Where does the “victim of politics” bit come in? Taiwan has few natural resources, neither can it compete as a source of cheap labour with the Mainland or other Asian countries. Then it’s trying to turn itself into a high-tech manufacturing centre, especially for sophisticated semiconductors. Then for partnering with international/English-speaking expertise, I disagree that learning Classics is “beneficial to job”. Then it’s not “politics” to blame, but cold hard economics.

    I suggest the National Taiwan Normal University professors start by applying some of the logic they claim to be expressing, and find out how to pose meaningful surveys.

    [**] I’m currently staying in a relatively swanky part of New Taipei. There’s a plethora of English academies, music academies, homework classes. No hope of playing hookey after school.

  6. John said,

    November 24, 2022 @ 1:57 am

    The headline and the article are both incredibly misleading, because the controversy is not about Mandarin education, it's about classical Chinese (國文) education. Articles in Chinese like this one make it very clear:

    This first sentence of this article refers to two recent developments that motivated this survey: the student association at National Taiwan University calling for abolishing the requirement for all students to take Freshman Chinese, and several engineering programs across top Taiwanese universities dropping Chinese examination scores as one of their admission criteria. This has led to a backlash among conservative academics of Chinese literature (the majority of whom specialize in classical and not modern Chinese literature) about Taiwanese people forgetting their cultural roots, and of course invoking the dreaded boogeyman of "de-Sinicization." (去中國話)

    For people who might not know this, the "國文" subject in Taiwanese high schools and universities focus almost exclusively on classical Chinese and therefore very little to do with "Mandarin." Although classical Chinese texts now account for "only" around 50% of the high school curriculum (itself the target of much controversy; many academics were calling for 60% or even more), in practice many teachers are not equipped to teach modern Chinese literature at all and gloss over modern texts quickly because there's "nothing to teach." At the university level professors could make their syllabuses whatever they like, so in effect most available classes will be on classical Chinese as well.

    More and more people are now asking why this much student time and energy is being devoted to classical Chinese, and the survey covered by the Taiwan News article is part of the effort of conservative academia to push back. There' s no controversy over "Mandarin" here to speak of.

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