What Languages Do Taiwanese Speak?

First-time visitors to Taiwan who are curious about what language(s) most Taiwanese speak need to look no further than the Taipei Metro. Every train announcement is made in four languages: Mandarin, Taiwanese, English and Hakka.

Mandarin Chinese is the most common language in Taiwan, and is used in 83.5 percent of all households. As the official national language since the end of World War II, it is taught in all public and private schools, and is used extensively in government offices, large companies, and the media. Mandarin Chinese replaced Japanese, which was the dominant language during the years of Japanese occupation (1895 – 1945). As a colony of Japan, the Japanese language was used in schools, businesses and all government offices. My friend Chia-ming, who was born in 1927, mentioned that the local schoolteacher would visit each family to find out how they felt towards Japan. If the parents spoke at least minimal Japanese, it was considered a sign of friendliness, which would lead to education for the children and other benefits to the family.

Taiwanese - also known as Hokkien – is spoken by about 70 percent of the Taiwanese people. This dialect has its roots in southern Fujian province, from which many Han Chinese emigrated in the late 1800s. It derives from a dialect called Southern Min, which is connected to the Minnan language. When the Chinese Nationalists invaded Taiwan in 1949, they began a campaign to suppress this “national” language. Students could not learn (let alone speak) Taiwanese in school, and Mandarin was required in every sector of Taiwanese life.
Mandarin is spoken more in the north of Taiwan than in the south, and is often used interchangeably with Taiwanese, especially at home. In the south, Taiwanese is spoken more exclusively and is often considered a symbol of national pride. When I visited the southern city of Tainan with a friend from Keelung, Taiwan’s northernmost city, locals refused to deal with him unless he spoke Taiwanese. Fortunately, my friend is fluent in Taiwanese, although he speaks mostly Mandarin in Keelung.
After the election of Lee Teng-hui in 1988 – the first President of Taiwan who was born there and who spoke Taiwanese – and the “mother tongue movement” of the early 1990s, the language began to experience a revival. It is again being taught in schools, is often spoken on television and in films, and is considered a sign of patriotism towards Taiwan. Most Taiwanese politicians speak Taiwanese, which they use often during political campaigns.  Some Taiwanese language proponents have even suggested getting rid of Mandarin, since it is the language of the former minority ruling class and is closely identified with both the KMT dictatorship and Communist China. However, Mandarin is spoken by more people than any other language in the world, and trade between Taiwan and China is important to the economy. Chances of replacing Mandarin with Taiwanese are slim. Taiwanese also has five sub-dialects, but they are not very different from each other.

Hakka is the third language in Taiwan, and is spoken in about 6 percent of Taiwanese homes. The Hakka people are a Han Chinese subgroup whose ancestral homes are chiefly in the Hakka-speaking provincial areas of Guangdong in southern China. They immigrated to Taiwan in the late Ming and early Qing dynasties, and were Taiwan’s first agriculturists. The Hakka population in Taiwan stands at around 4.6 million people today, roughly 15 to 20 percent of the population. Taiwan's Hakka have traditionally settled in Hsinchu and Miaoli counties, and in the Zhongli District of Taoyuan in northern Taiwan; they also live in parts of Kaohsiung City and Pingtung County in the South. The Hakka retain many of their cultural and artistic traditions, which are widely celebrated. The Hakka language has affinities with both Cantonese and Mandarin; five dialects of Hakka are spoken in Taiwan.

A traditional Hakka building, Maoli.
Photo: Taiwan Tourism Bureau.

Indigenous Taiwanese compose roughly 2.6 percent of Taiwan’s population, and are made up of 14 government recognized “nations” with four others recognized locally. We mentioned earlier that the ancestors of the indigenous Taiwanese were Austronesian peoples who first migrated from Polynesia, Melanesia and Madagascar. The linguistic importance of the indigenous Taiwanese languages lies in the fact that of the ten major branches of Austronesian, nine are exclusively Taiwanese. According to scholars at the Indigenous Wellness Research Institute at the University of Washington, these branches are equivalent to the Indo-Iranian, Greek, Romance, Germanic, Celtic and Balto-Slavic branches in the Indo-European language family.
Each indigenous Taiwanese group speaks a distinct language that is generally unintelligible to other indigenous groups. They had no written language until they made contact with the Dutch in the 17th century. Before colonization, indigenous Taiwanese spoke a total of 26 different languages of which ten have become extinct. Another five are under serious threat of disappearance. At the present time, the Taiwanese government recognizes sixteen distinct languages comprising 42 dialects, and has recently begun supporting the survival of these languages.

English has become an important second or third language for many Taiwanese, especially during the last thirty years. English is taught in every school and university, with many Taiwanese also learning the language in private language schools, often as children. Signage in Taiwan is often written in both Chinese and English, and most people who work in hotels and restaurants speak English fluently. The Ministry of Education is planning to offer bilingual education in all public schools, with English being the primary choice.


Link: Taiwan plans to spend NT$30 billion to promote national languages. (CNA News)




“Taiwan: Birthplace of Austronesian Languages,”  https://iwri.org/taiwan-birthplace-of-austronesian-languages/
“Languages of Taiwan,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Languages_of_Taiwan
Of Taiwan, https://oftaiwam.org
“Languages of Taiwan,” https://zinglanguages.com/languages-of-taiwan/
Encyclopedia Brittanica, https://www.brittanica.com/place/Taiwan/Languages#/media/ 1/580902/206472.


© 2022 by Nathaniel Altman

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