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A large majority of the people of Taiwan speak Mandarin, which has been the only officially sanctioned medium of instruction in the schools for more than four decades. As a result of the half century of Japanese rule, many people born before 1940 also can speak fluent Japanese.

Hoklo people and many others also speak Hokkien, commonly known as "Taiwanese". Recently there has been a growing use of Taiwanese in the broadcast media. The Hakka, who are concentrated in several counties throughout Taiwan, have their own distinct language. The Formosan languages are the languages of the aboriginal tribes of Taiwan, comprising about 2% of the island's population.


National language



In 1945 when the island of Taiwan came under the jurisdiction of the Republic of China, led by Kuomintang, Standard Mandarin was introduced as the official language and made compulsory in schools. (Before 1945, Japanese was the official language and taught in schools.) Since then, Standard Mandarin has been established as a lingua franca among the various groups in Taiwan: the majority Taiwanese-speaking Hoklo (Hokkien), the Hakka who have their own spoken language, Mainlanders whose native tongue may be any Chinese variant in mainland China, and the aboriginals who speak aboriginal languages.

Until the 1980s the Kuomintang administration heavily promoted the use of Standard Mandarin and discouraged the use of Taiwanese and other vernaculars, even portraying them as inferior. Mandarin was the main language for use in the media. This produced a backlash in the 1990s. Although some more extreme supporters of Taiwan independence tend to be opposed to Standard Mandarin in favor of Taiwanese, efforts to replace Standard Mandarin either with Taiwanese or with a multi-lingual standard have remained stalled. Today, Standard Mandarin is taught by immersion starting in elementary school. After the second grade, the entire educational system is in Standard Mandarin, except for local language classes that have been taught for a few hours each week starting in the mid-1990s.

Taiwanese Mandarin (as with Singlish and many other situations of a creole speech community) is spoken at different levels according to the social class and situation of the speakers. Formal occasions call for the acrolectal level of Standard Mandarin (Guoyu), which differs little from the Standard Mandarin in mainland China (Putonghua). Less formal situations may result in the basilect form, which has more uniquely Taiwanese features. Bilingual Taiwanese speakers may code-switch between Mandarin and Taiwanese, sometimes in the same sentence.

Mandarin is spoken fluently by almost the entire Taiwanese population, except for some elderly people who were educated under Japanese rule. In Taipei, where there is a high concentration of Mainlanders whose native language is not Taiwanese, Mandarin is used in greater frequency than in southern Taiwan and more rural areas where there are fewer Mainlanders.

Written Chinese

Taiwan uses Traditional Chinese characters. In mainland China these characters have been replaced by Simplified Chinese characters.

Chinese phonetics

Zhuyin and Hanzi location.svg

Zhuyin Fuhao (traditional Chinese: 注音符號pinyin: Zhùyīn FúhàoWade-Giles: Chu-yin fu-hao), or "Symbols for Annotating Sounds", often abbreviated as Zhuyin, or known as Bopomofo (ㄅㄆㄇㄈ) after the first four letters of this Chinese phonemic alphabet (bo po mo fo), is the national phonetic system of the Republic of China for teaching the Chinese languages, especially Standard Mandarin, to people learning to read and write and/or to people learning to speak Mandarin. (See Uses). The system uses 37 special symbols to represent the Mandarin sounds: 21 consonants and 16 vowels. Each symbol represents a group of sounds without much ambiguity.

These phonetic symbols sometimes appear as ruby characters printed next to the Chinese characters in young children's books, and in editions of classical texts (which frequently use characters that appear at very low frequency rates in newspapers and other such daily fare). In advertisements, these phonetic symbols are sometimes used to write certain particles (e.g., ㄉ instead of 的); other than this, one seldom sees these symbols used in mass media adult publications except as a pronunciation guide (or index system) in dictionary entries. Bopomofo symbols are also mapped to the ordinary Roman character keyboard (1 = bo, q = po, a = mo, and so forth) used in one method for inputting Chinese text when using the computer.

Unlike pinyin, the sole purpose for Zhuyin in elementary education is to teach Standard Mandarin pronunciation to children. Grade one textbooks of all subjects (including Mandarin) are entirely in zhuyin. After that year, Chinese character texts are given in annotated form. Around grade four, presence of Zhuyin annotation is greatly reduced, remaining only in the new character section. School children learn the symbols so that they can decode pronunciations given in a Chinese dictionary, and also so that they can find how to write words for which they know only the sounds.

Pinyin, on the other hand, is dual-purpose. Besides being a pronunciation notation, pinyin is used widely in publications in mainland China. Some books from mainland China are published purely in pinyin with not even a single Chinese character. Those books are targeted to minority tribal groups or Westerners who know spoken Mandarin but have not yet learned written Chinese characters.


Although the Wade-Giles system is commonly used for romanization of Chinese in Taiwan, romanization tends to be highly inconsistent. Unlike mainland China, Taiwan does not use the Latin alphabet in teaching Mandarin pronunciation in schools but rather uses a system called Zhuyin. There have been efforts by the educational system to move toward a Roman-based system, but these have been slow due to bureaucratic inertia, political reluctance to follow mainland China's footsteps and the huge cost in teacher retraining. The central government adopted Tongyong Pinyin as the official romanization in 2002 but local governments are permitted to override the standard as some have adopted Hanyu Pinyin and retained old romanizations that are commonly used. However, in August 2008 the central government announced that Hanyu Pinyin will be the only system of romanization in Taiwan as of January 2009.

Other languages

Taiwanese Hokkien

Taiwanese Hokkien, commonly known as "Taiwanese", is a variant of Hokkien spoken in Taiwan. Taiwanese is often seen as a Chinese dialect within a larger Chinese language. On the other hand, it may also be seen as a language in the Sino-Tibetan family. As with most "language or dialect?" distinctions, how one describes Taiwanese may depend largely on one's political views (see Identification of the varieties of Chinese).

There are both colloquial and literary registers of Taiwanese. Colloquial Taiwanese has roots in Old Chinese. Literary Taiwanese, which was originally developed in the 10th century in Fujian and based on Middle Chinese, was used at one time for formal writing, but is now largely extinct. A great part of the Taiwanese language is mutually intelligible with other dialects of Hokkien as spoken in mainland China and South-east Asia and has a degree of intelligibility with other varieties of Min Nan languages such as Teochew. It is not, however, mutually intelligible with Mandarin or other Chinese languages.

Recent work by scholars such as Ekki Lu, Sakai Toru, and Lí Khîn-hoāⁿ (also known as Tavokan Khîn-hoāⁿ or Chin-An Li), based on former research by scholars such as Ông Io̍k-tek, has gone so far as to associate part of the basic vocabulary of the colloquial language with the Austronesian and Tai language families; however, such claims are not without controversy.


Hakka is mainly spoken on Taiwan by people who have Hakka ancestry. Hakka is often seen as a Chinese dialect within a larger Chinese language. On the other hand, it may also be seen as a language in the Sino-Tibetan family. As with most "language or dialect?" distinctions, how one describes Hakka may depend largely on one's political views (see Identification of the varieties of Chinese).


The Formosan languages are the languages of the aboriginal tribes of Taiwan. Taiwanese aborigines currently comprise about 2% of the island's population.[1] However, far fewer can still speak their ancestral language, after centuries of language shift. Of the approximately 26 languages of the Taiwanese aborigines, at least ten are extinct, another five are moribund,[2] and several others are to some degree endangered.

All Formosan languages are slowly being replaced by the culturally dominant Mandarin Chinese. In recent decades the government started an aboriginal reappreciation program that included the reintroduction of Formosan mother tongue education in Taiwanese schools. However, the results of this initiative have been disappointing.[3][4]


The Japanese language was compulsorily taught while Taiwan was under Japanese rule (1895 to 1945). Although fluency is now largely limited to the elderly, some of Taiwan's youth who look to Japan as the trend-setter of the region's youth pop culture now might know a bit of Japanese through the media or their grandparents.

Further reading

  • Weingartner, F. F. (1996). Survey of Taiwan aboriginal languages. Taipei: [s.n.]. ISBN 9579185409


  1. ^ Council of Indigenous Peoples, Executive Yuan "Statistics of Indigenous Population in Taiwan and Fukien Areas".
  2. ^ Zeitoun, Elizabeth & Ching-Hua Yu "The Formosan Language Archive: Linguistic Analysis and Language Processing". Computational Linguistics and Chinese Language Processing. Volume 10, No. 2, June 2005, pp. 167-200
  3. ^ Lee, Hui-chi Lee (2004). A Survey of Language Ability, Language Use and Language Attitudes of Young Aborigines in Taiwan. In Hoffmann, Charlotte & Jehannes Ytsma (Eds.) Trilingualism in Family, School, and Community pp.101-117. Clevedon, Buffalo: Multilingual Matters. ISBN 1-85359-693-0
  4. ^ Huteson, Greg. (2003). Sociolinguistic survey report for the Tona and Maga dialects of the Rukai Language. SIL Electronic Survey Reports 2003-012, Dallas, TX: SIL International.

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