Have you studied Chinese for a number of years? Living in the Sinosphere and ready to immerse yourself even more deeply in the local culture? Didn’t find Chinese challenging enough? And ready to take the next step in your Chinese language-learning journey?
I recently moved back to Taiwan and being fairly happy with my (far from perfect) Chinese, I decided the time was right to learn Tai-gi, one of the local Chinese dialects in Taiwan (Tai-gi is most commonly referred to as Taiwanese but is also known as Holo, Hokkien and Taiwanese Southern Min). Tai-gi is the second most spoken language in Taiwan (after Mandarin) and is spoken by over 70% of the population.
When telling people in Taiwan I am learning Tai-gi, I am often met with the same response: Why? So what would persuade me to start learning a language that is even harder than Chinese? A language that is declining rapidly in its number of speakers? A language that even Taiwan’s young people don’t want to learn? And a language that is spoken in only a few countries (and by a minority at that)?
Tai-gi is an integral part of Taiwan’s historical, social and cultural landscape. Regardless of whether people speak it, Tai-gi is an undeniable symbol of Taiwan. Learning some Tai-gi is a no-brainer for anyone who wants to learn more about Taiwan, its people and its culture.
When Chinese migrants started settling in Taiwan in the 16th century the majority came from Fujian Province in China, where Southern Min was the dominant language. As the Chinese settlers arrived to Taiwan they brought with them Southern Min, the language of Fujian Province, which quickly became the dominant language of Taiwan. Due to contact with Taiwan’s aboriginal languages, the Hakka language, and its isolation from the mainland, this form of Southern Min developed into the Tai-gi spoken today. The 200 years of continued migration of Chinese settlers from Fujian province to Taiwan, enabled Tai-gi to become the dominant local language of Taiwan, with speakers of Tai-gi far outnumbering those of Hakka and Austronesian languages.
But this all changed with the arrival of the Japanese in 1895. Following the defeat of China to Japan in the Sino-Japanese war of 1895, Taiwan was ceded to Japan. Under Japanese rule, local languages (Tai-gi, Hakka and aboriginal languages) were suppressed and Japanese was the only language taught in schools, permitted to be spoken in public and the official language of government and bureaucracy. Local languages were restricted to family and social settings, thereby reducing their vitality.
Although local languages lost much of their vitality, in contrast to Japanese which became connected with a heavy-handed regime, Tai-gi (and other local languages) became associated with the island of Taiwan, establishing a link between local languages and an authentic localised Taiwanese identity.
The arrival of the Kuomintang in 1945 didn’t change much: local languages continued to be suppressed. The only change being Mandarin Chinese replacing the role of Japanese. Local languages were ignored and suppressed in all public areas while only Mandarin was permitted to be taught in schools. This further restricted Tai-gi to family and social settings, restricting its vocabulary to everyday situations. Like during the Japanese period, Tai-gi (and other local languages) became associated with Taiwan and being “Taiwanese.”
While Taiwan no longer has these restrictive language laws in place, these years of repression still influence the linguistic setting in Taiwan today.
Due to these historical reasons, speaking Tai-gi is now considered to be somehow more authentically “Taiwanese.” You need only to look at the most common Chinese name ‘台語’ (台灣的語言 – The language of Taiwan) to see this. This naming of Tai-gi indicating that somehow Tai-gi is the language of Taiwan. Regardless of the accuracy of this (for example the Aboriginals were speaking Austronesian languages long before Chinese settlers came to Taiwan), Tai-gi is still associated with a strong Taiwanese identity. Politicians have also picked up on this and during election times politicians will make efforts to deliver speeches in Tai-gi to appeal to a wider audience.
So, what does all this have to do with my decision to learn Tai-gi?
First, due to years of repression where Tai-gi was only spoken in a familial setting, speaking Tai-gi is associated with more intimate and familiar relationships. As a result of these associations with family and tradition, speaking Tai-gi gives you insights into a more localised and traditional Taiwan.
In my (still limited) experience of using Tai-gi to talk with Taiwanese people, I have come to the conclusion that speaking Tai-gi can lead to more meaningful exchanges. Prior to learning Tai-gi whenever I spoke Chinese I thought that I was somehow gaining access to a Taiwan that only Chinese speakers knew about. But now armed with (albeit basic) knowledge of Tai-gi, I have discovered that there exists another Taiwanese culture that is conducted entirely in Tai-gi. Whilst my friendships with my Taiwanese friends have deepened, I have also found strangers with whom I talk to in Tai-gi more willing to talk and share their experiences with me.
Tai-gi has also (despite the best efforts of the KMT authoritarian period) remained the language of commerce and business. Much of the business in Taiwan is still conducted in Tai-gi. On an everyday level, many shop owners or stallholders are actually more proficient in Tai-gi than Mandarin. If you are looking for one reason why you should learn Tai-gi, it is for the benefits you will get out of buying things.
As a foreigner, even if you can speak Chinese, when you go to the traditional markets or night markets, you still run the risk of being charged slightly more. Speaking Tai-gi on the other hand, will not only get you cheaper prices, but will also provide you with the perfect opportunity to practice your Tai-gi. As mentioned above, when speaking Tai-gi, Taiwanese people are much more open. I have found this to be the case going to the markets and speaking in Tai-gi where shop owners are more than willing to talk with me and let me practice.
Finally, when learning a new language, one of the first things you want to learn is swear words. In Taiwan today Tai-gi is still used (more than) Mandarin for swearing and expressing profanities. This stems from Taiwan’s historical experiences. First, Mandarin was the only language of education and Tai-gi was restricted to familial domains. Most Taiwanese had to learn Mandarin at school where textbooks would not contain vulgarities, and so Tai-gi became the dominant language for expressing profanities.
Second, Tai-gi was forbidden in public domains, so speaking it while it was prohibited established a symbolic association between Tai-gi and rebelliousness and toughness. While Asia Options doesn’t want to encourage anyone to express profanities, we’ll suffice to say, learning Tai-gi will endow with you an all-encompassing vocabulary!
Of course learning Tai-gi is not without its challenges. Mandarin is hard enough with its four tones, but Tai-gi has seven, as well as a range of phonetics not used in English (or Chinese for that matter). Another challenge is that Tai-gi has no standardised writing system or standard phonetic writing system (such as the Hanyu Pinyin). As with many dialects, it is mainly learned through talking with family members and not taught via standard books. This means for foreigners who have not grown up hearing Tai-gi spoken from a young age, all the words must be memorised. As Chinese characters are still used to represent Tai-gi sounds, this means disassociating the pronunciation in Mandarin for the Tai-gi sound. Tai-gi (unlike Chinese) also has a grammatical system. Nouns and verbs, which may have the same pronunciation in Chinese, are pronounced differently in Tai-gi.
Despite this, learning Tai-gi has given me a greater understanding of the Chinese spoken in Taiwan (which differs to that on the mainland). Taiwanese Mandarin has adopted many of the grammatical features of Tai-gi such as using 有沒有 as a past tense marker: For example, in Taiwan people often say, 你有吃飯了沒有？ (Have you eaten yet?), which is perfectly acceptable in Taiwan. However, your Chinese teacher would tell you that this is absolutely wrong and should be said like this: 你吃過飯了嗎？
Whilst there are also a whole range of Tai-gi words that have now been accepted as Taiwanese Mandarin words (mostly food related), the influence of Tai-gi in Taiwanese Mandarin nevertheless shows the importance of Tai-gi in Taiwan’s linguistic and cultural setting. Finally, Tai-gi has a whole host of words borrowed from Japanese (such as the Tai-gi words for beer, glasses 目鏡 and bread － 麵包). The prevalence of Japanese in Tai-gi shows the deep and long-lasting influence of Japanese rule in Taiwan; even today vestiges of the Japanese period can be seen in everyday life in Taiwan.
So is learning Tai-gi worth it?
Starting Tai-gi has been like reliving my first six weeks of learning Chinese where I wondered how I would ever learn Chinese when I couldn’t even distinguish between the most basic characters. I am often plagued by the same doubts and questions. How will I ever speak Tai-gi well when I can barely count to 10? Or how will I ever gain even limited proficiency when I can’t even manage to ask how much an oyster omelette costs? Nevertheless, these small setbacks have not weakened my determination to keep persevering in my Tai-gi language journey. I feel I have learnt more about Taiwan, its people and its culture in 6 weeks of learning Tai-gi than I did during my whole year of living in Taiwan.
Nevertheless, Tai-gi may not be for everyone. A huge amount of effort must be spent on learning a new language and if you are focused on learning Chinese then this should be your priority. If however, you are happy with your level of Chinese, want to buy cheaper goods at the market or want to engage in more meaningful exchanges with your Taiwanese friends, then learning Tai-gi is well worth the time and effort.
Basic Taiwanese phrases:
je goa je jin?
mih gia jin gui !
mih gia jin siok!
Interested in studying in Taiwan? Check out why you should learn Mandarin in Taiwan as your first choice.
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