Taiwan has long been a great place to study Mandarin. After Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalist government retreated to the island during the Chinese Civil War and, with the PRC generally out of bounds, Taiwan became a proxy for ‘China’. This new, and arguably somewhat contrived identity was strongly cultural and Mandarin replaced Japanese as the official state language in Taiwan. If a foreigner wanted to study Mandarin, Taiwan was the place to do it.
Since the PRC opened up foreign students have flocked there to not only learn the language, but also experience first-hand one of the great social shifts in global history. While China has always been a fascinating place, in recent decades it has been amazing and accessible. Why then should you go to Taiwan to study Mandarin?
It is worth considering Taiwan not just as the PRC’s ‘other’—somewhere ostensibly Chinese but just a few decades more developed—but a place with its own fascinatingly complicated and rich history. Visitors to Taiwan experience a particular hybridity that is not found anywhere in the PRC. Other authors on Asia Options have rightly pointed out some of the great aspects of life as a student in Taiwan, as well as the work and internship opportunities there. Hoping to build on these stories and drawing on my own two years of language study in Taiwan, I will consider what benefits you might gain from studying Mandarin there.
The first thing any foreign student will notice as soon they show up in Taiwan is that traditional characters 繁體字 are still used. Do not be scared – this is a good thing! If you have never studied Mandarin before then you have nothing to worry about. Starting from scratch is similar in both systems. But there are also benefits to learning traditional characters (found mainly in Taiwan and Hong Kong) on top of your foundation of simplified characters (as taught in the PRC and in most Mandarin classrooms around the world).
I feel that traditional characters are much easier to learn than simplified characters. With traditional characters, meanings are represented more clearly and there is a certain structural logic that I feel sadly lacking in simplified characters. This logic extends to the art of writing, where stroke order (integral to writing properly) is much more coherent in traditional characters. Once you have a grounding in traditional characters, it is reasonably easy to transition back to simplified characters if you find yourself studying in the PRC or in your home country.
If you have studied simplified characters and then go to Taiwan, then be prepared for an adjustment period. Admittedly it can be frustrating when some simplified characters you learnt in your first weeks (Such as 几 and 医) are now actually quite different (幾 and 醫). Dealing with this sudden apparent illiteracy requires patience on your part but, with a bit of grit, should be quickly transcended. Furthermore, should you ever want to pursue calligraphy seriously (an art that has both cultural and linguistic benefits) then knowing traditional characters is essential. Calligraphy with simplified characters looks, to put it mildly, incomplete.
Students who have been exposed to Mandarin textbooks from the PRC would be aware of how ideology manifests in these. While the coded messages are often benign (and at times hilarious) it is always worth being aware of what you are reading. Texts from Taiwan are not immune from subtle attempts to influence the views of foreign visitors. Language study with these gives you the opportunity to not just reflect on how the PRC can be viewed from Taiwan, but also how textbooks are used to create an idealised image of Taiwan. Such ideological issues are not limited to textbooks.
Teachers in Taiwan are generally more than happy to share their opinion on local and global politics, allowing for interesting and robust discussions. And if propaganda is not your thing, at least your vocabulary of terms related to democracy and elections will expand quickly as Taiwan’s exuberant election culture is forever providing great discussion material. If you are looking for a language exchange partner then there is no shortage of locals (of all ages) who would love to practice with you, allowing you to indulge your interest in topics that are not necessarily covered in class. Homestays are available and an amazing way to immerse yourself in the language and society. In addition, there are less active ways that you can benefit from the Chinese language environment in Taiwan.
Why study Mandarin in Taiwan
Taiwan’s media landscape is relatively open and there are over one hundred television channels. From business to Buddhism to basketball, and with lots of news, television in Taiwan is quite enjoyable once you have developed language proficiency. For language students this benefit is twofold given that most shows are subtitled – you can simultaneously practice reading and listening. Of course, you can now find an abundance of video material online but the sheer ubiquity of television in Taiwan remains a benefit. And given the glut of content that always needs to be produced, there is a good chance that you could end up on TV, if talent contests and quirky game shows are your thing.
If you aim to work in business or diplomacy or have an interest in literature or history, your skills in simplified Chinese will benefit from knowing traditional characters. You might be posted to Taiwan or Hong Kong, or find yourself pouring over some documents that were printed or produced there. The best preparation for this is a period studying in Taiwan. With some training, you will find that traditional characters are not that intimidating and that you can deal with this material almost as quickly as you would simplified characters. For those with an interest in China’s past, there is no point in trying to become a historian without an understanding of traditional characters. Knowing traditional characters will round out your knowledge of this complex and rewarding language.
Depending on your teacher, you will find that the Beijing accent is not heard frequently in Taiwan’s Mandarin classes. (In the past this was not always the case, with most teachers arriving from the Mainland following the chaos of the Chinese Civil War). Still, not everyone speaks with a textbook accent and tuning your ear to the various regional expressions and vocabulary is valuable. Not just in Taiwan, of course, but in China too. Training your ear to the Taiwan accent is good practice for dealing with the multitude of accents you will find on the Mainland. Any foreign student in the PRC will know of the difficulty in understanding regional accents; the standard Beijing accent of the classroom can be much harder to find on country back streets. But Mandarin is not the only language you can study in Taiwan.
While in Taiwan you should take the chance to learn Taiwanese (generally known at Taiyu, or daigi). It is but one (with many local dialects!) of a number of languages spoken there (including many indigenous ones). The island remains strongly multilingual and some older folks still converse in Japanese. Even a simple understanding of Taiwanese will open up a new realm of experience to you and draw you deeper into Taiwan society.
It would be remiss in any discussion of studying Mandarin in Taiwan to ignore the government’s extensive scholarship program. A significant part of its soft power arsenal, the government pays for a large number of students to come to Taiwan each year for language study and degree programs. The stipends are generous and allow students to focus on their studies. Talk to your local Taipei Economic and Cultural Office about these.
Ideally, you will have the opportunity to study Mandarin in Taiwan and in China. No one political system has a monopoly on the many languages and cultures found in the broader Chinese world. With an open and inquisitive mind, living and learning on both sides of the Taiwan Strait will be a fulfilling experience. Not only will studying in Taiwan give you the chance to improve your Chinese, but you will also get a broader understanding of the nuances of Mandarin. Even more so, you will see the PRC through a different lens and, in living and studying in this endlessly vibrant and diverse democracy, gain a new perspective on the dynamics of East Asia.
Interested in working in Taiwan? Check out our non-teaching jobs in Tawain post.
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- Why you should study Mandarin in Taiwan as your first choice - January 12, 2015