Saturday, May 03, 2008


One of the curses of Taiwan is that as my Chinese gets better, I can understand more of what people are talking about in everyday conversation. And when they realize I understand them, they can just switch to Taiwanese.

Taiwanese is vaguely related to Mandarin- it follows basically the same grammar. So just like a Mandarin speaker and a Cantonese speaker can read the same characters but pronounce them differently, so you can look at characters but read them in Taiwanese. mostly.

It has more tones than Mandarin- there's some disagreement over whether there are 7 or 8 tones, which is weird to me- and sounds really sharp and argumentative, much like Mandarin sounds to someone who can't understand it, I guess.

Although speaking Taiwanese was illegal during the Japanese occupation and part of the Post-WW2 martial law era, you still find a lot of older people who can only speak Taiwanese- no Mandarin. (I guess laws weren't enforced under martial law any more than they are today!) A lot of people my age grew up speaking Taiwanese at home but are more comfortable with Chinese now. And they teach Taiwanese in the elementary schools now, but a lot of kids learn it as a second language.

When I first came to Taiwan people always asked me if I spoke "guoyu", which means "country language." And what's Taiwan's language? Taiwanese, right? So I would always say, no, I don't understand guoyu, only zhongwen (the word I knew for Chinese- China language). Once I learned the sentence structure, I would say, "Guoyu- I can't speak a word of it!" Finally someone told me that Guoyu is Chinese- I'm told because it came over from the country of China with the mainland Chinese immigrants. So all that time I would tell people I can't speak any Chinese, in response to their question in Chinese, and then have a conversation in Chinese. Oops!

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