Learning Taiwanese

Traditional Taiwanese Language Puppet Show

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Rewards of Learning Taiwanese

Learning the Taiwanese variety of the Southern Min dialect of the Chinese language has been one of the most rewarding achievements of my life. Since 1973 I have used Taiwanese both in my family life and in my daily work. Taiwanese is a language which can be acquired or learned by anyone if they have the motivation and need to use it. This article is an account of my experience in learning Taiwanese and later study in maintaining proficiency.

Flag of the Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan

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Why Learn Taiwanese?

It was late 1968 in Taipei, Taiwan. A U.S. Navy buddy and I were sitting in the Mona Lisa Club on Fushun Street off of Section 3 of Chungshan North Road. Rick and I enjoyed frequenting this club to talk to the young, beautiful Chinese and Taiwanese ladies and to practice the Chinese Mandarin which we recently learned. Suddenly a young western man entered the club and gave the girls some greetings which weren't in Mandarin. The young ladies congregated around this man and were laughing and talking to him in this strange language. Upon my questioning, a club girl named Angel with sparkling little, black eyes said he was speaking Taiwanese. As it turned out, at least half of the girls in the Mona Lisa were native Taiwanese and preferred speaking Taiwanese to Mandarin. I guess the first reason I became interested in Taiwanese was a desire to learn more about the native Taiwanese and not have them talk about me in a language which I couldn't understand.

The second reason was because I married a native Taiwanese and needed the language for communication. My wife at that time came from a rural area in central Taiwan and could not speak Mandarin that well due to a low education. Because her English wasn't that good either, we decided it would be best for me to acquire Taiwanese since we would be living in a non-foreign area of Kaohsiung City.

Map of Fujian Province in Relation to Taiwan

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What Is Taiwanese?

Taiwanese is a subdialect or variety of Southern Min (Minnan) or Hokkien which is one of the major dialects of the Chinese language. Historically, we can trace Southern Min having its roots in the Tang Dynasty about 1,300 years ago. Taiwanese today is a combination of the Quanzhou and Zhangzhou subdialects of Southern Min which originated in Fujian Province on the China mainland. It is also a close cousin of the subdialect of Southern Min spoken in the city of Xiamen in Fujian.

Taiwanese differs from Mandarin, the national language, by having more consonants. It is characterized by having the nasal initials "m" and "ng", and the final consonants of "m," "p," "t," and "k" which are pronounced as glottal stops. Taiwanese also has six or seven tones as opposed to the four tones of Mandarin. Northern Taiwanese is similar to the Quanzhou and Xiamen varieties of Southern Min while central and southern Taiwanese are closer to the Zhangzhou variety.

Learning Taiwanese

Learning And Acquiring Taiwanese

My first attempt at learning Taiwanese occurred while I was studying Chinese language and literature at the University of Wisconsin in 1973. For one semester I had a Chinese Mandarin teaching assistant who taught a small group of us two hours a week. Although Miss Bai was not a native Taiwanese speaker, she had grown up speaking the language in Taiwan. She taught us basic conversation through both characters and Romanization. It was a good foundation; however, the problem was that I couldn't use Taiwanese outside of the classroom since most people weren't interesting in learning it.

After returning to Taiwan and marrying in the summer of 1973, I started to make my first big strides in acquiring Taiwanese. My wife and I settled in the southwestern port city of Kaohsiung. I remember renting apartments in the Ching Nien First Road area of the city where mostly Taiwanese was spoken. There were also very few western English speaking people living in that area.

Originally, I thought I could use Mandarin in communicating with the local people. One day I went to a small stationary shop hoping to purchase a birthday card. In my best Mandarin I said, 我要买一片生日卡片 "Wo yao mai yi pian shengri kapian." The clerk in bewilderment couldn't understand what I was saying. I then said in my limited Taiwanese, "Goa be boe jit phi sei jit kha phi." She readily understood what I wanted. From that time onward, I only used Taiwanese in my communication at the market.

Undeniably, my wife taught me most of my acquired Taiwanese. She didn't use a textbook. Rather, I learned like a baby and toddler. My greatest strides took place after my son was born one year later. It seemed like I was learning all of the Taiwanese he was learning. All of the neighbors and my wife's friends and relatives only spoke Taiwanese which reinforced my acquisition of the language. By the time we left Taiwan and returned to the States six years later, my Taiwanese was better than my spoken Mandarin. It was very colloquial and close to the southern Taiwanese Zhangzhou variety of Southern Min.

Taiwanese TV News Broadcast

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Maintenance of Taiwanese Skills

I maintained my proficiency in Taiwanese after returning to the U.S. with my family. This was done by using the language actively at home and by applying it in my work as a linguist with the government.

Although my wife was starting to learn and speak more English in our new environment as my son got older and went to school, we still used more Taiwanese at home than English. My wife also had Taiwanese speaking friends from whom I could hear a lot of the language.

I also maintained and improved my Taiwanese both through courses and self study while with the government. One of my refresher courses was a three month tutorial with a native Taiwanese while having a Mandarin immersion abroad in Taiwan. In this course I had my first experience in using a conversation book with Romanized Taiwanese.

My next Taiwanese course was an introduction to the Xiamen variety taught by a native Xiamen speaker through long distance learning. In this course I learned that the Xiamen variety was similar in some respects to Northern Taiwanese and the Quanzhou variety. I also heard a few differences in the pronunciation of vowels and words.

My self-study in Taiwanese included listening to music, serialized dramas (soap box operas), news broadcasts, and the political propaganda of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Taiwan. I was especially interested in the DPP propaganda because it having been founded in 1986 was the first opposition party to the Kuomindang. The DPP was a party supported by the majority of the native born Taiwanese, because it advocated human rights and the right of self-determination for the Taiwanese people. I remember spending many hours listening to the speeches of early DPP leaders like Huang Hsin-Chieh, Huang Chao-Nan, and Hsu Hsin-Liang.

Acquiring Taiwanese was a fantastic experience for me. It made me more aware of the spoken varieties of Chinese, and also, most importantly, gave me an insight into the thoughts and lives of the native Taiwanese. The important thing now is for me to maintain my Taiwanese skills. This can only be done by conversing in Taiwanese over the Internet or by making frequent trips to Taiwan. Unfortunately, if you don't use a language, you will lose it.

Latest Developments in Maintaining Taiwanese

In Thailand right now I have little opportunity to speak Taiwanese. Almost all of the local people speak Thai, and the Thai-Chinese here speak the Taechiu sub-dialect of Minnan which is about 30 per cent similar to Taiwanese. Fortunately, I was able to hear and use Taiwanese a lot during my visit to Taiwan at the end of November, 2014. l first visited my son, his mother, and some ex-relatives who are all native Taiwanese. I then spent an additional two days touring Taipei with my present Thai wife. It was a very interesting experience interpreting between the Thai language and Taiwanese. At the present, I am continuing my Taiwanese education through on-line study.


Learning Taiwanese

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© 2012 Paul Richard Kuehn

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Comments 10 comments

Luther Deese 4 years ago

Nicely done, Paul. My experiences were much like yours. My first 'true love' was a native Taiwanese and I wanted to speak her dialect. It was 1960 and I was 19 years old. I learned in phrases and terms. Later I took 6 months of formal S. Min classes while studying advanced Mandarin in the U.S. Foreign Service Institute school in Taichung in 1968. Living in Taichung I was able to use everything I learned around town, a great way to reinforce what I'd learned. I was to spend another 8 years in Taiwan during which I continued speaking the dialect on a daily basis. The school taught Xiamen style of speaking -- they said it was the 'standard form'. One great benefit from learning Taiwanese was using it to haggle with Taiwanese vendors -- I could almost always get a much better price than the local Chinese who didn't speak the dialect.


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Paul Kuehn 4 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand Author

Thanks for the comments, Luther. It was so much more enjoyable living in Taiwan and being able to understand and speak the local Taiwanese dialect.


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ChristyWrites 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

I liked learning about your experience with learning the language. I speak some French but would like to learn another language one day. I have heard it is easier to learn as a child than an adult, but I still want to try!


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Paul Kuehn 4 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand Author

Christy,

Thank you very much for reading and the favorable comment. If you are truly motivated to learn a language, I'm sure that you can do it.


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rajan jolly 3 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar,INDIA.

Interesting read, Paul. By the way, I'd be happy to receive some everyday expressions in Mandarin Chinese that I could use during my stay in China. I hope it isn't much of a hassle for you to email me. Thanks.

Voted up, useful,interesting and pinned. Shared on FB and tweeted too.


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rajan jolly 3 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar,INDIA.

Paul, sorry I wasn't able to share or pin this hub. Actually ever since I came here to China I've not been able to use youtube, facebook and other sites and today even pinning became impossible.

Sorry about this.


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Paul Kuehn 3 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand Author

rajan,

A few hours I emailed to you via Hubpages some everyday expressions in Mandarin Chinese which I hope you can use while in China Thank you very much for pinning, tweeting, and sharing this hub on FB.


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rajan jolly 3 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar,INDIA.

Thanks Paul! I'll be checking my mail.


mikeydcarroll67 18 months ago

A few times I have thought about learning Taiwanese myself. I just don't have the time to focus on it right now.


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Paul Kuehn 18 months ago from Udorn City, Thailand Author

In learning anything, you need the time to concentrate and the motivation . The best place to learn Taiwanese is on Taiwan. What are you waiting for?

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