How to Learn Taiwanese Quickly
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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 that 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.
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 that 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 that I couldn't understand.
The second reason was that 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 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.
What Is Taiwanese?
Taiwanese is a subdialect or variety of Southern Min (Minnan) or Hokkien that 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 that 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 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 my Chinese classmates 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 interested 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 stationery 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.
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 (soapbox 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 Kuomintang. 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 percent 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 present, I am continuing my Taiwanese education through on-line study.
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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2012 Paul Richard Kuehn