Learning to Speak Mandarin in Taiwan
I never thought I would find myself learning to speak Mandarin in Taiwan.
Standard Chinese, also commonly referred Chinese Mandarin, is the official language of the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of China, and one of the four official languages of Singapore.
It is also one of the most frequently used languages among overseas Chinese workers and ex-pats worldwide.
There are estimated to be around 960 million people in the world speaking Chinese Mandarin, the so as you can imagine the chances of bumping into someone who can talk the talk are relatively high.
Amongst other countries, in the past year, I have visited both Taiwan and China. During either of these trips being able to speak Mandarin would have made things much more comfortable.
The truth is I did learn one or two phrases for the lead up to my first trip to Taiwan back in 2012. Although one or two sentences can be helpful, realistically it’s not going to be enough.
I found this out recently when jumping into a taxi during a thunderstorm with torrential rain. After saying “take me to the train station” about twenty-one times, I spent the next 15 minutes guiding Mr Taxi driver by hand signals and GPS from my phone.
It’s a funny story to tell friends over a beer or two, but this was the turning point for me. There and then in the back of the taxi, I decided I’m learning to speak Mandarin in Taiwan.
Finding a Laoshi
While it’s possible to enrol in an official government approved school program, I found a private tutor to be the best option for me.
With only four weeks remaining in rural Minxiong, finding someone to give me a crash course one to one, would mean learning the basics fast.
In just a few short weeks I wasn’t expecting miracles or to become fluent. Being able to acquire only enough language skills to establish some understanding with the people I come into contact with everyday basis when travelling was all that I needed.
Once I made my decision, it was time to find a teacher.
My Laoshi (Mandarin name for teacher) Miss Kiki was a student at National Chung Cheng University and offered private Mandarin tutoring on the side. She was also completely fluent in English.
Learning to Speak Mandarin in Taiwan
Learning a new language while travelling is an excellent way to appreciate culture, customs, and find out more about local people.
During my classes, I was surprised to find that with a little-sustained effort on my behalf it was possible to learn sufficient and useful Mandarin that could help me.
At the start of every lesson, I was presented with a sheet that included phrases geared for certain social circumstances.
These words and phrases were linked and followed on from the previous lessons. They avoided overly complicated grammar, yet still were able to be used as standalone comments and comprehendible in appropriate situations.
This got me thinking – although all native speakers are equipped to teach their language, without experience most are unaware of language structures and creating shortcuts to help learn the language.
Having someone with teaching experience who understands these ‘language hacking’ rules can be a real time saver when it comes to progress. I found that learning in this structured format one to one with my teacher helped me learn faster.
One of the hardest points of Mandarin is learning the right tones.
Some of the sounds can be difficult for native English speakers to produce as we often don’t use the same parts of the mouth and tongue.
While tones are essential, it’s desirable but not necessary to get the sound 100% right the first time. For me, the tones and pronunciations started to improve with familiarity and practice over time.
My Experiences Learning in Taiwan
Having travelled Asia many times, I can vouch that Taiwan has some of the best transportation, communication, medical and public health systems in the region.
For those who are unsure about visiting Taiwan, the country is very modern, and the locals are mostly polite. Taiwan is both tourist and gay-friendly. Regarding personal safety and crime, it’s one of the safest countries I have been to in my travels. Probably second in line only to Singapore for safety.
Its possible to get to Taiwan using international airlines such as Singapore Airlines, Cathy Pacific, China Airlines, Air Asia and is quickly reached from many countries in the world.
Some longer run language courses at approved education schools, colleges and universities even have government grants available for overseas students.
If you get the chance a great time to visit is during Lunar New Year.
Finally, My conclusion
The most efficient way of learning Mandarin is to immerse yourself in the language around you.
Taiwan was kind in offering this experience to me. Not only was I learning one to one with my teacher, but the locals, shopkeepers, and friends all were communicating daily with me.
Slowly bit by bit it all adds up. Just like a jigsaw, you start to complete the puzzle.
The result – not only do I have a more comprehensive vocabulary, but I also gained more confidence when conversing every day with shop and cafe staff. I found myself now asking questions and understanding pricing, all things that would have been way out of my league before.
Now my classes have come to a close I actually miss them!
While learning to speak Mandarin in Taiwan can be hard work and time-consuming, the benefits and sense of accomplishment can be enriching. Hopefully just as rewarding for the teacher too.
Note: Although many of the population in the south of Taiwan do use their local language called Taiwanese Hokkien, Mandarin is the official language of Taiwan and can be seen and heard everywhere on the island.
Other languages such as Chinese Hakka and native Aboriginal dialects are spoken by many. Those old enough to have been around in the early 1940’s might be able to understand Japanese also, due to their occupation of the island.