Learning to Speak Mandarin in Taiwan #traveltaiwan #toolsoftravel

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 #traveltaiwan #toolsoftravel
My Laoshi / Teacher Miss Kiki

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.

Learning to Speak Mandarin in Taiwan #traveltaiwan #toolsoftravel
Learning to speak Mandarin in Taiwan requires a lot of this

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.

Domestic airlines, HSR trains, and bus/coaches provide excellent transportation from the north to south of Taiwan.

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.

Learning to Speak Mandarin in Taiwan #traveltaiwan #toolsoftravel
I found riding a scooter is the most convenient and cheapest way to get around Taiwan

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.

Learning to Speak Mandarin in Taiwan #traveltaiwan #toolsoftravel


  • David
    Posted June 29, 2017

    One of my goals is to know a language. Thanks for sharing.

  • Travel Lexx
    Posted October 5, 2016

    Great stuff, Barry. I need to get back to learning the two languages that I have a limited grasp of and actually get back to the level when I can converse with people – Spanish and German. I believe that learning a local language opens up so many opportunities for travellers and allows them to have experiences that would not be possible without those all important phrases. I wouldn’t mind giving a Mandarin lesson a try!

  • Jen
    Posted October 4, 2016

    Learning a new language is one of my goals! Good job to you on taking the classes! 🙂 Learning to speak Mandarin seems very useful and crucial since there is always a Chinese community wherever you go.

  • David
    Posted October 3, 2016

    I think learning a new language is a great part of travelling and just life in general. Good on you for having a go and it does seem like you gained a lot out of it. While I tend to do informal language learning, I would like to try lessons or classes one day. I’ve met nobody that has regretted trying to learn a language.

  • Lauren Barratt
    Posted October 3, 2016

    Embracing yourself in the culture is always 1. fun and 2. educational! Definitely makes me think about what I need to do when I travel to different countries now!

  • Helena
    Posted October 3, 2016

    Wow! Good on you for doing this! I can’t imagine that this would be too easy. I did something similar similar with Spanish in Costa Rica. I hope you enjoyed it!

    • Barry Sproston
      Posted October 2, 2016

      I bet Spanish would be handy while travelling South America. I wouldn’t mind learning it one day but one languages at a time.

  • Live And Die In Afrika
    Posted October 1, 2016

    Interesting indeed. I visited Ethiopia recently and it consists of mainly Amharic speakers and they have their own writing system – Fidel. You will see the basic of Amharic on my blog very soon.

    • Barry Sproston
      Posted October 2, 2016

      Languages can be very interesting and cool. I will have to check out your blog post.

  • travel4lifeblog
    Posted October 1, 2016

    Good on you Barry for immersing yourself! Mandarin is hard so we take our hat off to you! We are going to learn Spanish as we are taking a year off and plan to travel at least 6 months in South America in January 2017!
    Patrick and Cecile from http://www.travel4lifeblog.com

    • Barry Sproston
      Posted October 2, 2016

      Sound like fun. Hope you enjoy your South America trip

  • Becki
    Posted September 30, 2016

    Ah I’ve always wanted to learn Taiwan! I studied German at school and found by travelling to Germany my language skills improved loads just by interacting with shopkeepers etc so I completely understand you with that point! Credit to you for taking the step – hopefully one day I will too!!

    • Barry Sproston
      Posted October 1, 2016

      Learning isn’t restricted to the classroom and interacting with shopkeepers is a great way to fine tune what you’ve learnt recently 🙂

  • Angie (FeetDoTravel)
    Posted September 30, 2016

    Absolute credit to you Barry, this is fantastic! When we were in China, we picked up a few words here and there, mainly so we could say something was “excellent” or “so-so” and we did think life would have been easier if we knew more words. I know exactly what you mean about the tone … you think you are saying the word but actually, people have no idea what you are saying, and sometimes if you use an action we found that helped i.e for a bottle of water. I loved this story and your journey of learning this rather complicated but rewarding language! #feetdotravel

    • Barry Sproston
      Posted October 1, 2016

      Thanks Angie. The tones can be hard to pick up and to confuse things even more, the accents between Taiwan and China are entirely different. I’m improving though and managing to pick the differences between Taiwanese and Chinese accents.

  • Garth
    Posted September 30, 2016

    Wow I admire you for giving it a go! I’ve always thought it must be one of the hardest languages to master. I’ve only ever tried Spanish, French and Norwegian! without a great deal of success, but enough words to get by. I’d love to visit Taiwan one day too.

    • Barry Sproston
      Posted October 1, 2016

      Yeah it can be tricky to master Garth but well worth a go

  • Lisa
    Posted September 30, 2016

    Good for you..learning a new language can be quite daunting. If your going to stay somewhere for a length of time it is a good thing to do and makes it more enjoyable.

    • Barry Sproston
      Posted October 1, 2016

      Yeah you’re right Lisa. I tend to stay in places for a least a month so it really helps learning some local phrases

  • Pete
    Posted August 14, 2016

    Looks like fun Barry. Judging by your blog you get to do some interesting things.

  • Nomad Matthew
    Posted July 25, 2015

    Good on you for taking the time to learn a new language. I know it’s not easy. It might sound really weird, but my teacher taught me actually speaking to yourself in the language you’re learning is a great way to practice when you’re not able to use it all the time. Try it out!

    • Barry
      Posted July 26, 2015

      Haha great stuff Matthew! What a great tip, never thought about that. I will try it and see how it works out.

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