So! Here I am in Taiwan, learning Mandarin. I’m probably making things difficult for myself. Taiwanese Mandarin differs from the mainland dialect in both pronunciation and vocabulary, and the written system is almost unique in China nowadays. So why on Earth am I here instead of mainland China?
Well, if I’m honest, part of it is because mainland China makes me a little nervous. I’m sure a lot of that is from the idea of not being able to communicate there. Taipei boasts a general degree of English proficiency in at least achieving basic transactions like ordering food, and Taiwan is famous for its friendly locals.
An additional bonus for me is that as a former Japanese colony, I can expect some of the comforts of Japan, such as Japanese-owned convenience store Family Mart and the infrastructure of an amazing subway system. There are allusions to Japanese and its culture all around Taipei (is it nostalgia?) and some of the elderly residents still speak Japanese from when it was forced upon them. On a less cynical note, Japanese is popular with the younger generation as well, with some feeling more confident communicating in Japanese than in English.
I’ve been studying at National Taiwan University for one month now, and although I’m by no means proficient, I definitely have some observations about Taiwanese Mandarin as a language and how it differs from the Mandarin I learned before coming here.
Taiwanese Mandarin uses traditional characters rather than simplified characters. It is one of the only Chinese-speaking regions that still uses traditional characters in its writing system, the other main region being Hong Kong.
If you’ve learned Japanese, you’ll probably find that traditional Chinese is a lot easier to read than simplified Chinese. Even if you haven’t learned Japanese before, word on the street from other learners of both sets of characters is that it’s easier to make the switch from traditional to simplified than it is the other way around, and easier to understand the meaning of the characters in the first place. As a Japanese translator with a broad understanding of Japanese kanji, when I first began Chinese classes back in Melbourne I started from a much higher level than the absolute beginner level. I couldn’t say anything, nor could I pronounce any of the characters, but nevertheless my reading comprehension was through the roof compared with that of my classmates. Having learned to read Japanese may not help you to read all Mandarin instantly, but it is definitely a nice confidence booster!
One thing that I’ve really enjoyed about learning Mandarin is that it kind of feels like, for lack of a better term “kanji done right”! When Chinese characters were introduced to the writing system in Japan, they were basically retrofitted to spoken Japanese based on meaning and sound. What this means in practice is that although most Japanese kanji characters typically have two basic readings, the 訓読み (kun-yomi – “Japanese reading”) and 音読み (on-yomi – “Chinese reading”), more than a few characters have multiple readings depending on context, and it is up to experience to know which reading is correct in each individual context. Also keep in mind that the 音読み often sounds quite different from the actual Chinese pronunciation of the relevant character.
In Chinese, on the other hand, there is logic to the pronunciation of characters, and the readings are quite consistent. Characters can be expected to generally have a maximum of two readings, and a different reading or tone indicates a different meaning. Simple. I love it.
On a slightly different note, Taiwan’s romanised characters are all over the place. Up until recently the “official” romanisation system was tongyong pinyin, however apparently from 2008 the Ministry of Education FINALLY agreed that insisting on a different romanisation system was silly and confusing to language learners in Taiwan, and now allows hanyu pinyin. This change has yet to be reflected in all street signs, maps, stations and such, unfortunately, particularly outside of Taipei, which doesn’t make things very easy for non-native speakers of Mandarin, or indeed ANYONE who can’t read Chinese who is in Taiwan for whatever reason!
In general, Taiwanese Mandarin is apparently more “formal” and “polite”-sounding than mainland Mandarin as well. My Mandarin teacher has said that when she visits mainland China, people come across as “rude” to her until they hear her speak, after which they fall into more formal parlance. This isn’t necessarily because mainland Chinese speakers are actually “rude” insomuch as spoken mainland Mandarin is a lot more relaxed. If you want to ask a waiter a question about the menu, where a mainlander may go “oy,” and just get straight to asking, my teacher will start with “不好意思, 請問,” (bùhǎo yìsi, qíngwèn – excuse me, could I ask…) before getting down to business. I suspect that the fact that it was the culturally elite Chinese Nationalists who fled to Taiwan during the rise of Communism may have something to do with the adherence to such formalities…
There are also some light semantic differences in Taiwanese Mandarin, with certain words having different connotations. In Taiwan it is common for people to refer to women as 小姐 (xiǎojiě), which means “young woman”. So long as you are in Taiwan, you can use this term to refer to any woman, whether they are married, single, young or old. In mainland China, however, 小姐 is often used as a euphemism for “prostitute”!
Taiwanese pronunciation of Chinese tends to be more relaxed than that of mainland Chinese. When people are speaking casually to each other, the strong “zh” and “sh” sounds of mainland Mandarin sound more vague and soft. Some words use different tones to standard Mandarin, but you should be understood even if you use standard pronunciation. For example, 法 (fǎ) in the context of 法國 (fǎguó – France) or 法文 (fǎwén – French) tends to be pronounced as fà in Taiwan.
If you don’t look like you might be Chinese, it shouldn’t matter whether you use mainlander pronunciation or not. However, if you could pass for a mainland Chinese national, be careful of how you speak outside of Taipei. Some parts of Taiwan – particularly Tainan, I hear – are quite antagonistic towards the mainland. My Chinese teacher, a Tainan local, once got thrown off a bus (not moving, mind – at the next stop!) because her Chinese sounded too much like mainland Chinese!
Have any observations about Taiwanese Mandarin that I’ve not mentioned here? Feel free to educate us in the comments!