One of the most densely populated countries in the world is Taiwan. It is an island that’s approximately the size of Belgium but with more than double the population. Taiwan is located in east Asia, its maritime neighbors include China, Japan and the Philippines. It has a rich history and you may not know that China ruled it for around two centuries, followed by Japan, and there was also a brief stint by Holland. Today, we know it as the Republic of China, which is not to be confused with the People’s Republic of China in mainland China. With all this history and culture, it’s bound that there are going to be linguistic intricacies involved as well. This is why when it comes to Taiwan languages, one needs to be prepared for the reality there. So, if you’re interested in the languages of Taiwan, you’ve come to the right place!
Mandarin, or Taiwanese Mandarin to be precise, is the main and official language of Taiwan. During the Japanese rule of Taiwan, the Japanese language was compulsorily taught. It was introduced in formal education after World War II as the official language of Taiwan. The majority of the population (83.5%) can understand it, although this is certainly not the only language that is spoken in Taiwan.
A once nomadic group of people that originated in Central China, the Hakka were some of the first Chinese migrants to Taiwan. Today they comprise between 15 and 20% of the Taiwanese population. So where are the Hakka typically found? Sources indicate that they live mainly in rural areas such as Hsinchu, Miaoli and Kaohsiung. Approximately 6.6% of Taiwanese people speak this language at home.
Hokkien also known asTaiwanese, Taiyu, Holo, Taiwanese Minnan, or Formosan. It is another official language of Taiwan and they consider it the “local language”. Around 81.9% of the population use and understand it.
Hokkien was brought over from southern China around 400 years ago. It has therefore morphed and developed its own traits, borrowing words and phrases from Japanese and the Formosan aboriginal languages.
Spoken by the older generation of Taiwan, in rural areas as opposed to more urban ones, and in informal contexts such as street markets more so than in formal contexts such as schools and public institutions, this language is also more commonly spoken in the larger cities of southern Taiwan.
The Matsu dialect is spoken mainly in the Matsu islands.
Formosan languages or aboriginal languages
Taiwan’s aboriginal population is around just under 2.5% of the total population. This group of individuals belong to the Austronesian family group. It is believed that Taiwan is “the original homeland from which all Austronesian people sailed out and populated islands throughout Southeast Asia, the Pacific, and as far away as Madagascar.” Their history in Taiwan spans over 6,000 years and although sparse now, there are around 16 officially recognized aboriginal tribes. Their language groups are collectively known as the Formosan languages, but around half are no longer in use.
Although English is not considered an official language of Taiwan, it is widely spoken and studied in the country. It is one of the languages that you will find used in Taipei’s MRT public transportation system. Although there were plans to make it an official language, it seemed rather cumbersome to translate all official documents to English so this plan was somewhat abandoned.
With so many dialects and languages, it may seem hard to keep up with all the linguistic developments in Taiwan. But language and history go hand in hand in this specific island nation. It has a tough history with various rulers coming into play, and almost inevitably, the local Taiwanese language was suppressed from usage. However, towards the late 1980s, this changed and there seems to be a revival of it. What will happen to the Formosan languages remains to be seen as 10 are already extinct and 5 are moribund, with a few others in the process of dying out. As for English, it’s already a multi-billion dollar industry in the country as it seeks to become more modern and developed. However, whether English becomes an official language is something that only time will tell.