The learning curve

When learning a foreign language, I'm certainly spoiled. I was educated in French from kindergarten (grade 0) through grade 10. The first six years of that education were in an immersion program. Half of a day of class was spoken and written entirely in French. My middle school years (grades 6-8) were at a bilingual school that tried to place multi-lingual teachers in common subjects, such as math and science.

That's how I found out that the Belgian way of counting is different than French, but only in certain sets of 10 (70,80,90.) The confusion about what to call dinner is another interesting difference.

Now, in Taiwan, I see that the playing field of language is even further mingled. The mainland Chinese way of saying 一 or 1 is pronounced differently in some cases than it is in Taiwan, but not in normal counting. I've even heard that 0 is pronounced differently. In Chinese, the number 二 (er4) or 2 is pronounced differently once you count above 100, or when you are asking for 2 of something (it becomes 兩 liang3.) 

All of this does not consider localized dialect issues, and the fact that there are two major languages in Taiwan (Taiwanese and Mandarin Chinese) as well as all the tribal languages. 

So, for a first time visitor, I was thinking it would be useful to give a few tips.
In America, people have all sorts of dialects, accents, slang, incongruities, and odd language behaviors. The proper English way of saying "Hello, how are you today?" is the way children here in Taiwan learn to greet someone in English.

Now, when I'm saying hello to someone in Ohio in a casual atmosphere, it usually is spoken as "'sup man, how you been?" Completely slang, partially abbreviated, and ultimately hard to explain to someone that is just starting to grasp the English language.

So, in that respect, let's consider the following:

In Taiwan, when someone says "hello" (in English) to you, typically there are one of two possible reasons why.

1) Hi! I'm saying hello!
2) Hello! I need your attention, you forgot something/are holding up the line/need to go back!

This is important, you'll find yourself waving at people who are waving for you to come talk to them, not as a greeting, but as a polite and friendly way of drawing your attention to the fact that you are walking away from a buy one get one free table with only one item in your hands.

When someone says 光臨 (guang lin2, or gwang leen,) when you walk into a store, they are saying "welcome." You'll hear this in a phrase at almost all stores. It can be confusing because you will hear a similar phrase when leaving the store, which is a greeting, saying thank you for coming.

With Taiwan, the slang issue isn't one of misspoken words (though words with shi4 are sometimes pronounced sih4, that can be challenging.)  Chinese idioms are even well-recorded. What is a challenge is when someone will be describing certain things using Taiwanese words, and the translation to English is a touch harder. An example is the oyster omelet. Most vendors know the name in Taiwanese, but if you ask for it in Chinese, it can sometimes get you strange looks.

Patience, curiosity, and tenaciousness are key. Learn the phrases that will help you understand the conversation better, such as "what does this mean," "what is the English word for this," "can you speak English," and "can you please help me."

Learn to be polite when speaking. People will respond even if you don't ask nicely, but things go much better if you show respect to the person you are speaking to. In many situations its not critical, especially when ordering food (often the lao3 ban3 just wants you to get your order in and get to the next person in line.) However, in any social or business situation, it's very important to be polite, as it can affect how people treat you, and how much they open up to you.

There are many resources out there that can help you get to know the language.  I think this article touches on the other important aspect of the learning process; learning and loving the culture and the people.

Without the environment to surround you, and the experience of hearing and reading the language as part of your everyday activities, you might miss out on some critical aspects of the language.


  1. WOW!! Dave! You have learned A LOT! Love the blog, I'll have to check in more often to follow your&Cori's adventures!


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