David, turned up a surprisingly balanced article from the Taipei Times about learning Chinese in Taiwan. In the past, I’ve found most of that papers pieces about tourism or learning Chinese in Taiwan to be little more than advertisements, this one was long and pretty well thought-out.

Learning Chinese is hot, but you would hardly know it here in Taiwan, where many people want to speak English. From kindergarten to business school they believe it is the key to higher earnings. They may be right, but the gains of teaching the world to speak their own language have been relatively neglected and the government is scratching its head and wondering what to do about it.

Taipei Times: Chinese, if you please

For once, they address the reality that faces any westerner who comes here to learn Chinese- when Taiwanese people see a western face, most want to speak English, not Chinese. The article also explains some other issues facing students here such as difficult visa regulations, haphazard romanization of Chinese words, higher tuition costs, non-standard proficiency tests, and the government ordered crack down on private Chinese-learning schools.

Unfortunately, the article included some of the same old propaganda:

Even so, many students, teachers, course directors and officials defend the teaching of traditional characters and said they believed learning simplified script is not as easy or as useful as its backers thought. NTU teacher and administrator Lu Cui-ying (盧翠英) said simplified characters were easier to write but not remember.

There are a lot of synonyms in Chinese, she said.

Therefore, if the characters are similar this causes problems with reading. “Using traditional characters makes it easier to read,” she said, adding China’s literacy rate was much lower than Taiwan’s 98 percent. “Actually, having learned traditional characters it is easy to learn the simplified ones, but not the other way around.”

Taipei Times: Chinese, if you please

Simplified characters are much easier to remember than traditional characters, in my experience. I’ve lived in Taiwan for four years and I’ve only spent a total of two weeks in mainland China, but there are still some characters for which I can’t write the traditional form as well as the simplified form. Sadly, one of those characters is the character for turtle, 龜->龟. I used to live in a city called 龜山, and had to write that turtle character every time I filled out my address for an entire year. And I still mess it up about half the time when I write it. Other simplified characters that I was able to commit to memory without ever needing to practice them are 讓->让, 認識->认识, 個->个, 號->号, 馬->马, 還->还, and 達->达. I’ve never yet met anybody who honestly found it easier to memorize traditional characters than simplified ones. Furthermore, simplified characters are more phonetic, which makes them easier to read in many cases as well. The claim that Taiwan’s literacy rate is 98% is just absurd.

Taiwan does have some advantages that the article overlooked, though. The largest one, in my opinion is the openness of the culture, and the economy. In mainland China, it’s a lot more difficult to try to “just fit in” and live a relatively normal social life. Taiwan, on the other hand, is pretty multi-cultural by Asian standards. I might stick out a bit, but I don’t have to worry so much about everybody trying to rip me off because I’m a foreigner, or about accidentally setting off some political rant. Another important factor in language learning is being able to integrate into local society. Long-term opportunities to do so are pretty abundant in Taiwan. I know several westerners who have moved here, stayed a while and then gone on to become permenant residents with open work permits. A couple have even become citizens. Try doing that in China.