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Tag: Taiwanese

I’ve come to value learning phonics well. Both through my experience teaching English as a foreign language and as a student of a number of foreign languages, it’s become clear to me that it’s time well invested. I don’t worry too much if my pronunciation lags a bit, but not being able to distinguish the various sounds of a language is a serious, serious problem. I can’t really remember ever having had that problem with Spanish or Japanese, probably due to the limited set of sounds in each language. Mandarin tones definitely challenged me back when I first moved to Taiwan, but Taiwanese Hokkien has presented a far, far bigger hurdle. Yes, the tones are harder, but that wasn’t it. For at least the first week or two, I couldn’t distinguish the consonants!

Enemy #1: g vs. k vs. kh

Taiwanese includes three consonants that correspond to the two English consonants “g” and “k”. The chart below links Taiwanese POJ romanization with standard IPA symbols.

Taiwanese POJIPAClassificationEnglish example
gɡvoiced velar plosiveget
kkplain velar plosiveskit
khaspirated velar plosivekit

The problem for English speakers is that while we do have both [k] and [kʰ] sounds, they’re in complementary distribution. There’s never a situation in which a an aspirated [kʰ] could be used in place of a [k] or vice-versa. Similarly, we don’t use [g] sounds in positions where a plain [k] could appear (e.g. “sgip”). As a result, our ears are well trained at differentiating [kʰ] vs [g], and not so good at differentiating between the plain [k] and the other two sounds. For me, this has been the biggest listening comprehension challenge I’ve faced in any language I’ve ever studied.

Here is an audio recording with pairs words contrasting the plain k and the g:

How easy was it for you to differentiate between the two sounds? What kind of language background do you have?

Note: Taiwanese also includes [b], the plain [p], and the aspirated [pʰ]!

Taiwanese Study Resources

The very first difficulty I had after deciding to learn some Taiwanese a few months ago was finding appropriate materials.  Despite being surrounded by Taiwanese as a second language in Taipei, very little of what I heard was useful.  With almost no foundation to start from, local radio wasn’t much help.  I tried watching some Taiyu youtube clips with Chinese subtitles repeatedly, but it wasn’t very productive.

Next, I picked up a book+4 CD set, titled 台語真簡單 for under 1000NT at the local bookstore. It was extremely straight-forward. It consisted of a word or a phrase in Mandarin and then the exact same term again two more times in Taiwanese, repeated for enough words and phrases to fill 4 CDs. I ripped them to my iPod and listened during my 10 minute commute to work and whenever I went out for a walk. The results after a week weren’t very inspiring. I’d gotten through each CD a couple of times, and I thought I knew how to say some of the words that came up frequently, but people couldn’t really understand what I was saying. I didn’t really have any handle on the phonics, either. I suspect the problem was that the CDs were intended for people who had grown up hearing if not speaking the language.

1st grade Taiyu

One nice thing after having started my studies is that help started coming from all directions. A mother of one of my students gave me a book for elementary school students here who are learning Taiwanese. One of my 2nd grade students even made me some flashcards and started quizzing me a word or two whenever she saw me after class! Her Taiwanese isn’t that good, but she had studied since first grade and was absolutely thrilled with the idea of being more knowledgeable about a school subject than a teacher.

The elementary school book was interesting. I found modified zhùyīn symbols in it, which I hadn’t seen before. Text was rendered in triplicate– characters, modified zhuyin and romanized. The Chinese characters were sometimes comprehensible to me, but in some cases they just don’t make sense to a Mandarin speaker. Below is an image of the glossary from one of the pages:
Taiwanese to Mandarin
As expected, the book was full of situational language to use at school, classroom objects, family members and animals. The CD had a dialogue and a crazy song in each chapter. I don’t think I learned very much at all, but it was fun and it motivated me to continue looking for a way to actually learn to speak a bit of Taiwanese.

In the end, I did find a very good resource, the Maryknoll textbooks. They are written primarily for Catholic missionaries, which means that a lot of religious vocabulary appears early in the text. However, there’s nothing else I’ve seen that even remotely compares. There are three primary books in the series, and each is accompanied by a lot of audio. I purchased the level one book, and the MP3 CD that came with it contained 32 tracks of about half an hour each. I strongly suspect that in the past, it was a “book and a crate of tapes” method much like FSI. I still haven’t completed the book (or even half of it), but it’s been enough to allow me to have five minute conversations with a cab driver, or to say a few polite words when visiting Taiwanese speakers.

Towards the end of this Chinese New Year, I started studying Taiwanese[1]. Though most people in Taiwan speak Mandarin Chinese now, it wasn’t always the case. Even now, there are a lot of people who prefer to speak Taiwanese and I think almost everyone here can understand at least a bit. That said, Taipei city is definitely not the best place in Taiwan to be learning Taiwanese. Mandarin is very dominant here. I probably hear less than a third of the Taiwanese I heard in my previous home in Taoyuan county.

What is Taiwanese?

By “Taiwanese”, I mean the Chinese language brought from Fújiàn (福建) province during the mass immigration to Taiwan of centuries past. It’s a variant or a dialect of Mǐnnánhuà (閩南話), also known as Hoklo or Hokkien. It’s unintelligible to speakers of Mandarin. The Amoy language, is mutually intelligible with Taiwanese, as I recently discovered with delight!

Why learn?

Pretty much the first thing any of my friends asks when I tell them I’m learning Taiwanese is “why?” I suppose it is a reasonable question. I’ve met some foreigners who barely even speak Mandarin after living in Taiwan for a decade. And unlike Mandarin, Taiwanese will almost certainly never benefit my career or get me into an academic program. Worse still, a lot of younger people seem to look down on the language.

So, why learn? For me, it was a realization that I’d been in Taiwan for seven years and still couldn’t really understand a language that I hear every single day. It’s true that I never have to speak it at work, and that clerks in any store will greet customers in Mandarin, not Taiwanese. But there are still people speaking Taiwanese all around me. A lot of my neighbors in my apartment building speak Taiwanese, the people at the traditional temple nearby speak Taiwanese, the fruit-sellers at the market speak Taiwanese and so do a number of passerby on the street. It seems like a waste to ignore the language completely.

People who do speak Taiwanese really appreciate my efforts. Unlike when I was learning Mandarin and had the distinct impression that people wanted me to just give up and speak English, a number of people have taken it as a point of pride that I would learn their language. It is probably just as Barry Farber said in his book, How to Learn Any Language. The languages which are least necessary to learn for work or schooling are the ones that can earn you the most goodwill for learning.

Progress to date

I’ve made some decent progress, especially in terms of listening comprehension. In fact, it’s the fastest start I’ve gotten learning a language since I studied Japanese 10 years ago!

This isn’t to say there aren’t some serious hurdles to overcome. So far, it’s been difficult on a number of fronts– there aren’t many study materials, there isn’t a standardized romanization system, there are seven tones with complex rules, there are both literary and colloquial readings for each hanzi character, and the phonetics is just brutal. The proverbial back-breaking straw has got to be the huge schism in the Minnan dialect spoken here in Taiwan. Unfortunately for the foreign student such as myself, the Minnanhua speaking immigrants to Taiwan came from both the cities of Quánzhōu and Zhāngzhōu, bringing two different, but pretty much mutually intelligible dialects of the language with them. In most of Taiwan there are regional variations in the Taiwanese spoken, but here in the capital city you hear them all. I’m sure I’ll love when and if I get to a high level of communicative ability, but for now it’s really confusing.

Each time I successfully buy anything at the traditional market without having to fall back on Mandarin, it’s a victory.


[1] I had learned a few words here and there before, but never really made a concerted effort.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve been learning a bit more of the Taiwanese (AKA Minnan) language. One interesting thing I’ve recently discovered is that Minnan is one of the many languages included in the spaceship voyager’s greeting message.

I was listening to the greeting message NASA sent out of our solar system to see how much I could understand, and was very surprised to hear something understandable as Minnan at about 2m50s into it. After a quick check at NASA’s website, sure enough there was Amoy, the prestige Minnan dialect! Below is the Amoy clip from NASA’s page.
[audio:http://toshuo.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/amoy.mp3]

I never would have guessed this would be one of the languages we sent in our greeting, though in terms of the number of native speakers, I suppose it makes sense.