Learning Taiwanese (Part 1): Preface

My latest language learning endeavor is to learn Taiwanese. This is something that seemed like an obvious choice, considering that I now live and work in Taiwan, but as many foreigners have attested, learning Taiwanese (in the context of English) isn’t so easy. From my observations, there are a few reasons for this:

  • There are not many official resources (such as formal textbooks or classes) that teach Taiwanese using English. (Of course, this is no surprised).
  • Even in individual tutoring situations, tutors and students don’t always agree on the method and content of the lessons. It’s not always easy to find a good match.
  • My own personal experience is when I try to ask Taiwanese people about resources (such as classes, websites, or textbooks) for learning Taiwanese, many brush aside Taiwanese as a language that doesn’t really need to be learned or taught as a formal subject by a teacher; rather, they see Taiwanese as a language you can just learn from your neighbor or a friend (this is completely opposite from the way English is perceived). Part of this might be because Taiwanese traditionally hasn’t been a subject taught in schools (historically because of government oppression) and thus isn’t really viewed as an academic subject. Another reason might be because Taiwanese doesn’t have an official written script and is most commonly used in a oral/aural way. This can give people the impression that it’s easier to learn and doesn’t need to be treated as a formal academic subject.

That’s not to say that Taiwanese language classes don’t exist. Taiwanese elementary schools offer Taiwanese lessons as well as community organizations such as China Youth Corpos (救國團). However, these options still remain limited and often only accessible for a specific population.

Now some might say that you never really need a “classroom” or “textbook” or “teacher” (in the traditional sense) when it comes to language learning. I’m sure many foreigners in Taiwan have had successful language learning experience simply through language exchange relationships, television shows, listening to Taiwanese songs, interacting with locals in Taiwanese, and using Taiwanese for everyday activities. Such language learning methods allow learners to be immersed in rich language input, cultural context, authenticity, and meaningful communication of the language. For me, immersion isn’t always easy, especially in Taipei where most people still speak Mandarin Chinese. So even though I have several Taiwanese friends that are native speakers of Taiwanese, they rarely ever use it around me. And when I do ask friends to teach me a bit of Taiwanese, they always end up teaching me weird fragments of vocabulary that I would probably never use.

So this is why I’ve been searching for more structured instruction in Taiwanese by an instructor that understands what it means to teach and learn a new language. In the next part of this blog series, I’ll explain the format of my Taiwanese tutoring sessions.

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