Archive for August 2006

Taiwanese: a doomed language?

August 24, 2006

Mark over at Pinyin News has posted about the latest issue of Sino-Platonic Papers, which is a paper by Deborah Beaser about the decline of the Taiwanese language. I feel the article contained a few flaws of fact and reasoning, but in general the conclusion she makes about the ‘inevitable’ decline of Taiwanese does not seem unreasonable.

Beaser outlines the current situations Taiwanese is most often used:

  • In the home
  • Between members of older generations (over 40)
  • Outside Taipei
  • In political campaigning

What is crucial about these points is that for communication amongst each other, the younger generation (whether from Taiwanese-speaking homes or not) almost exclusively use Mandarin. Taiwanese is perceived as being ‘local’ and ‘low-class’ whereas young people want to project a more sophisticated image, best conveyed by using Mandarin.

Bilingual road markings in WalesFor a comparison of a situation where the fortunes of a declining language have been reversed, just consider Welsh. Welsh has many parallels with Taiwanese, having been suppressed, considered lowly and replaced by an alien language (in this case English, for Taiwan read Mandarin). After centuries of official discrimination, Welsh was put on an equal legal footing with English in 1993 by the Welsh Language Act. From that point on, the promotion of Welsh in education, local government and entertainment has led to a marked turnaround in the prospects for the future of this language.

There are of course some major differences between the two situations. Welsh has had an undisputed written language going back to the 6th century. The problems of Taiwanese related to a written standard are many and need to be resolved. Also, divisionsPe̍h-ōe-jī of language (dominant versus weak) are less clear-cut in Taiwan because of the Hakka and aboriginal languages. But what is needed to enable the long-term survival of Taiwanese is a codification of the written form and the opportunity to be educated in Taiwanese (not just to have it as an hour-a-week class). If we were to see romanised Taiwanese on street signs, on official documents, in newspapers and schools, then the possibility of halting the decline could be realised.

Why ‘romanised’ Taiwanese? Why not mixed (character and romanised) or all-character Taiwanese. These are also possibilities, aren’t they?

Firstly, apart from all the very pertinent arguments for romanisation in general (c.f. John DeFrancis, Pinyin Info), there is another concern – if a character-based system is used, won’t people just stick with Mandarin characters? I mean, why bother? But if a romanised system were to be implemented, the benefits in terms of usability and convenience would become clear to everyone who uses it. The other hurdle to overcome is the general prejudice in favour of characters as ‘civilised writing’, by no means an easy task.

In the final sentence of her paper, Beaser writes:

…unless the younger generations are given the means to make Taiwanese a nationally functional language, the outlook for Taiwanese is very poor.

I disagree. I’d say:

even if younger generations are given the means to make Taiwanese a nationally functional language, the outlook for Taiwanese is still very poor.

So, after all that, why have I chosen to learn it? Partly interest, but partly because it’s the language that my future in-laws use. Whether Taiwanese is going to die out in forty years or so not does not really affect my motivation for learning it. Of course, the best scenario would be the preservation and protection of the language. But, given the emotional and political issues involved, this may be no more than a pipe-dream.


So sorry: pronouncing phái*-sè

August 21, 2006

A couple of people have asked me about the name of this blog and how to pronounce it. I was looking around for a suitable site to explain the POJ romanisation for Taiwanese but (of course, silly me) there isn’t one. If I were to give a rough approximation of the pronunciation of phái*-sè, the nearest equivalent in English would be pie-say. For those of you who know some Mandarin, the closest pinyin would be pai-sei (I know ‘sei’ is not a legitimate sound in Mandarin, but you get the picture).

Gate to Tainan Confucian Temple

And what’s going on with the asterisk? This denotes nasalisation of the preceding sound and is more often written with a superscript ‘n’: pháiⁿ-sè. However, there seems to be a display problem with this character on the Mac (which I use at home) so until that’s resolved, I’ll stick with the asterisk. As for what impact this has on the sound, imagine pronouncing the vowels as if you had a cold and you’ll get close. It helps if you screw up your nose at the same time. The accent marks over the vowels represent tones, but Taiwanese tones are such a nastily complex subject that I think I’ll leave that for another time.

As for the reason I chose to call this blog phái*-sè, it has to be one of the most useful words I have learned here – in fact it was the first word I learned in any Chinese language. It means ‘sorry’ (the Mandarin would be 不好意思; bùhăo yìsī) and it seems that many confrontations can be resolved by one party bowing their head briefly and saying “phái*-sè, phái*-sè!” Very handy indeed.

Happy birthday Rob!

August 18, 2006

Dad, Rob and I

My little brother is 20 years old today. Congratulations! Photo above features Rob (baby), myself and Dad in around 1987, when we lived in Saudi Arabia. Have a great time today bruv!

Online resources for Taiwanese learning

August 18, 2006

At the beginning of this year I started taking Taiwanese classes at Maryknoll in Taipei. Taiwanese is a language from the same family as Mandarin Chinese (which I already have a conversational ability in) and the difference between the two is said to be akin to that between two Romance languages, say French and Spanish. Not too hard then, right? Ha!

One of the problems facing the Taiwanese learner is the severe lack of resources available for the language. Over the years it has been suppressed (by both the Japanese and the KMT) and only has a worldwide speaking population of around 30 50 million (including near cousin dialects), so it’s not the most popular choice for foreign language study. Add to this the fact that there is no universally agreed-upon system to write it down and that it’s just plain difficult to learn; perhaps it’s no surprise that few choose to do so.

So, what help is out there for English-speaking would-be learners? Well, aside from the materials produced by Maryknoll (including textbooks, dictionaries and tapes) and one other textbook which is pretty poor, there is a small range of stuff available on the net – here’s a brief survey:


Probably the best place to start. The article on Taiwanese is pretty comprehensive and balanced, with some good links.

Minnan Wikipedia

Simply the largest collection of romanised Taiwanese articles on the web. Uses the Pe̍h-ōe-jī (POJ) romanisation system – the one I learned and use on this blog.


Written predominantly in mixed Han and POJ orthography, I lack the necessary literacy with characters to properly evaluate this site.


Site to learn Taiwanese that starts off quite promisingly, but there are only ten lessons available to view – the rest can be purchased as audio files. Bah.


Has not been updated in some years, but still carries a useful amount of information about the language. Also has a Taiwanese > Mandarin dictionary, but the romanisation system is odd.

Sadly, that’s about it for the moment. As I said, resources are sparse and it requires a lot of motivation to study – the best way to improve is to speak with the people all the time.

Above: Puppet shows are usually all in Taiwanese.

Better late than never…

August 18, 2006

Well, I know everyone else has been doing this for years, but I’ve finally succumbed to the pressure from my legion of fans (!) to start posting the minutiae of my life in spirit-crushing detail. Actually, I’m going to use this to talk about things I think are interesting about life and language here in Taiwan and as a way of keeping in touch with friends and family elsewhere in the globe. I’ll try to lighten the boredom with the occasional pretty picture and maybe a video or two if you’re really lucky.

The pictures here were taken in the 8-23 Memorial Park (八二三紀念公園) in Zhōnghé (中和), Taipei County, about five minutes from where I live. The downtown bits of Zhōnghé are built-up, crowded and dirty (hmm, sounds like the whole west coast of Taiwan…) and so these little islands of green in amongst the urban chaos are worth treasuring. In case you’re wondering, the 8-23 that this park is in memory of is the 23rd August 1958, when Chairman Mao’s boys started shelling the little island of Jīnmén (金門), a couple of miles off the coast of China but controlled then as now by the Republic of China (that’s Taiwan to you). Anyway, the “Free Chinese” managed to resist the assault for 44 days before the commies got bored and gave up. Hurrah! A stunning victory for the ROC!