Taiwan–officially known as the Republic of China (R.O.C.)–is an island nation approximately 100 miles off the coast of mainland China. Taiwan has recently gained worldwide attention for its great handling of COVID-19: with a population of almost 24 million people, it has only 487 cases and 7 deaths as of this writing.
Despite its relatively small size, Taiwan is a key global economic and cultural player, home to some of the largest technology companies in the world (e.g. Taiwan Semiconductor) and birthplace of the international drink sensation bubble milk tea (aka boba milk tea).
In this blog we will go over some of the rich linguistic and cultural considerations to keep in mind when localizing content for Taiwan as well as some of the historical and political nuances that make Taiwan unique.
[Average read time: 5 minutes]
photo by Marcus Winkler
The Languages of Taiwan
Given its proximity and long historical relationship with mainland China, Taiwan has received a great deal of influence from its neighbor. Mandarin Chinese is the official language of business and education for both regions with approximately 83.5% of Taiwanese households speaking it at home. However, there are some strong linguistic differences between the Mandarin used in the two areas:
- Writing System: the most visible linguistic difference between Taiwan and China is the writing system–Taiwan uses traditional Chinese characters (e.g. the character for “to fly”: 飛) whereas China uses simplified characters (“to fly” simplified: 飞). Traditional characters have more strokes and look more complex than their simplified counterparts. Though both writing systems share some of the same characters and grammar, Taiwanese audiences are much more comfortable reading traditional characters. For more history about the Chinese writing system, check out our previous blog.
- Vocabulary and Word Usage: akin to American English vs British English (e.g. apartment vs flat), Taiwanese Mandarin and Chinese Mandarin each have their own specific vocabulary. In Taiwan, the terms for grandpa and grandma are 阿公 agōng and 阿嬤 amà, respectively. In China, 爺爺 yéye and 奶奶 nǎinai are used. To address a woman in Taiwan you may say her last name followed by 小姐 xiǎojiě, the English equivalent of “Miss.” However, be careful not to use this in China where the term 小姐 xiǎojiě has the connotation of a sex worker.
There are also many other languages spoken in Taiwan such as: Taiwanese (Hokkien), Hakka, and indigenous Formosan languages.
Taiwanese Hokkien is the 2nd most spoken language in Taiwan, with approximately 70% of the population able to speak it to varying degrees. Hokkien is mutually unintelligible from Mandarin and is part of the Southern Min language family that originates from the Fujian province close to Taiwan. It is a tonal language with 8 tones (compared to Mandarin’s 4 tones) and can commonly be heard in a variety of Taiwanese dramas, songs, and films. Here’s a sample video of the language.
Hakka is the language spoken by people of Hakka ancestry. Hakka in Mandarin–客家 kèjiā– literally means “guest families” in reference to the Hakka people’s nomadic history. Said to have originated from near the Yellow River in northern China, the Hakka migrated south and eventually to Taiwan where they currently comprise approximately 15 to 20% of the population. Hakka is a tonal language with 6 to 7 tones–depending on the dialect–and is mutually unintelligible from Taiwanese Hokkien and Mandarin. Here’s how it sounds.
Taiwanese indigenous languages or Formosan languages refer to the 16 languages spoken by the aboriginal tribes of Taiwan with Amis, Atayal, and Paiwan having a relatively larger speaking population compared to other indigenous groups. Indigenous Taiwanese are Austronesian people that make up about 2.4% of the Taiwanese population. Their languages belong to the Austronesian family–which includes the native languages of the Maori and Hawaiians–but are unfortunately becoming more endangered as the number of native speakers decreases.
Now that we have a better overview of the languages of Taiwan, here are some cultural considerations for Taiwanese audiences when localizing content.
- The number 4: As with Chinese audiences, the number 4 (四 sì) carries with it a negative connotation because it shares a similar phonetic sound as the word “death” (死 sǐ). Instead, numbers like 6 and 8 are considered fortuitous and can be seen quite often in advertisements.
- Bad luck gifts: certain gifts in Taiwan are considered bad luck for cultural and linguistic reasons. Knives or similar sharp objects are not considered good gifts because they represent cutting relationships. Umbrellas (伞 sǎn) sounds like the word to “break up” (散 sàn) and can represent a relationship falling apart. To give a clock (送鐘 sòng zhōng) sounds similar to send off a deceased person (送終 sòng zhōng), making it an especially bad gift to give the elderly.
- Different calendars: Taiwan uses both the Gregorian Calendar as well as the Republic of China (R.O.C.) calendar. The R.O.C. calendar marks the first year as 1912 when the Republic of China was first formed. Therefore, 2020 would be considered the year 109 under the R.O.C. calendar. The lunar calendar is also still used for certain holidays, such as the celebration of the Lunar New Year.
- Face masks: as with many Asian countries, face masks were commonly worn in Taiwan even pre-pandemic. Face mask wearing is considered common courtesy in Taiwan regardless if one is sick or not. If one is not sick, it’s considered a preventative measure–particularly during the winter–to prevent catching a contagious disease. If one is sick and is seen coughing or sneezing without a face mask on, it is considered rude and a public health issue. This became even more true after the SARS outbreak in 2002.
photo by Sam Chang
Other Things to Keep in Mind
Taiwan has a rich linguistic, cultural history that makes it an incredibly unique and interesting place for travel, business, and localization. Here are two other important historical and political things to keep in mind:
- Between 1895 and 1945, Taiwan was a colony of Japan and as a result there are a number of Japanese loan words in the Taiwanese Hokkien language (e.g. the word “ōtobai” for scooter). Also, due to comparatively good treatment of the Japanese towards the Taiwanese at the time, there has been a lasting affinity between the two countries.
- Taiwan and China share a tense political relationship since the Chinese Civil War, which ended in 1950 with the losing Nationalist Party fleeing to Taiwan to form the Republic of China and the Communist Party remaining in mainland China to form the People’s Republic of China. Since then, the PRC has considered Taiwan a renegade province. When localizing content that mentions Taiwan as a country for a Chinese audience, be aware that it may be blocked or deemed offensive by the Chinese government. However, the majority of the Taiwanese population consider themselves a country and content for Taiwan should be localized as such.
These are just a number of the nuances to consider when localizing for a Taiwanese audience. We hope you learned something new and found something interesting about the beautiful island of Taiwan. If you’d like to localize your content for Taiwan or any other East Asian nation, we’re here to help.
Want to translate your content for a Taiwanese or other international target audience? Be sure to download our free e-pamphlet below:
8 Audio Video Subtitles Translation Terms