Reader Question: How difficult it is to learn Mandarin and is it isolating to move to Taiwan if you don’t speak it? The language barrier is my biggest fear, especially because I plan to travel in there by myself.
Is Mandarin really hard to learn?
Short answer: Yes, Mandarin is really hard to learn.
A lot of people that are smarter than me have learned it, and they might tell you that “it’s not that hard.” But difficulty is relative. And learning Chinese (as a European) is much more difficult than learning Spanish or English. I’ve seen a scale that positions languages according to their difficulty and it puts Spanish at 0.75 and Mandarin at 1.5 — meaning that for each month of learning Spanish you do you’d have to put in at least two months of learning Mandarin to end up at a roughly equivalent position. That might not seem too bad but, if you ever studied a modern language at school, think about how bad you were at the end of your first year, then realise that it’ll take you two years to be that bad at Mandarin.
Personally, I found it more than twice as hard to learn Mandarin as I did to learn Spanish (disclaimer: I speak neither language well). This is because you have to learn a new alphabet (which come with insidious ‘stroke orders’) and you have to learn about the different ‘tones,’ which are notoriously difficult for the adult European ear to distinguish. And there is absolutely no frame of reference to draw on, because while I can hear the word absoluto in Spanish and know exactly what it means in English immediately, I can hear the word mǎ in Chinese and not have a clue that it refers to horse. Or I can look at 馬 and have even less idea that it refers to horse. And to make matters worse there are four different tonal versions of the word ma (mā, má, mǎ and mà) that bear no relation to each other at all (mother, horse, hemp and scold).
And the tones matter a great deal! Charlie and I would walk into a soup shop and ask for some soup (tāng). The person behind the counter would say “I’m sorry we don’t have any sugar (táng), this is a soup shop, not a sugar shop.” Now in England, if a foreigner walks into your soup shop and asks for some sup or some sap or some sop, the guy behind the counter will know that he’s really after soup and the foreigner is just saying it slightly wrong because he is foreign, afterall. But in Taiwan they aren’t used to hearing bad Chinese in the way that we are used to hearing bad English, and so their ear isn’t trained to work out what you might actually want if you aren’t saying it with 99% accuracy. This can be dispiriting for the person learning Chinese (do you really think that I’m in your soup shop looking for sugar?)
I’ve heard it said that it takes a decade to learn to speak Mandarin. I’ve also heard it said that after ten years of learning to speak Mandarin, you will have learned an awful lot of humility, and a little bit of Chinese.
Having said that, there are some good bits to learning Chinese.
They have less sounds than we do in English, and some of them overlap, making phonetic learning easier. Their grammar is also a breeze compared to ours. And while learning to read and write is intimidating, it’s also incredibly exciting. I learned how to read a Chinese menu with about 60% accuracy in a couple of weeks thanks to Memrise. Being able to point to dumplings and get dumplings for the first time was really good fun, even if I did once wait about forty minutes to get the biggest bowl of tentacles you have ever seen (and I don’t eat seafood).
Of the people that I met in Taiwan, those that had the most success with the language were invariably the ones with the Taiwanese girlfriend/boyfriend. However, our friend Stephanie has been learning Mandarin while also holding down a teaching job since she arrived in Taiwan in 2012 and has progressed really well. There were one or two people we knew in full time study that were pretty good too, although that’s the expensive option. Spending a couple of months in a Chinese school would certainly not be a bad plan, as long as you can afford it, as it would help you not only get the basics but also help you settle into the community.
Chinese teaching style is very different to European teaching style: a lot of people complain that there is too much repetition and not enough explanation, but that’s the method which has worked for them before and they’re sticking to it. Charlie and I learned through language exchange twice a week for most of the year, and we never got any further than “I want a… “ “where is the…” or “I’m feeling…” level of Mandarin. Yet, though we never had any great conversations, the locals we met seemed truly delighted that we were taking the time to learn their language, so I don’t regret learning the basics for a minute.
Will I be isolated if I move to Taiwan without speaking Mandarin?
Unless you end up being the only European in a small mountain village, an inability to speak Chinese shouldn’t leave you isolated. Learning English is hugely in demand in Taiwan, which means that there are a group of English speaking English teachers in every town.
Taipei is full of English speakers, both foreign and local, and they will welcome you with open arms. In the smaller towns you might not have as much choice as you are used to it when it comes to choosing your friends — falling out with one of the five English speakers in town is a 20% reduction in your number of English speaking friends! That being said, English is quickly being learned by the Taiwanese and is being taught at schools now, so anyone who went to school in the last couple of decades, ie the twenty-somethings, usually have some grasp of English. Some of them who also went to private schools or studied English at a higher level are very good, and often dying to practise their language skills. Charlie and I made many Taiwanese friends who we spoke mainly English with and we were treated with incredible kindness.
There’s always the risk of finding yourself isolated whenever you move to a new city and take a new job, but not being able to speak the local language isn’t such a huge barrier as you might believe, provided that you are proactive and friendly about making ties with your local community.
Living in Taiwan without speaking Mandarin…
As for the technical details, bureaucracy in Taiwan is hard, even for the Taiwanese. For the non-Mandarin speaker it’s close to impossible. Your best bet is to have someone that you trust who speaks Chinese help you out — that might be your new employer or it might be someone at Chinese school.
When we went it was legal to come to Taiwan and study, but not to come and work as an English teacher, though the hundreds of English schools on every street corner were full of people taking a more flexible approach to the rules. The bigger English schools (in direct opposition to the law) are quite strict about only hiring English teachers with native English passports (such as England, the USA, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia), but smaller schools are sometimes more lenient.
Commonly the people who move to Taiwan are English teachers, and the school has an incentive in finding you a house and making sure that all your paperwork is in order. Speaking any kind of Mandarin isn’t something which the schools in Taiwan expect of their English teachers.
For more real life experiences about teaching in Taiwan, check out our Teaching in Taiwan Interview series where we speak to different expats who have lived and worked in Taiwan.