From as early as I can remember, I always wanted to learn the language that my Taiwanese father spoke to his parents and siblings at family gatherings. I would later learn that this yearning came from a deep desire to understand the cultural background and traditions of my Taiwanese kin. Growing up in the diverse San Francisco Bay Area, I identified as more than just a white-passing, monolingual American, and so I was determined to first connect to my heritage through language. There was only one problem: there was no ONE language that was spoken among my Taiwanese family members.
Due to the brutal political persecution under Taiwan's then-authoritarian KMT party, my father was forced to flee Taiwan at an early age, emigrating to Okinawa, Guam, and eventually the U.S. mainland—sometimes together with his immediate family, sometimes apart from them. Family gatherings growing up were thus a cultural and linguistic mash-up of Taiwanese, Mandarin, Japanese, and English, with the last language being the only one I could ever understand.
Lacking full confidence in the Asian languages that he learned in his early years and for survival reasons, my father recommended that I learn one of his "mother tongues" in a classroom setting. He, like many Americans at the time, also held the erroneous (and self-deprecating) belief that Mainland Mandarin, or specifically the Beijing dialect, was the most "proper" form of Mandarin. Not surprisingly, this was also the dialect that was taught throughout American institutions. Because Mandarin was not offered as an elective at any of my primary schools, it wasn't until college that I had the opportunity to formally study (Mainland) Mandarin.
Not only did I study the Beijing dialect taught in the UC systems, but I also minored in Chinese at UCLA. During my junior year of university, I had the opportunity to study the language in the motherland at National Taiwan University (NTU). It was my first trip to Taiwan in my life, and my Dad's first time returning since fleeing 50 years before. (Read more: A Return to the Motherland.)
I had prepared diligently for my studies at one of the best places in the world to learn Mandarin. I spent my summer reviewing all the Chinese characters I had learned from my three years of courses. But the minute I stepped off the plane and greeted the relatives who were graciously waiting for us, I realized:
I couldn't understand a word they were saying.
And they couldn't really understand me, either. Common words like "air conditioning" and the way they described the weather in Taiwan, a subtropical island roughly 100 miles off the coast of China, were completely different from anything I had learned from my U.C. textbook. They also used words and grammar structures from the Taiwanese language that I had never heard before.
As Danyo Pang has said,
"Mandarin in Taiwan is different. But there are no books that teach Taiwanese Mandarin."
It would take me seven years of living in Taiwan, immersing myself in the language and seeking out private one-on-one Mandarin classes, to be able to communicate confidently with my relatives and the friendly locals who make me feel like family (in our culture we call strangers "Aunties" and "Uncles").
Of course, not everyone who wants to travel, study, or work in Taiwan has the opportunity to spend seven years living in the country. That's why I've put together this guide to Taiwanese Mandarin resources that can help speed up the learning process for anyone who's curious about this unique form of Mandarin.
Disclosure: The following may contain affiliate links that, at no additional cost to you, may earn me a small commission.
1. This handy-dandy "Real Mandarin in Taiwan: Art + Phrasebook"
Author and artist Danyo Pang is committed to making Mandarin Chinese easier to learn. A doctor by training, his passion for languages led him to buy a one-way ticket to Taiwan, where he immersed himself in the language, started making videos in Mandarin, started a podcast in Mandarin, and even started doing livestreams, interviews, and speeches all in Mandarin. Like me, he quickly learned that Taiwanese Mandarin is distinct from what is taught in universities.
If you are a visual learner like me who also loves learning about different cultures alongside new languages, this phrasebook is perfect for you, as it includes:
Over 150 colloquial words/phrases heard in daily life in Taiwan, covering all aspects of life (dining, night market & desserts, drinks & cafes, transportation, daily life, groceries, convenience stores & supermarkets, colloquial expressions)
120 custom illustrations to help engage your brain and increase memorization
Pinyin, Zhuyin, and English translations for each phrase as well as
example sentences &
cultural references of each
Popular Taiwanese colloquialisms/slang that textbooks or classrooms don't teach you (he knows, because he's tried them all)
Traditional Chinese characters
Additional "Practical Vocabulary" section for cafes & restaurants
2. Taiwanese Mandarin teachers and vloggers
Another great way to learn Taiwanese Mandarin is by watching video lessons and vlogs. Here are my favorites for improving your pronunciation, grammar, and vocab—all while having fun.
Mandarin with Miss Lin
A Taiwanese Mandarin teacher and polyglot living in France, Miss Lin hosts a YouTube channel where she breaks down Taiwanese Mandarin pronunciation, phrases, and more at the beginner's level, with lessons teaching Chinese using Taiwanese culture at the higher levels.
She also offers relatively affordable online course packs for students aiming to pass Band A of the TOCFL test (Taiwan's Test of Chinese as a Foreign Language) or simply improve their Taiwanese Mandarin speaking skills.
A university-level Mandarin teacher from Taoyuan, Peggy Lee has posted over 200 Chinese lessons on her YouTube channel since starting it in 2009. In addition to basic and intermediate lessons and prep for the HSK (mainland China's Chinese proficiency test), these videos include vlogs on Taiwanese food, travel, and culture.
The channel's Patreon supporters can access study materials to go with each lesson, and Peggy is also available for private tutoring tailored to the student's goals.
This YouTube channel from Taiwanese Mandarin teacher Katrina Lee offers fun and short lessons designed to prepare you for everyday situations in Mandarin-speaking areas. Featuring lots of content explaining basic grammar, the channel is a helpful tool for beginners who want to get around in Taiwan without leaning on a local guide.
Katrina also offers an online course focusing on basic pronunciation, with three levels of grammar and vocabulary.
This channel posts helpful lessons on Taiwanese Mandarin pronunciation and vocabulary, and even Taiwanese Hokkien (i.e., the native Taiwanese dialect).
Run by an NTU graduate student in teaching Chinese as a second language, this channel provides travel vlogs and entertaining explainers on Chinese grammar and Taiwanese Mandarin pronunciation.
3. One-on-one Mandarin lessons with a Taiwanese teacher
If you're not one for videos or you're looking for more accountability and focus, you can also try taking one-on-one lessons with a Taiwanese teacher.
In the past, this would of course have required relocating to Taiwan or trying your luck at finding a Taiwanese Mandarin teacher in your local area. Nowadays, due to the magic of video calling, you can take lessons online from wherever you are.
Want to find a teacher, but don't know where to start? I suggest checking out listings of Taiwanese Mandarin teachers on Tealit or Tutoroo. You can also try Facebook groups like Looking for Tutors or Language Exchange in Taipei and Taiwan.
This is a great option if you're looking to brush up on your Taiwanese Mandarin pronunciation before taking a vacation to the island.
4. Mandarin classes at local universities
So far, I've mainly been talking about resources that can help you work Mandarin into your existing schedule. But if you're able and ready to make learning Taiwanese Mandarin a major focus of your life, then I highly recommend taking Mandarin classes at a Taiwanese university.
The two most renowned programs of this kind are the Mandarin Training Center at National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU) and the International Chinese Language Program at NTU.
Founded in 1956, the MTC is one of the oldest Chinese as a foreign language programs in the world. The program uses a six-level series of textbooks developed in-house (plus newspapers, literature, and other kinds of text at the advanced level) to turn complete beginners into fluent speakers.
It offers regular (10 normal class hours plus five hours of self-study or big lecture classes per week), intensive (15 normal class hours per week), or one-on-one classes taught by highly qualified Taiwanese Mandarin teachers. A typical week in a regular course will include two hours of class each day, plus 1-3 hours a day in the library or big classes on special topics like Taiwanese culture or Mandarin pronunciation.
If you start at the lowest level and take regular classes, you should be able to make it to advanced in two years (eight terms). The MTC textbook series, called A Course in Contemporary Chinese, is also a helpful tool for self-study for those who can't fit in or afford the classes.
The ICLP dates back to 1962, when Stanford decided to establish an intensive Mandarin program in Taiwan to aid the learning of its graduate students in Chinese studies. NTU cooperated and later other American schools joined in... until the "Inter-University Program" officially moved to Tsinghua University in Beijing in 1997.
Fortunately, the original program's unique structure and teaching methodology lived on in Taipei, and to this day the NTU-run ICLP remains a strong choice for students aiming to become fluent in (Taiwanese-style) Mandarin for grad school or business purposes. It's best suited for students who already have at least two years of university Chinese or the equivalent.
Fair warning: the ICLP's not for the faint of heart. Students attend four hours of class a day (three one-hour small-group classes, plus a one-on-one class), followed by on average six hours of homework and preparation. The program also has a total immersion policy: no English allowed.
Given this intense schedule, the ICLP doesn't leave room for students to work on the side. It also costs about three times as much as the MTC. That said, if you want to master Taiwanese Mandarin while putting your brain through a trial by fire, this program could be the one for you.
Learning a new language can be overwhelming for anyone—especially when vocabulary and pronunciation differ among the countries where it's spoken. And when it comes to learning Taiwanese Mandarin, Chinese classes at a foreign university just aren't going to tell you what you need to know. Thankfully, there are so many resources out there to make your language learning journey easier and more enjoyable.
I recommend checking out Danyo Pang's phrasebook and YouTube channels like Mandarin with Miss Lin if your immediate goal is to master the basic vocab and pronunciation needed to get around while traveling or living short-term in Taiwan.
If you're aiming to use Taiwanese Mandarin in your career or live here long-term, then one-on-one or regular university classes are definitely worth looking into. You can also check out language learning funding like the Taiwanese Ministry of Education's Huayu Enrichment Scholarship or the Blakemore Foundation Language Grants for the ICLP.
Whether you're a Taiwan enthusiast hoping to make local friends or an Overseas Taiwanese connecting to your roots like me, the world of Taiwanese Mandarin is open to you.