Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Mandarin or English

Foreigners who can speak Mandarin fluently are often times treated as a rare breed in Taiwan. They are the minority among the outsiders, as a result, speaking English to foreigners is a response reflection and no matter how good their Mandarin is or how hard they try to communicate in Mandarin, most of the time conversations are spoken in English when they are around. It's a very interesting phenomenon in Taiwan and it's also a frustrating experience and a constant reminder of being an outsider for the foreigners. So why do Taiwanese like to speak English to foreigners even if they can speak Mandarin fluently and why do foreigners prefer, sometimes insist, to speak Mandarin to Taiwanese if they are able to? Except for the reasons mentioned above, it would be interesting to make a poll to see the reasons behind the phenomenon but I don't think there is enough traffic from my blog to make a valid poll but here are a few theories I have:

To show off/to boost self-esteem
Except for business or attending English classes, there is not much chance for Taiwanese to speak English in their daily life. It's a once in a blue moon opportunity to bump into a foreigner who will actually have a conversation with them, and it's a great time to make an impression to their freinds, family, colleagues and also the foreigner they are speaking to. Do foreigners try to make such an impression by speaking Mandarin in a conversation? I'll say some of them need that kind of recognition, not as much as Taiwanese though. Afterall, they don't have be to able to master Mandarin to get sincere yet nearly "insulting" comments like "your chinese is great" even if they can only order dumpling in Mandarin without making the restaurant confused with sleeping.

A great practicing opportunity
Practice, practice and practice is the only way to master a language. One of the reasons that my blog is written in English is to practice my English writting skill; just like many foreigners who study Chinese in Taiwan have a Chinese blog. It's a logical assumption that both Taiwanese and foreigners speak a foreign language in a conversation to practice their speaking skills. As the English speaking Taiwanese outnumber Mandarin speaking foreigners, English is usually the default language used.

To blend in
Foreigners who study Chinese in Taiwan wish to blend in to the culture by speaking Mandarin; a shortcut to be recognized by the locals. On the other hand, Taiwanese speak English to minimize a possible intimidation built up with language barrier creating an atmosphere to feel free to speak.

You aren't really that good
Even if foreigners can speak Mandarin fluently, there are times when conversations get too serious for them to handle, sometimes, it just can't be translated. Once the language switching is made, the impression of 'they aren't really that good' makes the conversation stay in English.


Mark said...

If you moved to Australia and spent years living there, would you like it if people regularly assumed that you couldn't speak English because you weren't white? Would you like it if some people, even people whose Chinese was much worse than your English, insisted on speaking to you in Chinese? How about if they still spoke English with each other, but kept switching to Chinese to address you?

It would make you feel kind of like an outsider, wouldn't it?

Hanjié said...

I am not the best person to answer your question, Mark. I have never been to Australia nor have I been staying in other countries more than a month. I don't have strong feelings to be recognized by a community or even a local as you are. I only try to analyse the reasons behind this phenomenon which seems to be unique in Taiwan and maybe get someone like you to share your stories. Nevertheless, I see your point and I feel empathy for your frustration. However I don't think wearing a T-shirt with 'speak Mandarin' on it would make much difference to someone you meet in the street. People see what they want to see and in your case your exotic appearance overshadows your petition. It would be nice to have you prove me wrong and if not think about it this way: helping Taiwanese boost their self-esteem isn't a bad thing.

This comment has been removed by the author.

Hello Hanjie,

It is an interesting viewpoint from a foreign friend to say so, and I decide to take the positive side about your opinions.

I think Taiwan people need foreign outsiders to let us know:"The definition of English is not of value for something." English should be just like as Mandarin, stands for a language "ONLY", the purpose of learning this language should not to misinterpreted as a weapon for being a "winner".

I really like to translate this article into Mandarin and publish it in my blog, if you are comfortable with this. please let me know your answer.



Hanjié said...

I am not sure that I follow your thought completely, YI FAN, can you elaborate?

You may translate this article into Mandarin and publish in your blog with a proviso: quote my whole original English version in your publication.

Mark said...

Hanjie, it was an attempt to help make situation easier to imagine.

I doubt many people go out with the goal of "being recognized" each day. Still, it's never pleasant to face such ridiculous treatment just for not looking like everyone else.

Anonymous said...

I'm rarely moved to write, but I find your topics very interesting.
I have a friend who is Taiwanese (he gave up his American passport to become so). He speaks Taiwanese and Chinese well. Sadly for him, he wants to be accepted as a Taiwanese, but he will always be mistaken for a foreigner. For those of us who are white, a visible minority in a very culturally homogeneous society, it is something we have to live with. It is also something that many foreigners have a difficult time dealing with.
And a personal story: I was in a shop many years ago and doing my best to speak Chinese. The shopkeeper trying to flatter me said, "Your Chinese is great!". I said, "Pardon? I don't understand." This carried on for a while until I finally realized what she was saying. Oddly, I don't think she caught the irony of the conversation.
Do you think many other countries' (Americans/Australians/Canadians) majority group would be considerate enough to switch to another language for a minorities benefit? Even though the majority of minorities in other countries can speak the majorities language, unlike the majority of the minorities here in Taiwan.

does that make sense?

Hanjié said...

Lief, thank you for sharing your story. I don't think she realized that was irony. Confidence is something that many Taiwanese are lacking when it comes to English. When they told you: "your Chinese is great" they actually meant it, at least most of the time. They probably can't speak too much English and when you speak to them in Mandarin they probably feel relieved and give you the compliment sincerely, even though those nice words might sound insulting/ironic to you.

That's a good way to look at it: "the majority group would be considerate enough to switch to another language for a minorities benefit". However, the multiple ethnological composition of America, Australia and Canada dilutes the language switching phenomenon, in my opinion. Every one was from somewhere else and English is a common and effected language used among the variety; people expect you to speak English even if you look like an Asian, unless you are in French Canada like Quebec of course. Also, we've been educated that English is a very important skill to grab in Taiwan, it's so important that almost all parents send their kids to study English in kindergarten. It's mandatory for Taiwanese to learn English, if the same request applies to other countries, you might see the same phenomena.

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