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Learning Huayu in Taiwan — A Journey of Boundless Possibilities

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In addition to language lessons, local tours and hobby groups can help improve our Chinese.

Lukas Engström is a Swedish national based in Taiwan. Shortly after he started to learn Mandarin Chinese here, he visited a soft drinks bar to buy a cup of pearl milk tea. While in the queue, he kept repeating to himself the Chinese phrases he had to say to the staff. When at last he gave the order in impeccable Mandarin, he thought all was well, but he was completely nonplussed when the smiling staff shot out these questions in truncated Chinese: “How sweet would you like it? How much ice?”

These are not the only turns of phrase that befuddle Mandarin learners in Taiwan. “It was only after I came to Taiwan that I learned expressions like ‘jia re’ [heat it up] and ‘wo yao na baoguo’ [I’d like to collect my parcel].” Ayun Kim, from South Korea, shares with us the language-related troubles she encountered during her early days in Taiwan.

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At their language school, Ayun Kim (left) and Supitcha Saiviroonporn (right) not only studied Mandarin, but also learned to play the guzheng(a Chinese plucked zither).

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Thanks to her diligence, Supitcha Saiviroonporn is able to write traditional Chinese characters without difficulty.

Immersive learning

Before she came to Taiwan, Kim had taken Chinese language lessons at university. “But the grammar and vocabulary we learned at that time aren’t actually very useful in daily life,” she says.

When she moved to Taiwan to start a new chapter in her life, she found it hard to communicate with locals. At supermarkets, she had to resort to English and gestures whenever her limited Chinese failed her. Some staff members wanted to help but were hampered because they didn’t understand English. “Now that they know I can speak Mandarin well, they all come and ­offer to help,” Kim says. She owes this drastic change to daily practice and to the “Huayu” (Mandarin Chinese) lessons she took in Taiwan.

Kim enrolled in the Mandarin Training Center (MTC) at National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU). The Huayu textbooks she studied there put together words and sentences that locals often use in daily life, as well as the types of conversation that non-native speakers in Taiwan may find themselves having to engage in. Tess Fang, head of the Curriculum and Teaching Division at the MTC, tells us that her colleagues encourage the students to visit places where they can put into practice what they’ve studied in class. Only through these practical opportunities can they learn to marshal their linguistic resources to handle peculiarly Taiwanese situations.

Online tuition has become a norm these days, but most language students from abroad continue to prefer “immersive leaning.” Statistics from the Taiwan Mandarin Educational Resources Center show that there has been an increase every year in the number of people coming to Taiwan to study Huayu; in addition to learning Chinese for specific purposes and preparing for language tests, some choose to pick up the language in less formal ways, such as by attending cultural events or visiting places of interest.

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The Chinese language schools affiliated with Taiwanese universities not only offer robust language lessons but also host immersive cultural activities.

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Language students in Taiwan are offered a wide range of courses to choose from, such as guzheng, calligraphy, history, literature, and Taiwanese.

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Each year, foreign students at NTNU form a team to compete in dragon-boat races. This is a major event for the MTC.

Learning through travel

“I came to Taiwan because many Thai people recommend coming here for study and travel,” says ­Supitcha Saiviroonporn, who plans to pursue postgraduate studies in physiotherapy in Taiwan. To be able to speak Mandarin more fluently, she first enrolled in a local language school.

Prior to her new adventure, Saiviroonporn had spent a year and a half learning Chinese in Thailand, but in Taiwan she feels that her Mandarin has improved by leaps and bounds within a very short space of time. In addition to taking Huayu lessons, Saiviroonporn travels to various local places in her free time, which helps enhance her language skills. Being able to speak Mandarin, she says, has enriched her experience as a tourist. “It enables me to see things that other Thai people haven’t spotted. I also get to expand my knowledge by chatting with local people.”

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Lukas Engström cropped the Taiwanese national flag into a heart shape for the profile picture of his “Lukas in Taiwan” YouTube channel.
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Joining the dragon-boat team at NTNU a decade ago helped Engström make many friends. He looks back on the experience with a lot of pleasure.
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Engström’s favorite place in Taiwan is Teapot Mountain, located in New Taipei’s Ruifang District. (courtesy of Lukas Engström)

Growing fond of Taiwan

For Lukas Engström, the experience of learning Mandarin in Taiwan led him to become a successful YouTuber. In 2018 he launched a YouTube channel ­under his real name, introducing tourist attractions in Taiwan from the perspective of a foreign visitor. His videos provide useful information, such as details of public transport and travel routes. Offering practical solutions to challenges that tourists may stumble upon, the series has proved very popular.

Engström tells us that these videos were originally intended as a record of his days in Taiwan, something to remember the place by. He first came to the island more than a decade ago as an exchange student. At the time he didn’t devote himself to learning Chinese, and he returned to Sweden as soon as the semester was over. It was actually because of his Taiwanese girlfriend, rather than because he liked Taiwan, that he came back here after a year’s interval and started his Huayu course at the MTC.

Looking back on his language classes, his holidays in Taiwan, and his motivations for learning Chinese, Engström says: “I was basically just following my friends. I did whatever they recommended me to do.” He had planned to spend one year learning Mandarin, but for various reasons he extended his courses again and again. “Back then, I felt that Taiwan was super boring,” he says with a grin.

Engström remained lukewarm about Taiwan until five years ago, when he decided to move back to Sweden. He bought a GoPro camera to film his favorite places, sharing his videos with his dragon-boat teammates at NTNU. “I had spent more than five years in Taiwan, quite a lot longer than most other foreigners. People had given me many suggestions on places to visit and foods to try.” With his camera, he revisited the places he and his friends had been to. It was on these journeys that he realized how much he actually liked Taiwan.

Engström finally made up his mind to stay put when his friends told him that his video on New Taipei’s Teapot Mountain—part of his “Lukas in Taiwan” YouTube channel—had attracted more than 20,000 hits within just two weeks of being uploaded. Even more surprising to him were the comments left by his Taiwanese admirers. “Many people said ‘I didn’t know it was so beautiful up there!’ And I thought: ‘How come you’ve never been there? It’s my favorite place!’” At that moment, he lighted upon the idea of becoming a dedicated YouTuber specializing in Taiwanese topics.

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Taiwan’s compact size and varied terrain make it easy to visit bustling cities, rural communities and verdant mountains in a single day. (photo by Kent Chuang)

Enjoy every day here

For his channel, Engström travels the length and breadth of Taiwan to introduce his audience to fascinating places. His more recent videos provide guidance to foreigners on how to prepare for their visits to Taiwan and on important cultural differences; he has also conducted interviews with foreigners in Taiwan in order to present the island from a greater variety of viewpoints.

In addition, Engström has collaborated with the European Economic and Trade Office in Taiwan, inviting representatives from EU countries to introduce the cultures and customs of their homelands, and their impressions of Taiwan. If you wish to hear Engström speaking Mandarin, check out his series of videos sharing snippets of his life in Taiwan. How long does it take for a learner to attain his level of Chinese? Engström says that if we were to learn the language in Taiwan, it would take just a year or two before we could manage most daily scenarios.

He further points out that the vocabulary and conversations taught in Taiwan’s Huayu language schools can not only be easily applied to everyday circumstances, but also help foreigners experience an authentic version of Taiwan. “Taiwan is so much more than just Taipei or the tourist attractions along the metro lines.” Since he obtained his scooter license, he has been able to visit even more places unknown to most tourists.

However, even with perfect Mandarin pronunciation, foreigners in Taiwan might find themselves misunderstood by locals who assume they can’t speak Chinese. Engström tells us that some convenience store staff here seem to think that all foreigners like Americano coffee, so they automatically make a cup of Americano when they see a Western face—even if you tell them clearly in Mandarin that you want iced latte. Such misunderstandings have happened quite often during his time in Taiwan in the last decade or so. “Taiwanese people are really very friendly and eager to help, but they sometimes jump to conclusions,” says Engström with a smile.

Feeling that he’s a welcome “guest,” Engström refrains from calling Taiwan “home.” “It’s as if I’ve been in a summer camp for 13 years. I feel very relaxed here every day—that’s why I don’t feel like leaving,” he says.

Engström doesn’t know when or if he’s going back to Sweden. “I think of every year I spend in Taiwan as my final year here. I ask myself: ‘If this is indeed my last year in Taiwan, what will I do?’ With this question always in mind, I try to enjoy Taiwan to the fullest.”

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Shida Night Market is decked with festive bunting comprising flags of different countries. The decorations resonate with the international faces we often come across here.

(Data source: 外交部台灣光華雜誌 Taiwan Panorama / Cindy Li / photos by Lin Min-hsuan / tr. by Brandon Yen)

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