When making a decision to move to a faraway place where the language is nowhere near comparable to your native tongue, it’s easy to take advantage of the implications. For one, we moved from the U.S. where the only language necessary or required in any school is English. Sure, we studied Spanish in high school, but unless you have many Spanish-speaking friends or plan on moving to Latin America, you’ll most likely forget most of what you learned.
Thus, we arrived in Taiwan with the knowledge of simply our native language under our belts. But hey, English is a global language, right? We’ll be able to get by just fine. We’ve even been told and read about this in our research prior to the big move. It won’t be that bad.
After living here for a year, it’s understandable as to why we were given that advice. It’s true, with the combination of the few words you’ll inevitably learn, hand gestures/pointing, and the basic English most people here know, you can get by. There were times (and still are) when we’d be in a store or restaurant and it was very clear to those within earshot that the level of miscommunication between us and the clerk was a puzzle we probably couldn’t solve without help from the audience or phoning a friend. So, the innate sense of hospitality and friendliness would emerge and a local with decent English skills would step in to save the day, or at least several minutes of everyone’s time.
So, if you aren’t too keen on learning arguably the hardest language in the world, good news! You don’t have to! However, if you decide to be ambitious and learn Mandarin Chinese (which you should if living here!) then it will make living in a land of convenience even more convenient. Plus, it’s pretty badass to be a Westerner who can speak Chinese.
Alas, that is where we are now. We’ve been taking private classes on the side for about eight months now. It takes dedication and A LOT of patience, but it’s something incredibly valuable we can use during our time in Taiwan, as well to take away with us when we leave. It’s been very exciting as we are slowly being able to listen in on conversations and read the overwhelming signage with some comprehension. In class our teacher always commends us on our quick-pace of learning (although it’s probably just the natural praise-giving quality that most Taiwanese have), and we feel confident while practicing with our teacher (lao3 shi1 老師 in Chinese which directly translates to ‘Old Master’).
That being said, even though our vocabulary and grammar knowledge may be growing, we feel we are plateauing due to lack of confidence in our conversational abilities. The thing is, we know people are going to laugh at us when we try. And that’s not what really bothers us. As it’s been explained to us many times, they just think you sound a little funny, they aren’t being cruel, and they really respect you for trying to learn their language. I guess one fear is due to the fact that when we try to speak to someone, they automatically assume we are fluent and start rambling away on hyperspeed without taking a breath. I’m sure our facial expressions are enough to communicate our bafflement, but still we proceed to say these very important words that every foreigner should know if living in a Chinese-speaking country: ting1 bu4 dong3 聽不懂 which literally translates to “I hear you, but have no F-ing clue what you just said.”
Now, these observations have all been experienced in Taipei where the number of English-speakers is far higher than any other city, let alone small town, in Taiwan. We recently moved out of Taipei City after living there for a year and are currently about 10 minutes outside the city borders in Xizhi District, New Taipei City (see Out With The Old… and …In With The New to see both our sketchy and amazing apartment experiences). Here, there aren’t many English-speakers outside of our housing complex. Which means that when we go to a restaurant, store, etc., we are forced to use our Chinese. Although this obviously isn’t going to be a stroll in the park, it’s great for us. We will slowly begin to build that confidence we need to end the plateau, and continue to climb. Plus, we didn’t pack up and move halfway around the world to stay within our comfort zones.
We made the decision after a few months into our first year in Taiwan that we wanted to stay an additional year to learn the language. Our second year here has already begun and now that we’ve had plenty of time to settle into this different culture, we are ready to buckle down on having the most rewarding cultural experience possible. And, in order to do so, we must work on communicating in the native tongue.
If you have any experiences worth sharing or questions about learning a new language, please comment below!