Long-timers who can't speak Chinese

The other week I was chatting with the co-owner of a western restaurant I regularly frequent (one of those “foreign big-nose puts the business in his Chinese girlfriend/wife’s name” situations), making it kind of a casual language exchange - I spoke in bad Mandarin, she spoke in poor English, giving us both a chance to practice at the same time. She told me she was impressed that I was making some effort to learn Chinese as plenty of foreigners didn’t seem to speak more than the bare essentials. She mentioned one guy, an American who was married to a local woman (with kids) and who’d been here for about 25 years, and he still didn’t speak more than 10 words or phrases of Chinese. “Xie xie,” “Ni hao,” “Zai yi-pin pijoe!” I was floored.

“Bendan huozhe landuo ma?” I asked.

“Lazy!” she replied.

Now, I can be one lazy stupid good-for-nothing sometimes, but this displays a superhuman amount of sloth. How can anyone possibly live in a country for a quarter of century without picking up the language? Even if Chinese is one of the toughest languages in the world - that may be an excuse after a couple of years here, but not after 25! The mind boggles.

Hey, my ex-landlord, an erudite, witty mainlander of 80 some years could not (would not) learn even one word of Taiwanese. We once took a taxi together and the driver couldn’t speak very good Mandarin - only Taiwanese. It was up to me, the foreigner, to do the communicating. He refused to even utter a basic phrase like “Dou Xia” or a “Pai Sei”.

Actually, I once read in a linguistics book that the grammar of Chinese is the simplist of any language in the world! And I’m sure that’s true because I can’t imagine any language with simpler grammar than Chinese. The only aspect of Chinese grammar that’s not extremely simple are the “measure words”, but they’re not that hard once you get the hang of them.

The only way that anyone can say that Chinese is “one of the toughest languages of the world” is if they’re talking about the writing system. I don’t deny that it’s very hard to remember how to write Chinese characters, but it’s not hard to be able to recognize the characters. And actually the only thing I have ever had to write in Chinese are my name and address on forms.

I was having this discussion with a Taiwanese friend of mine last night. He mentioned that many foreigners didn’t bother to learn any appreciable amount of Chinese, but the foreigners are not completely to blame, since this society not only doesn’t expect a foreigner to learn Chinese, but demands a certain amount of shock when a foreigner actually does speak Chinese, the kind of shock and amazement one reserves for dogs who walk on their hind legs balancing teacups. During a taxi ride I was talking with the mainland-descended driver about learning Taiwanese, and he seemed to feel it was his obligation to learn Taiwanese fluently, but foreigners, who are clearly further down the language-learning chain, had no hope of mastering anything further than the basics, thus explaining the shock and awe that inevitably follows a foreigner speaking any amount of Taiwanese.

I really think that, once Taiwanese people start having a little more confidence in themselves and their culture, you’re going to see less of a fashionable obsession with English and more of an emphasis on the practical benefits one may acquire from learning it. Perhaps then more expatriates will be able to slip out from under the rather colonial attitude of “I don’t need to learn the local language as I am from a superior culture.” It’s already happening, I think, since it seems to be mainly either the older foreigners on traditional expat packages who display such a remarkable lack of local language skills, or those younger foreigners who aspire to such a lifestyle, no matter how out-of-date this may actually be.

With computers, you can totally get away with not writing by hand in Taiwan. Just about anyone can figure the bopomofo input system and type something up, if necessary. Typing also only requires the ability to pronounce correctly and recognize the appropriate character. Thank god for the computer!

I also feel that those who don’t even try to put any effort into learning the language after being here for some time are showing a lack of respect for the culture they’re living/working in. Learning a little of the local language is a kind of basic manners.
I also think Poagao’s remarks are spot on.

I would put Long Timers who can’t speak Mandarin into the same category as foreigners who do not let their half Chinese/Taiwanese children speak Mandarin…both as needing a serious slap in the face.

Does it matter if their expat company is investing tons of money on the island and creating lots of jobs? Are they still obligated to try?

My grandmother lived in the US for over sixty years before she died. She only ever spoke rudimentary English.

I think there are many reasons why lots of ‘colonials’ don’t speak fluent mandarin after years of living here.
Could be that they’re very busy with their work and don’t have time.
Could be that when they hook up with a local partner, they depend on that partner and they don’t bother because the partner can sort things out much more easily.
Could be they don’t want to learn, they don’t see how it’s useful to them. Even living here it’s not that necessary to become fluent.
Could be they prefer to alienate themselves from local society.
Could be they have no motivation to learn because they’ve tried in the past and it doesn’t come out right. They’re embarrassed to make mistakes, much like locals who study English for so many years in school and never learn it.
Etc, etc.

I would be the last the say my chinese is good, I fall into catagories 1 and 2 on fredericka’s list, but it seems I wasted my time even trying to learn Chinese now that everyone around me speaks Taiwanese.
What about the locals who don’t speak Chinese ?

I think locals who don’t speak any Mandarin are few and far between, and besides, it’s not a bad idea to pick up at least some basic Taiwanese.

There are many reasons why some long term expats there have not become fluent speakers of Chinese or Taiwanese. You should ask them first, before you make judgments. I don’t think they are lazy. My guess is that they know alot about Taiwan culture and enjoy living there, or why else would they stay 25 years or so?

Just like Frederika’s grandmother who never became fluent in English, some immigrants to Taiwan will never learn Chinese or Taiwanese very well, maybe because of age, dying brain cells or poor language acquisition skills. But first, ask them why. Maybe someone here on this thread who has been in Taiw2an 15-25 and still cannot speak but rudimentary Chinese/Taiwanese can explain. I will bet there is a good reason, and it is not laziness.

Still, it does boggle the mind that someone who is a longterm expat cannot learn the basics. I do not think it is because they think they come from a superior culture and therefore are above learning Chinese, as Poagao suggested above. I think they just have a tin ear, fear learning 25,000 Chinese characters and find other ways to appreciate Taiwan.

ANyone who comes to Taiwan when they are 20 and stays, will certainly learn Chinese or Taiwanese, as other posters here have so evidently shown. But if a guy or gal comes to Taiwan when they are over 35, when the language acquiring brain cells have already been dying for 15 years will have a hard time picking up the new lingo.

It’s not so much how well or poorly you speak Chinese or Taiwanese, but how well and clearly you THINK about people and life. Thinking, and the ability to “see” the culture around you is more important that the ability to speak the language, altho is would be cool if one could do both, and many of you do. Congratulations.

Why is everyone so judgmental today?

Nothing is more depressing than spending all of my spare time learning Chinese, only to be completely ignored by my relatives because they only speak Taiwanese at family gatherings. Another language to learn!

Fredericka is spot on with her assertions above. I have friends who have g/f’s or wives, and thus no need to speak Mandarin. They work as teachers, and thus speak English all day, and go to many western establishments. One thing I do find apalling, however, is the pride that these people display in not being able to speak Mandarin.

I think there is no need to classify those who learn or don’t learn Chinese as good or bad. It is an indivdual choice that each of us has to make as we decide if we will live here for an extended amount of time. My persoanlity demands that I try and speak, read and write Chinese so that I might assimiliate my self to some degree in Taiwan. While I don’t agree with my friends who say there is no need to learn Chinese, they do have reasons I understand. It does not mean I sympathize with them and their decision, I merely accept it.

I have to agree with Fredericka that there may be many reasons why someone living in a foreign country for a while has not learnt the local language (aside from pure laziness).

I have been here a year and a half, and my Mandarin is minimal, much to my great regret (we’re leaving soon) since I have lived in other foreign countries, and always learned the language. This time though, I have been caring for 2 small babies on my own since arriving in Taiwan, and can quite honestly say that I have not had a minute’s time to study the language. This does not mean that I haven’t been making an effort. I know quite a bit of baby/kid-related vocabulary, picked up from other parents in the parks, but this means of learning the language is not sufficient for me to be able to carry on a general conversation, even very basic.

I think that when learning another language, besides the effort, one also needs to put in a fair amount of time in acquiring vocab and grammar. However, in 25 years in a foreign country, one should have had the time to learn, so perhaps the person in the original poster’s example had reasons other than time constraints for not learning to speak the lingo. Some people are not good at learning languages and are embarrassed to speak, and especially if they have someone whom they can rely on to translate for them, they may feel that there is no need for them to learn. Shocking as it may appear, I don’t think one should outright condemn longtimers who don’t speak the language before looking more closely at the reasons for their inability to speak it…[/b]

Actually, I once read in a linguistics book that the grammar of Chinese is the simplist of any language in the world! And I’m sure that’s true because I can’t imagine any language with simpler grammar than Chinese. The only aspect of Chinese grammar that’s not extremely simple are the “measure words”, but they’re not that hard once you get the hang of them.

Sorry Mark, this is one of my hobby horses. I disagree completely. Mandarin may not have lots of bits that change like European languages but this in fact makes the language more difficult. For one thing, the useage is very far removed from European languages. You cannot just directly translate from English to Mandarin as you usually can between European languages. The corresponding words are just not there.

Then there is the fact that Mandarin is topic prominent, which means a whole new way of organizing sentences that is alien to speakers of European languages.

Next you have a set of very difficult particles to deal with .Find me a non-native speaker who has truly mastered the various ‘le’ particles and I’ll buy you several rounds of your favorite cold beverage

Finally, there is the fact that Chinese is a tonal langauge which raises the entry barrier considerably.

Measured in terms of how long it takes to reach a functional level, Mandarin has got to be one of the toughest languages around. Cranky Laowai posted an amusing article a few weeks ago that also makes this point (more focused on the written language though).

These days you meet a lot of foreigners in Taiwan who can speak Mandarin fairly fluently. Most of them make many useage mistakes and are not fully literate though, meaning that they are not truly ‘near-native’ in their proficiency. I’m one of them :slight_smile:


You are right, I shouldn’t be so judgemental.

I know foreigners who have been here as long, or longer, than I and they can’t even count to ten. If someone doesn’t want to become fluent (whatever that means) then that’s cool. But I do expect folks that are planning to stay more than a year to be able at least buy something to eat or ask for directions. I take this refusal to learn at least the basics as being disrespectful of Taiwan and her culture.

I know foreigners who forbid their children from speaking Mandarin. They are here running/owning schools and they detest everything about Taiwan. All take and no give. I have no love in my heart for foreigners who constantly badmouth (and I mean in a nasty, racist, way) Taiwan, do not let their half Taiwanese children experience the Taiwanese half of their lives, and who think that speaking Mandarin means one is “uneducated”. :cry:

I hate to see foriegners who speak Chinese really well, because my wife will point them out and say, “See that guy, He’s only been here a few months and can speak Chinese already. What’s the matter with you? Are you stupid? Lazy?”

From my perspective the most wonderful thing I see is my daughter switching between English, Chinese and Taiwanese in no particular order. I wish I could do that!

One other thing,

In terms of the difficulty of Chinese. Yes tone is difficult. Other than that I think it is easy to get a level where you can take care of the basic things, e.g. order food, take a taxi. I think it is much more difficult, however, to do this and sound intelligent, i.e not speaking broken Chinese. I used to think learning Chinese was easy, but as my grammar lessons are getting more confusing, I’m beginning to question this earlier arrogance.

Just lazy. Or maybe impatient. The reason long timers don’t learn Mandarin is that they never spend the time and money to learn it. Instead they go to class for a few months, complain about the teaching methods, and then quit. If you fork over the tuition and sit your ass down at Shida for two years, you will learn Mandarin no matter how bad the teaching is. But you will not “pick up” Mandarin on the street or from your significant other.