Crash Course Chinese: 13 fun facts and useful sentences for travelers in Taiwan

Written by Sun

Photo Credit: Julia Shih
As a volunteer at TourMeAway,
A) How come you speak Chinese in Taiwan?
B) What’s the dfference in Chinese, Mandarin and Taiwanese?
C) How do you say… in Chinese?
are the three most common questions I get while guiding tours.
These questions pop out so often that I, not a big fan of routines, has come to this conclusion that tourists need an easy and interesting guide to the language. So, guys, as a Mandarin tutor, here comes the ultimate crash course in Chinese!

Fact 1: Of course we speak Chinese, we’re mostly Chinese immigrants here.

Generally, 3 groups of people: pioneer Chinese immigrants, successive Chinese immigrants and aborigines- make up the population of Taiwan. The pioneers have been immigrating from seaside China to this small island we now call Taiwan since the Chinese Tang Dynasty (roughly 8th~10th century) while the successive immigrants remained in the mainland until 1949 where they had to flee to Taiwan with the democratic Chinese government that lasted until this very day. So, since the majority of the Taiwanese population are Chinese descendants, Mandarin Chinese is undoubtedly the official and most-spoken language in the country.
If you want to find out more about this part of our history, join our Old Town Taipei and Chill Out Taipei tour.

Fact 2: Taiwanese and Mandarin are just 2 kinds of dialects from the fifty-something pool.

China, the big country it is, is home to many dialects that could all be categorized as branches of Chinese. During the establishment of the Republic of China, the democratic regime that overthrew the last royal dynasty of China, the authority held a meeting to choose the new ‘official jargon’ that would be taught nation-wide. Due to the location of the capital city, the Beijing dialect eventually won out and became the official national language, AKA Mandarin with Cantonese only one vote shy to winning the vote!
When the ROC government retreated to Taiwan, they brought the official language system with them, hence the root of Mandarin on the island. The most spoken dialect, Taiwanese, stemmed from the Chinese Fujian dialect and has now evolved its own system. There are also other different dialects and languages, such as Chinese Hakka dialect and all the aboriginal languages, that are in active use now.

Fact 3: Unlike most western languages, we have syllabic intonations in Chinese. And yes, they make a HUGE difference!

There are four major intonations in Mandarin, and I like to think of them as different notes in music- do, re, mi, fa, sol.
To accent the first intonation (marked ‘─’ or 1), we keep the pitch constantly high as if singing a long sol note. As for the second intonation (marked ‘/’ or 2), we rise the pitch from mi to sol so the whole syllable sounds like a question. The third intonation (marked ‘V’ or 3) is the trickiest. Try to twist the note from mi down to do and right up to fa in one swift syllable. Once you’ve caught the third note, the fourth is just a piece of cake. For the fourth intonation (marked ‘ヽ’ or 4), we dip the pitch from the highest sol to the lowest do as if you’re giving a curt answer.
As what Julie Andrews told the von-Trapps in The Sound of Music, “when you know the notes to sing, you can sing most anything,” now that we’ve acquainted ourselves to the intonation notes, maybe we could try mixing the tunes and learning some Chinese?

Let’s start with the daily basics.

Vocab 1: Ni3 Hao3 (nǐ hǎo) 你好!→ Hello!

Just like ‘hello,’ or ‘konichiwa,’ whenever we start learning a new language, we start with the greeting that can be used throughout the day. Next time when entering a store or needing any help from random Taiwanese pedestrians, try ice-breaking with a ‘ni-hao.’

Vocab 2: Shie4 Shie (xiè xie) 謝謝→ Thank you.

While guiding TourMeAway’s Food Challenge in night markets (join us to enjoy 12 very local, extremely weird dishes every Wednesday!), my guests always ask me what the vendors said to them after handing them their food. Yes, since it only seems polite to exchange thankyous after buying and selling and all those different occasions, ‘thank you’ is what people in Taiwan say all the time. In fact, ‘xie-xie’ are sometimes heard more often than ‘ni-hao.’

Vocab 3: Zai4 Jian4 (zài jiàn) 再見→ Goodbye.

While ‘zai4’ means again, ‘jian4’ stands for to meet or to see. So literally, this term means ‘I wish to see you again soon.’ Isn’t this kind of a sweet way to say goodbye? Although in Taiwan, people tend to say ‘bye’ more often nowadays, ‘zai-jian’ is always a very local way to bid your Taiwanese friends farewell.

Vocab 4: Bu4 Hao3 Yi4 Si0 (bù hǎo yì sī) 不好意思→ Excuse me.

Just like ‘entschuldigung’ in German and ‘excuse me’ in English, ‘bu-hao-yi-si’ serves as a mild, less apologetic sorry that can be used in all kinds of occasions, from attracting attention to expressing sincere apology. So next time when you need help with your direction, try opening up conversation with Taiwanese people with this term!

Now that we’ve learned the basic politeness, maybe we can move on to other useful ones?

Vocab 5: Duo1 shao3 chian2 (duō shǎo qián)多少錢→ How much?

This is undoubtedly the most requested Chinese whenever I offer to teach during my tours. To be honest, I’d be surprised if it wasn’t. Because seriously, this is definitely the most important sentence since Taiwan is such a treasure land for food lovers, and you’re going to use it a lot while navigating through night markets. Well, or you could simply join our food challenge and avoid the trouble.

Vocab 6: Pian2 Yi2 Yi4 Dian3 (pián yí yī diǎn) 便宜一點→ Any discount?

One of the most enjoyable things when traveling in Taiwan is that most prices you see aren’t fixed. No matter you’re busying stuffing your mouth with stinky tofu or shopping for souvenirs at street stores, always remember that a little negotiation won’t hurt. It might even save you some money!

Vocab 7: Tse4 Suo3 (cè suǒ) 廁所→ Restroom?

Hey, it happens. When your insides are churning and growling, the hotel room you’ve booked can wait; the train that cost most of your budget can wait; the bubble tea you’ve just ordered can wait; it could be the end of the world and the catastrophe would still have to wait because you just. Have. To. Use. The. Toilet! Trust me, we’ve all been there once or twice, and we Taiwanese people will be kind enough to point out the nearest restroom for you.

Vocab 8: Jie2 Yun4 (jié yùn) 捷運→ The MRT( the local subway system in Taipei)?

To both locals and tourists, the MRT is the most convenient and accessible means of traveling while in Taipei. The trains are quiet and frequent and the stations are clean. What’s more, there are restrooms in every MRT station! So maybe this term comes in handy not only when in search of transportation but also when looking for restrooms?
And since you’re asking so nicely (or not), I honestly think the best way to know the true essence of a foreign place is to drink with the locals. And if you do decide to do that at our very own Pub Crawl, you might want to know our last 2 vocabs so you can have more fun with us Taiwanese liquor sucker.

Vocab 9: Kiang1 (kiāng) ㄎㄧㄤ

Now if we’re being serious, this isn’t really a Mandarin term but rather a slang recently popular among Taiwanese youngsters, which basically describes the euphoric condition one is in when half drunk. Its meaning has also expanded to any kind of tipsy, hazy, fuzzy but happy feeling under any circumstances, including drug usage, sleepy feelings or just the euphoria felt when having fun with friends.

Vocab 10: Gan1 bei1 (gān bēi) 乾杯→ Bottoms up!

Literally, ‘gan’ means dry and ‘bei’ means cups. So basically, this term is to encourage people to dry the tumblers. But when there’s good alcohol and great company, who needs any encouragement?