Passing on the Taiwanese Language: A Personal Account

I was born in the US and, like many second generation Taiwanese-Americans, I grew up speaking first Taiwanese (台語), and then English at home. I recall visiting Taiwan as a child and people finding it quite odd that my brother and I understood only Taiwanese—not Mandarin Chinese. Although my level of Taiwanese never reached beyond that of a kindergartner’s, if I hear Taiwanese being spoken around me, I will always turn my head, unable to refrain from eavesdropping on the conversation.

With my own children, however, I prioritized having them learn Mandarin Chinese, thinking it would give them more opportunities for their future. My husband and I sent our two kids to Chinese-only and bilingual schools, set up Chinese playgroups and signed them up for after-school Chinese classes. We even made month-long trips to Taiwan for winter and summer camps for a fully immersive environment.

So, it shouldn’t have been surprising that when my parents speak Taiwanese to them, my children can only answer back with confused looks on their faces. While travelling in southern Taiwan together a couple of years ago, I heard a stranger ask my dad if his grandchildren could speak Taiwanese. He answered, “ke-kiám,” which translates as “to some extent,” but he really meant, “not really.”

On another visit, my mom taught the kids how to say, “Sorry, I don’t understand Taiwanese,” in Taiwanese. They kept repeating it over and over, usually while laughing, and without any sense of embarrassment, whenever anyone spoke to them in Taiwanese.

I realized that despite our frequent visits back to Taiwan and their ability to speak Chinese, they were missing a key component of their background and culture, and that was the Taiwanese language.

Last year I made a New Year’s resolution to teach them one Taiwanese word a day. We didn’t get much past January, and even then, they seemed to only retain bathroom vocabulary (important, sure, but hardly culturally significant). They could answer, “Yes, I have” when asked the ubiquitous Taiwanese greeting “Have you eaten yet?”, and had listened to Taiwanese songs since they were babies, but to them, it was nothing more than noises; they had no idea what they were actually saying or singing.

I started to look for resources that I could use to properly teach them Taiwanese. I queried dozens of online groups seeking parents, particularly second generation Taiwanese-Americans like myself, who were passing on the Taiwanese language to their children. A common strategy was through songs or stories; some had parents who lived close by and were active in childcare; others enrolled in weekend classes offered by Taiwanese organizations across the country (see list below). I met a woman whose children were brilliantly trilingual in English, Croatian, and Taiwanese. Yet, the vast majority of Taiwanese-American parents who, like me, spoke only Taiwanese growing up, were focused on having their children learn Mandarin Chinese instead.

I decided in order for my children, ages 7 and 10, to really learn Taiwanese, I would need to take some bold steps. So, on our trip to Taiwan this summer, I decided to hire a private tutor. This might sound crazy (at least it was to everyone I told, including the kids’ own grandparents), but as my Taiwanese level was nowhere near high enough to properly teach them, I knew they would need written materials and formal lessons to start them on their way.

The teacher recommended lessons every day for two to three hours a day; this wasn’t possible with our schedule, but we committed to twice a week, two hours a day, for the month that we would be in Taiwan. She also recommended that my husband and I sit in on the classes, particularly the initial ones.

To my relief, the course materials were available in English. During the first class, we were introduced to the tones and romanization system. The children giggled over the nasal tones and the “b” sound, which is pronounced with an “m” sound in front of it. My son soon started using it for English words that started with “b” (so “bye” became “mbye”).

My next move, and this was perhaps even more crazy, was to send the kids to a full-day, week-long Taiwanese language camp put on by a church in Taipei. When we went to sign up for the camp, I sheepishly told the woman in charge that the kids didn’t really understand Taiwanese. Thankfully, she replied back encouragingly not to worry, as most of the kids who would be attending the camp didn’t really understand Taiwanese either.

When we picked up the kids on the first day, my son announced, “I did not understand one word of that last class we just had.”

“Not one word?” I asked.

“Well, I did hear him say o͘-tó͘-bái,” he said, one of the few words he had retained from a previous tutoring lesson, and a word that sounded exactly like what it meant: motorcycle.

My daughter, who was three years older than her brother, was similarly unimpressed with the camp schedule. Compared to the prior three weeks’ roster of sports, art and other fun activities, Taiwanese Pronunciation class and unintelligible Story Time was a definite downgrade.

She did say, however, her class was going to be putting on a short play.

“I chose the character that had only one line,” she said, proudly (I had to give her credit for figuring that out). We looked at the script and saw that her line translated into, “When I hear about gambling, I get mad.” (Well, it was a church camp.)

On the second day, I challenged the kids to learn five new words or phrases. My son came home saying he only remembered three: “Repeat after me,” “Stand up,” and “Are you hungry?”

At dinner later in the week, my in-laws were in the middle of a conversation when my son suddenly interrupted, blurting out, “a-pa, that means duck meat.” I couldn’t help but burst out laughing, while my husband gently told him that “a-pa” meant “father”, but yes, it did sound similar to “ah-bah,” which meant “duck meat.”

On the last day of camp, all the parents were invited to a short performance put on by the children. Our son clapped and sang along with the rest of his class; our daughter successfully delivered her one line in the play about avoiding vices like drinking and gambling; both children seemed to be fooling around with the other kids and did not seem overly traumatized from their week of Taiwanese language overload.

At our last tutoring session before leaving Taiwan, my son amused the teacher by answering, “I like to eat cockroaches” when asked what kind of food he liked to eat. When I shot my husband a disappointed look, he only shrugged back. Well, it was something, right?

Where are we now, and where do we hope to go? After ~15 hours of private instruction and a week of camp, the kids aren’t exactly chatting away in my mother tongue, but at least they no longer give the “deer-in-headlights” look when someone asks them something in Taiwanese. They still answer, “Sorry, I don’t understand Taiwanese!” somewhat gleefully when the questions get too hard. But at least now they can say it with the proper pronunciation.

Interested in Taiwanese language classes? Here are some resources for Taiwanese language instruction (Note that if the classes do not fit your schedule, try giving them a call – the teachers may still be able to accommodate you):

2 Responses to “Passing on the Taiwanese Language: A Personal Account”

  1. Kathy Rai

    Thanks for sharing, Stephanie. I really resonate because Taiwanese is close to my heart (even though I speak only to the level of about a 10 yo). I never had a fight in this language, so it brings me back to more innocent days when I do speak it. 🙂 Wish my kids knew more too.

Leave a Reply