If you're a bit familiar with Taiwan, you're likely aware that its linguistic landscape is far more diverse than just Mandarin Chinese. Despite its relatively small size, Taiwan boasts a rich diversity of languages, with over 20 recognized as national languages by the government, including 16 aboriginal languages.

However, the sole official language of the Republic of China (Taiwan’s formal name) remains Mandarin Chinese, which has occupied such a major space in the linguistic sphere of the island that it is sometimes forgotten that, historically, the island’s first dominant language was Taiwanese Hokkien — and that this language is still spoken by about 80% of the population.

Taipei City, from a distance

A bit of history

The journey of Taiwanese Hokkien has been one marked by challenges. During the Japanese occupation, for example, while the Japanese language wasn’t forced onto the population, it was still necessary to know Japanese in order to do business or attend higher education. However, Taiwanese Hokkien faced its greatest decline after the end of the Chinese Civil War. With the arrival of the Chinese Nationalist Government (KMT) on the island, Mandarin Chinese was designated as the one and only official language, and authorities started a heavy campaign to promote Mandarin and ban the usage of Hokkien under the “Mandarin Language Policy.” This pressure put on Hokkien led to a gradual decline in its usage over the decades, with recent studies showing that less than 40% of Taiwanese born in the 90s can speak Hokkien fluently today.

The flag of Taiwan

Despite this decline, efforts to revitalize Taiwanese Hokkien have emerged in recent years, spurred in part by a desire among the younger generation to distance themselves from China and reinforce their Taiwanese identity. Hokkien has played a pivotal role in this cultural resurgence.

In this article, we will be looking into the factors affecting the use of Hokkien in Taiwan, the initiatives put in place to preserve the language, and getting a brief introduction to the extended Bopomofo, a phonetic alphabet used to write Hokkien. If you're interested in knowing more about the history of the language along with some simple vocabulary, check out this article.

Factors affecting the future of Taiwanese Hokkien

It is estimated that almost half of all the world's languages are endangered. While the number of Taiwanese Hokkien speakers is still high enough such that the language hasn't fallen into this category, its speaker count has been declining, and this is due to several reasons.

Dominance of Mandarin Chinese

Unlike other multilingual countries such as Belgium, Canada, or Switzerland, the only language of government in Taiwan is Mandarin Chinese. By definition, this means that Mandarin is dominant in all aspects of Taiwanese society, including education, media, professional settings, and so forth.

The lack of official status for the language means that there’s also a lack of incentive motivating people to learn it, as it is perceived to be of limited practical usage compared to Mandarin Chinese.

Social Stigma

While this has improved a lot in recent years, there remains a certain social stigma towards the Taiwanese Hokkien language, which is often depicted as being uneducated or rural. This bias is particularly prevalent among the wealthier groups of Taiwanese society, and even more so in the capital, Taipei, where a huge portion of the inhabitants are descendants of Chinese people who migrated to Taiwan following the loss of the civil war in Mainland China.

Lack of standardization and proper teaching system

Taiwanese Hokkien is often referred to as a dialect rather than a language, which, from a linguistic perspective, is completely incorrect. This misclassification often leads to the language being treated as a solely spoken language and as lacking a properly standardized writing system. Although Taiwanese Hokkien is written using Chinese characters, the lack of standardization frequently results in Taiwanese words being written with Chinese characters (from Mandarin) that have a similar pronunciation. This isn’t always especially precise.

For instance, the commonly used Taiwanese curse word "Kao Bei" is written as 靠北 because 靠北 is Kao4Bei3 in Mandarin, which is relatively similar to the Taiwanese pronunciation. Unfortunately, this isn’t perfect: while the pronunciation more or less matches up,  a more accurate representation of the phrase would be 哭爸, as the swearing word literally means "to cry over one's dad's death."

A dictionary entry for "Kao Bei"

Furthermore, the currently available teaching methods for Taiwanese Hokkien aren’t super practical. Hokkien pronunciation is typically taught using the Latin alphabet, and while this is beneficial for foreigners (who represent a negligible portion of Taiwanese Hokkien learners), it poses challenges for Taiwanese students who are more familiar with the Bopomofo system used to teach Mandarin Chinese.

Prioritization of English fluency over other languages

Finally, under the new bilingual 2030 policy, the government and education system have put a stronger emphasis on English proficiency, leaving Taiwanese Hokkien (and other languages) behind.

This prioritization of English is also deeply ingrained in the minds of the general population. Parents would rather have their kids attend extra English classes than learn languages that they do not perceive as being beneficial for their kids' professional future. This mindset differs greatly from that in truly bilingual countries, such as Belgium, where perfect fluency in both Dutch and French is as valuable as English for one’s career in the country.

Efforts to revitalize Taiwanese Hokkien

Seeing this exponential decline, initiatives are being taken to address the drop in Taiwanese proficiency — some by the government and others by society as a whole.

National languages development plan

In 2022, the government set up a national languages development plan to promote the usage and proficiency of national languages, including Taiwanese Hokkien.

The development plan includes addressing some of the points mentioned earlier, such as standardizing the writing system and producing better teaching materials. Additionally, it involves preserving linguistic records and expanding the scope of certification tests. It also involves cooperation with the private sector to allow for more platforms, games, cartoons, animations, etc., to make their content available in minority languages.

The foundations of the Taiwanese identity are complex, but one major element is the use of Taiwanese Hokkien. In fact, many young Taiwanese view Mandarin as a colonial language brought to the island by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and seek to distance themselves from it by reviving other national languages.

The use of Taiwanese Hokkien in entertainment, such as music or movies, is becoming increasingly popular. Additionally, there are more and more young digital creators who opt for Taiwanese as their primary language on social media. Popular influencers and content creators, such as Tsai A-ga 蔡阿嘎 or Jolie 九粒, for example, are very vocal about promoting Taiwanese Hokkien as the main language of their content.

As mentioned earlier, Taiwanese Hokkien continues to be primarily taught using a Latin phonetic alphabet, and this creates confusion for young students who are more familiar with the local phonetic alphabet known as Zhuyin Fuhao (more commonly known as Bopomofo).

Interestingly, the Ministry of Education has designed an extended version of Bopomofo that allows you to write Taiwanese Hokkien’s pronunciation while following the same logic as in Mandarin Chinese. In fact, when looking up a Hokkien word in the official online dictionary of the Ministry of Education, both options—Taiwanese Bopomofo and the Latin Alphabet—are provided.

Twenty-six of its 45 letters are the same as in Mandarin Bopomofo, and learning the remaining 19 only takes a few minutes for someone who is already proficient in Bopomofo, as they’ve been intentionally designed to follow the patterns of the original alphabet.

In the visual below, you can see a breakdown of the alphabet, showcasing:

  • Letters unique to Mandarin
  • Letters unique to Hokkien
  • Letters found in both languages

As you can see, the majority of Hokkien letters are actually variations of those used in Zhuyin (Mandarin). The primary difference is that Hokkien’s version of the alphabet attaches a small circle to a letter to denote that the voiced or nasal variation of the sound should be used.

A comparison of the sounds in Mandarin and Hokkien

The promotion of this alphabet in the learning system could drastically improve Taiwanese Hokkien proficiency, as students and even the older generation wouldn’t have to learn a brand new alphabet in order to write out Taiwanese words.

Bonus: Music, Podcasts, YouTube channels, and more to learn Taiwanese

If this article has sparked your interest in learning Taiwanese Hokkien and if you want to be part of keeping this beautiful language alive, here are a few resources that will help you in your journey.






Youtube Channels:

Sally Taiwanese





And of course, Glossika actually offers a Taiwanese course that you can study totally for free! Available on web, iOS, or Android.


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Interested in Taiwanese? You might also like:

  1. 6 Useful Resources to Help You Learn Taiwanese Hokkien
  2. Taigi Kho: Preserving and Passing on the Taiwanese Language
  3. A Glimpse of Taiwanese Hokkien
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