I Only Speak English. Can I Survive in Taiwan?
If you’re thinking about moving to Taiwan, you may be wondering whether you’ll be able to get by with only English. After all, Taiwan’s official language is Mandarin Chinese.
I would strongly encourage you to learn Chinese if you decide to move to Taiwan for an extended period of time, as it will open up a lot of doors for you here. Even if you’re just traveling to Taiwan for a short time, it’s a nice gesture to learn a few words of the local language. Plus, Chinese is the world’s most widely spoken language, so there are only benefits to learning it!
However, if you’re just moving to Taiwan and haven’t had a chance to study Chinese yet, you can definitely get by with English—especially if you stay in larger cities. In fact, I’ve heard of expats living in Taiwan for decades with very limited Chinese. Although I don’t recommend this approach, the reason some people never learn Chinese is that English is pretty widely spoken in the main cities of Taipei. At least in recent decades, Taiwanese people often start learning English as early as preschool and continue learning into university. So besides some older people, most Taiwanese people can speak at least basic English.
7 Tips for Living in Taiwan as an English Speaker
Although it’s possible to get by in Taiwan with only English, you may still run into some difficulties. Here are a few tips that might help you out if you’re thinking of moving here as an English speaker with limited Chinese.
1- Download Translation Apps and Chinese-English Dictionaries
Although English will be alright for most everyday tasks, you’re still going to run into situations where you need a translation. Most things in Taiwan are written in Chinese, from signs to websites, and not everyone can speak English. To prepare yourself for these kinds of situations, it’s a good idea to have some translation apps installed on your phone ahead of time. Good ole’ Google Translate will usually do the trick, but there are also a ton of other great translation apps out there.
You could also go with a Chinese-English dictionary if you want something more tailored to Chinese. I personally like Pleco—it has great translations and lets you look up characters via handwriting. The paid version even has camera-based character lookups, which lets you hold up your phone to Chinese characters and translate them automatically. Within Pleco, I also strongly recommend the Outlier add-on dictionary to help you learn characters more intuitively.
2- Install a Chinese-English Translation Extension for Your Web Browser
Some websites that you’ll need, such as the house rental website 591.com.tw or job search websites like 104.com.tw or 1111.com.tw, may only be available in Chinese. Installing a translation extension like Google Translator will allow you to navigate these. You could also try out a Chinese-specific translation extension, like Zhongwen: Chinese-English Dictionary, which offers convenient pop-up translations when you hover over Chinese text.
3- Get Help from Chinese-Speaking Friends if Possible
When it comes to renting a house, signing a phone contract, and other more official business, I recommend finding a Chinese-speaking friend to go with you if you can. Not all companies have English versions of contracts, so it’s better to bring someone who you trust and can help you read over things in Chinese if possible. If you’re apartment searching, it’s also helpful to have someone to help you with contacting landlords and/or looking over rental agreements, as it’s also harder to find these in English. Some landlords and rental companies do offer English services, but you’ll be paying a premium for these.
4- Eat at Other Places Besides 7-11
I have to admit that when I first arrived in Taiwan I ate food from 7-11 far too often. It’s the easiest option since you barely have to speak to anyone, and the food there is actually pretty good. However, not only is it unhealthy to rely on convenience store food, you’ll also be missing out on a ton of awesome Taiwanese food. So, don’t let your fear of a language barrier stop you from getting out there and eating all that Taiwan has to offer!
Thankfully, a lot of places in Taipei and other large cities offer English menus. Chain restaurants, cafes, and drink shops often have bilingual menus, so you can simply point to order if needed. Areas where tourists tend to visit, such as famous night markets, or areas with many international students usually also offer English menus. From my experience, servers will automatically give you an English menu and even speak English to you if you look foreign (a blessing when you first arrive, but a curse when you actually want to speak Chinese).
5- Be Prepared to Work in a Job Related to English
As a native English speaker, you will most likely end up working in English education or other positions related to the English language. The most obvious opportunity would be English teaching, but there are other options as well, like English editing or content writing. The fact that your job choices will be more limited in Taiwan is something you may want to consider before making the move. Of course, for the many people that come to Taiwan specifically to teach English, this isn’t an issue. Since being fluent in English is considered valuable here, you will also receive higher compensation for jobs related to English, which is a plus.
If your background is in technology, Taipei has a thriving start-up scene. There are a lot of foreigners working in start-ups or involved with blockchain technologies, so you can start networking and getting to know lots of people very quickly. One place to start getting connected would be with the MOX crowd.
6- Meet Other Expats
Another concern English speakers coming to Taiwan might have is whether they’ll be able to make friends here if they can’t speak Chinese. Whenever you move to a new place, it’s going to be difficult to meet new friends at first. Thankfully, Taipei and other major cities in Taiwan have large expat communities, so finding other English speakers shouldn’t be a problem. Of course, if you live in a more rural area, there will be less opportunities to socialize with expats.
To find fellow expats, I’d recommend joining some Facebook groups and other expat social groups. Just search for “foreigners in Taiwan” or “foreigners in (your city in Taiwan)” and you should find some groups. There are also English-speaking Facebook groups for other things related to living in Taiwan as a foreigner, such as finding apartments, searching for roommates, and buying/selling used items.
7- Meet Local Friends that Speak English
Even if you don’t speak Chinese, it’s possible to make friends with locals in Taiwan. One way to do this is by joining language exchange events. Taipei has a ton of language exchange social events, which are often held at cafes or bars, and are often listed on the site Meetup. It’s a great chance to meet locals who want to speak English and to learn some Chinese. Of course, you could also meet locals in other settings, whether at work or while you’re out and about. Many Taiwanese people will be more than happy to speak English with you, as it’s a great chance for them to put their English to use. Overall, people here are pretty friendly, so if you put yourself out there, you should be able to make some local friends.
These are a few tips that I think could be helpful if you’re moving to Taiwan as an English speaker, especially if you have limited Chinese ability. Although I’ve spent years learning Chinese, I still make use of many of these tips, as my Chinese is still far from perfect.
Although you can get by in Taiwan using English, as I mentioned already, I still highly recommend learning Chinese. A great resource to speak Chinese faster and better is Glossika.
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