The languages and dialects spoken in Taiwan have their origins in the Austronesian and Han lingual systems. The Austronesian languages are spoken by Taiwan's indigenous peoples, while most common Han dialects - Minnanese and Hakka - are primarily used by those whose ancestors immigrated from China's Fujian and Guangdong Provinces, respectively, four centuries ago. In 1949, after the ROC government relocated to Taiwan, Mandarin became the common language used for communication. In 1987, as emphasis on native languages began to grow, a movement was initiated to teach students their mother tongue so as to preserve the languages and dialects of ethnic groups. The Ministry of Education (MOE) is currently drafting a language equality law aimed a preserving the 14 major languages and dialects used in Taiwan.
Phonetic Symbols and Romanization
To represent the sounds of Mandarin, people in Taiwan use the Mandarin Phonetic Symbols (MPS) system, a collection of 37 phonetic symbols with marks that signify Mandarin's four tones. With regard to romanization, several different systems are concurrently being used in Taiwan, including Wade-Giles, Tongyong Pinyin, Hanyu Pnyin, and Gwoyeu Romatyzh. Tongyong Pinyon was adopted as the official romanization system for Mandarin in 2002.
Since the MPS system was promulgated in the MOE in November 1918, all primary school students have been required to learn the phonetic alphabet in the first grade. Although Mandarin is still the primary language used in schools, government, and most business offices, various county and city governments have initiated elective courses on local languages in elementary and junior high schools according to ethnic demographics since 1990. In September 2001, based on revised guidelines and amended curriculum standards passed by the MOE, primary school students began to be required to take at least one course on a local language, such as Southern Fujianese (also called Minnanese - a literal translation of the dialect - spoken by more than 70 percent of the people of Taiwan), Hakka (spoken by around 15 percent of the people of Taiwan), or an indigenous tongue.
For many years, local languages such as Taiwanese, Hakka, and indigenous languages were repressed in Taiwan to ensure that everyone mastered Mandarin. In recent years, however, Taiwanese has entered mainstream popular culture.
Hakka, on the other hand, is being spoken less and less by the younger generations, who favor either Mandarin or Taiwanese. Thus the Council for Hakka Affairs was formally established on June 14, 2001, with its top priority being the preservation and revitalization of Hakka language and culture.
Most indigenous people are bilingual and successful members of mainstream society. However, although more indigenous people today are willing to identify with their heritage, the younger generations who grew up in cities often can no longer converse in their ancestral tongue. To help rectify this matter, in June 2001, the Taipei City Government's Indigenous Peoples Commission cosponsored two radio programs to introduce the languages, cultures, and activities of the indigenous peoples to Taiwan. In addition, these programs began broadcasting the latest policies and welfare packages available to indigenous peoples residing in Taipei. In July 2001, the CAA adopted New Zealand's Köhanga Reo program for the Mäoris and implemented the Scheme of Aboriginal Language Networks in its 12 districts to provide total immersion education. Nonetheless, only those indigenous students recognized by the Aborigine Identification Law who obtain a Certificate of Aboriginal Language Proficiency can apply for a 25 percent increase in school entrance examination scores beginning in 2005.
The Written Language
A shared system of writing has been the primary unifying force among Chinese since the Chin dynasty (221-206 B.C.) In China, however, the Beijing leadership has promoted the use of a simplified form of Chinese characters. Only in Taiwan are traditional Chinese characters still being used, giving the Taiwanese people continuity with their past as well as the ability to read Chinese classics and other ancient writings. Although there are approximately 50,000 Chinese characters listed in the Kangsi Dictionary (18th century), a person only needs to learn around 4,000 to read an average newspaper article. Every Chinese character has a distinct meaning; however, because most words are combinations of two or more characters, understanding such a large number of characters becomes manageable.
Taiwan's official language is the same as mainland China's, which is Mandarin Chinese. Some of those native to Taiwan speak Taiwanese. Chinese and Taiwanese are similar in that they both use Chinese characters, but in Taiwan the old characters are still in use, whereas a simplified version is used on the mainland.