A look at the linguistic history of this “Polyglot’s Paradise” called Taiwan

The island of Taiwan is only slightly bigger than Japan’s Kyushu Island and Canada’s Vancouver Island. Unlike Kyushu and Vancouver Island’s comparatively homogenous linguistic landscapes, however, Taiwan is home to over twenty languages! This mind-boggling diversity is the result of Taiwan’s unique geographic location and centuries of interactions between diverse ethnic groups.

Taiwan is not only the Ilha Formosa, or “beautiful isle,” as the Portuguese were said to have called it in the 1500s, Taiwan has also always been deemed a “polyglot’s paradise.” Multilingualism is extremely widespread on the island—with virtually everyone in Taiwan juggling between Mandarin, Taiwanese, and nowadays, English. Not to mention, there exist pockets of less widespread languages like Hakka and 16 different indigenous Formosan languages. Thanks to historical, colonial and cultural reasons, Japanese is also a prevalent second or third language in Taiwan.

Approximate distribution of Taiwan’s main linguistic communities: Formosan languages (purple), Taiwanese (green), Hakka (orange), Mandarin (grey). Mandarin serves as Taiwan’s primary lingua franca.

According to estimates by Ethnologue, an authority in the mapping and documenting of world languages, 25 languages are listed in Taiwan, 22 of which are “living.” While Taiwanese is by far the mother tongue for the largest portion of Taiwan’s population, Mandarin, introduced formally to Taiwan in 1945, was Taiwan’s official language by fiat and is now spoken by virtually everyone regardless of mother tongue. In the hilly regions of northwestern Taiwan, traditional Hakka strongholds preserve the unique Hakka language, while the central and eastern highlands continue to cradle the ancient Formosan languages of Taiwan’s indigenous cultures and tribes.

To understand how one small island became the home of so many tongues, it is helpful to travel back in time and explore how these languages—and the peoples that spoke them—got here. Understanding Taiwan’s linguistic background requires understanding how Taiwan’s earliest known settlers, the Austronesians, spread throughout the island, and how colonists began exploring and settling the island in the 17th century.

Austronesian Languages

The original inhabitants of Taiwanthe Austronesian Taiwaneseare composed of 16 independent tribes, each with their own set of customs and language. These people are the direct descendants of the Proto-Austronesians, or the “First Austronesians.” They likely arrived in Taiwan some time after the last glacial period (the most recent ice age) and developed independently for several millennia before expanding out of Taiwan around 5,000 years ago.

Today, the majority of ethnic groups in the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Madagascar and throughout the Pacific islands of Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia descended from Austronesians (The Indigenous Taiwanese are linguistically related to Polynesian Hawaiians).

Rather than being an isolated island that sat on the fringes of bigger civilizations, Taiwan, as the homeland of the First Austronesians, was once at the very core. Those Austronesians who did not migrate across the Pacific and Indian oceans—those who remained in Taiwan—are known in linguistics and anthropology as the “Formosans” and their languages are collectively called the “Formosan languages.”

As mentioned above, 16 Formosan languages have survived to modern times. They are (in alphabetical order) the Amis, Atayal, Bunun, Kanakanavu, Kavalan, Paiwan, Puyuma, Rukai, Saaroa, Saisiyat, Sakizaya, Seediq, Thao, Truku, Tsou and Yami.

These languages are among the oldest and most diverse in the greater Austronesian language family. They are largely found in the mountainous highlands of central and eastern Taiwan.

Although many of Taiwan’s indigenous Formosan languages are threatened or endangered, there are now efforts to preserve and further study these unique languages of Taiwan.

Sinitic Languages

Three mutually unintelligible Sinitic (Chinese) languages dominate Taiwanese society today. They are the Taiwanese, Hakka and Mandarin languages.

The Sinitic languages are a family of related languages all descending from Old Chinese. Old Chinese eventually split into two branches that still have living representatives today—Min and Middle Chinese. Both branches went on to develop many different and mutually unintelligible offshoots.

The Taiwanese language developed in the 17th century from Hokkien, which is a member of the Southern Min branch of the Min languages. Hakka and Mandarin, two other Sinitic languages spoken in Taiwan, are descended from Middle Chinese. In fact, most living Chinese languages and dialects (such as Cantonese and Hunanese) are descendants of Middle Chinese. Taiwanese, as a variety of Hokkien, is thus descended from an entirely different branch of Chinese from Hakka and Mandarin. All three varieties, however, are mutually unintelligible from each other.

The relationship between different Sinitic languages has often been likened to that found among the Romance languages (like French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian). Just as the different Sinitic languages all descend from Old Chinese, all Romance languages are descended from Classical Latin—the language of the ancient Romans.  

In Taiwan, the first of the Sinitic languages to take root is Taiwanese. The language, developed on the island among 17th-century immigrants from southern Fujian in China, is the result of two different Hokkien dialects mixing. The Taiwanese language is spoken throughout Taiwan, especially in the southwest, and is the mother tongue of 75 percent of the Taiwanese population. The Hakka language is spoken by 15 percent of Taiwan’s population and arrived in Taiwan, also in the 17th century, from eastern Guangdong. Hakka-speaking communities are confined to pockets mainly in northwestern Taiwan, though smaller but older Hakka communities also exist in the south. Taiwan’s Hakka-speaking regions are typically located on frontiers between Taiwanese-speaking and Formosan-speaking communities.

The latest newcomer to Taiwan’s linguistic scene is Mandarin, or Modern Standard Chinese. Mandarin was the only official language of Taiwan until the early 2000s and is the current lingua franca of the greater Chinese-speaking world (including Taiwan, Hong Kong, China and Singapore). The standard variety of Mandarin in Taiwan, as in elsewhere, is based on the Beijing dialect and was standardized in the 19th and 20th centuries in an effort to create a single language with which speakers of different Sinitic languages could communicate. Because of the period of Japanese rule over Taiwan from 1895 to 1945, Mandarin was not introduced to the Taiwanese people until after the Second World War. Since then, decades of official government language policy  has greatly improved proficiency in Mandarin among the Taiwanese, but at the cost of proficiency in Taiwan’s other historic languages.

In more recent years, growing self-awareness and popular demand has led to an increase in the desire to revive and pass on Taiwan’s traditional languages to younger generations in order to preserve them. Related efforts include the broadcasting of non-Mandarin television and radio programs, and increased academic interest in these languages.

There is also a long-standing effort by the Taiwanese Presbyterian Church to preserve and promote the once-prevalent traditional Taiwanese writing system known as Peh-oe-ji (POJ), which was devised in the 16th century by European missionaries. The POJ system employs the Roman alphabet to transcribe Hokkien and Taiwanese phonology and pronunciation (instead of employing the Chinese characters most commonly used to write Classical Chinese, Mandarin and Cantonese). The POJ system has also been applied to a lesser degree to recording Hakka pronunciations.


As a traditional transit point and trade link between many cultures and regions, Taiwan has served as a meeting place between divergent peoples and languages. The resulting cultural interactions and exchanges are reflected in Taiwan’s multilingualism and complex linguistic history. This is a heritage central to the collective identity of all Taiwanese people, regardless of ethnic and linguistic background, and the preservation of these unique linguistic inheritances has immense significance for the culture of Taiwan.

(Feature photo of printing blocks, from Pixabay)


Jim Lin

Jim Lin is the creator of Island Folklore, an online repository of Taiwan’s folktales, legends, myths and traditions. He holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Toronto and is deeply interested in the study of peoples—their cultures, languages, stories and beliefs. Jim is based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

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