I can’t find any statistics on what percentage of foreigners (Westerners) speak Mandarin in Taiwan, but by simple observation I wouldn’t expect that number to be quite low.
When I say “speak Mandarin” I am setting the standard to be able to work in an office with a decent amount of Mandarin or to be able to have a normal day to day conversation with a stranger about the price increase of the avocados in the local Carrefour.
There are a ton of reasons why Westerners don’t learn past a nice little nihao or a xiexie, and that is because the pay off for learning Mandarin is probably not worth it unless you are determined to live in a Mandarin speaking region for a long time. Even then, you don’t need to learn how to write because the opportunity costs behind learning how to write and learning how to speak and read is just out of kilter. Even then, you probably can get by in life with just being able to speak because most signs in Taiwan have English or self-explanatory signs of toilets or cats crossing roads.
I can say that after 5 years of learning Mandarin and putting a lot of effort in for the first 3 years of it, I am not nervous when I am in a sticky spot when I am in an all Mandarin environment. I won’t go so far as to say my Mandarin is good, I’m just not afraid to use Mandarin in a situation, and I’m not afraid to say “I don’t understand/我不懂”.
What I have learned from all my time learning Mandarin is that it gives you a blatant advantage over other expats. People are more likely to take an interest in you, but sometimes that can be annoying. I cannot tell you the amount of times I have heard “wow your Chinese, it is so good 很棒”, but I do my best to smile. Don’t take that the wrong way, I appreciate anyone saying good job to me, but when you have heard it so many times, even when you have just said nihao with the right tones, you tend to think any level of Mandarin being used is enough to be impressive.
Having Mandarin made my transition into China so much easier. When I arrived with my friends to Minzu University, we unknowingly came to China too early in the middle of August. Our visas were only for 1 month when we arrived, and we didn’t know we had to renew them after we registered with the university and have an approved health check, along with a residence form.
I was able to use my very limited Mandarin to get registered earlier, have a medical report I had done in Ireland certified early and I got my residence form in 1 day after pushing for it. I managed to put my passport into transit for my new visa with 2 days left, while my friends, with my help and knowledge, got it through in the last minute.
Other times, having Mandarin opened many doors for me in China and Taiwan in terms of being able to interact with local people who would otherwise have no other means of communicating with foreigners. My first experience of communicating with non-English speaking Chinese people was in my second week in Beijing. I went with a friend to get some meat skewers (串兒) and we talked with the owners and had a beer. We heard their gripes about neighbours and their troubles with a modernizing world.
In Taiwan, Mandarin helped me sort out my Alien Residency Card a lot sooner than I could’ve if I didn’t speak English and with only English, my application for National Chengchi University would have taken longer. I can also eat more locally and chance my arm with the biandang places (便當) because I can read menus and most of all, I can get in touch with pop culture a lot easier rather than relying on Taiwanese friends to understand Western pop culture.
So, with all that, you would think learning Mandarin is a must for living in China and Taiwan. I would say it is most definitely good to have, but I cannot commit to the idea of someone learning Mandarin without first committing to living here.
Mandarin is a lot harder than you think. The more you learn it, the more you realize you know very little of it. Don’t buy into the nonsense that Mandarin is easy because characters are basically pictures, they aren’t, they are characters with an intimidating amount of radicals that form words that need to be rote learned and remembered.
The Foreign Service Institute ranks Mandarin as a category 5 language, meaning, it would take someone from America 2,200 hours to learn Mandarin fluently. Category 1 languages such as French and Spanish take around 600 hours.
Mandarin was never going to be the language of the future, despite what your parents, newspapers and Confucius Institutes told you. It was a bit of fad when China was gaining momentum as an economic power, but it isn’t something you necessarily need.
When employers in China and Taiwan look at your resume, they are looking for your experience and qualifications. Having Mandarin is a definite plus, but it isn’t the deciding factor behind getting a job. Your experience, presentation and knowledge is what will get you a job.
I once challenged this way of thinking with a friend in Ireland who had returned from living in China for 5 years. He told me “if there are 1.3 billion Chinese people and 23 million Taiwanese people, what makes you stand out having Mandarin?”.
You might stand out in front of other foreigners if you can speak decent Mandarin, but you won’t stand out with locals. It is a good strategy to have the experience and knowledge, and add to it the cherry on top, Mandarin, but learning it isn’t essential.
I don’t regret learning Mandarin during my undergraduate studies. I had an interest in anything Chinese-related at the time and I have had the opportunity to travel out of it.
I might sound like I am saying, never mind Mandarin, you don’t need it, they all speak English there. No, I think you should adopt the language of anywhere you live, it is only right. What I am getting at is that when it comes to Mandarin, you really do need to be committed to learn it.
My tip to someone learning Mandarin is to get your story ready. “What is my story” you may ask, it is saying basically where you are from, where you learned Mandarin, for how long, what you do for a living and saying thank you a lot. You will need this because not a lot of foreigners can make that type of conversation and locals will take an interest in you if you initiate with them in Mandarin.
If you are considering learning Mandarin, don’t let me put you off, but just remember, you need a good reason to want to learn. I know people who have Taiwanese wifes and decided to learn out of respect for them, or some people just enjoy Taiwan so much that having Mandarin makes sense. Having the right reason to learn is important, or you will give up early and have chabuduo(差不多) Mandarin.