Taiwan is a fascinating country in East Asia known for it’s vibrant economy, skilled workforce, tropical climate, great food and friendly people. See here for an interesting guide of the country. But just how widely spoken is English there? Can tourists get by just by speaking English, or will some Mandarin be needed?
In general, not many people speak English in Taiwan overall, but the capital Taipei has a greater number of English speakers than elsewhere in the country. Estimates indicate that around 25% of the population can speak English to some extent, but fluent English speakers are quite rare.
You can get around a little easier there and in the North of the country in general, as opposed to the South, where English speakers are much harder to come across.
Exact statistics on the percentage of the Taiwanese population who speak English are hard to find, but it ranked 48th out of 88 countries surveyed in a 2018 study on English proficiency around the world, just ahead of Japan, another country we have covered which does not have very high rates of English fluency among the general population.
One person who had lived in Taiwan for a while gave an estimate that maybe a quarter of the population can speak English to some extent. This would put it ahead of other nearby countries like Japan and South Korea but matches up with other tourist accounts that English coverage is patchy but widespread enough in Taipei that you can usually find someone nearby who speaks a little.
English is a common foreign language, with some large private schools providing English instruction. English is compulsory in students’ curriculum once they enter elementary school. English as a school subject is also featured on Taiwan’s education exams. Since 2018, the Taiwanese Ministry of Education has been planning to make English an official language of the country.
English is Most Common in Taipei and the North
People who visit Taiwan do tend to report that English is most prevalent in the capital Taipei, up in the North. Here are some tourist accounts looking across the forums which accurately summarize what the general experience seems to be.
“I rode my bicycle around the whole of Taiwan. English is spoken a bit more in Taipei than other places, but it’s hit-or-miss everywhere. As with many places in the world, younger people (under 30) tend to speak English better, and are also more interested in doing so (for their own practice).”
And another account that is a good overview of what to expect in the capital.
“I have just returned from a fantastic 10 day trip to Taipei. It was my first time there…. BUT, my biggest problem was communicating. I only speak English and my Mandarin is limited to Chi Chi and Ni Hao and a few other basic words. The staff at my hotel spoke broken English, so communicating with them was also difficult.
Most signs are in Mandarin and English. BUT, don’t expect most people to speak English. Especially taxi drivers and shop attendants. In fact, when ever I went in a taxi, I had to have the destination written in Mandarin.”
The two main types of people to look for if you want to converse in English are young people and business people, since these are the two segments of the population most likely to speak it. The government has in the last generation emphasized English more and more, and wealthier parents are starting to realize the importance of English and send their kids to private tuition on top of the state schools. English proficiency among millennials is reasonable; older people are less fluent.
However, do expect a fair amount of people you interact with to not speak English, or very broken English. Taxi drivers and smaller shop attendants are two examples. Always have destinations written on cards in Mandarin to give to cab drivers to avoid any confusion, plus have your hotel address card to give to them to get you back. Some basic phrases will get you by in smaller shops and restaurants – see further below for more on this.
The overall picture seems to be that it’s easier to get around Taiwan using English than other countries in Asia, like Japan, South Korea and Thailand, but still not as easy as Scandinavia and other Eastern and Northern European countries which have much higher fluency rates. Taiwan seems to lie somewhere in the middle.
There is also possibly a North-South divide in terms of English proficiency, with higher fluency in the Northern and central cities like Taipei, Hsinchu, Taichiung and Hualien, with Southern cities like Kaohsiung having less proficiency. The 2018 English proficiency index seemed to indicate this.
See the video below though from a vlogger for an interesting experiment on this. Despite some of the reservations mentioned above about patchy English coverage, she manages to get around the capital Taipei fairly easily speaking English, both asking for directions and ordering food in English without too many problems.
So as with visiting any foreign country, the experience really can vary from person to person, since everyone moves in different circles and interacts with different people on a daily basis. One way or another, you can get around Taiwan and Taipei especially, with either English or a little Mandarin and typical tourist gesturing and pointing.
The unanimous view from tourists who have been there is that you should not let any language barriers deter you from visiting Taiwan – it is widely reported to be a very nice country with friendly and welcoming locals who will always do their best to help you out. Having some basic local phrases will endear you to them even more and ensure you are always received warmly – see further below for more on this.
The Tainan Project
An interesting break from the general North-South divide in English skills in Taiwan, as well as the lowish overall coverage, is the experiment that a city in the South called Tainan has undertaken since 2015, that may become a blueprint for the whole country. See this interesting article for more on this.
In the last few years in Tainan, they have sought to make English a co-official language in the city in a 10 year project. Shop keepers and night markets have been assisted in providing English language menus and there is a drive to increase the use of English in general in the city. This plan could be rolled out to the entire country in time.
The idea behind this is the realization that having more widespread English competency in the population increases global prospects and competitiveness. Debate still continues in political circles there, but there is no doubt that having English skills opens up more opportunities for young people. See our article on English proficiency in Scandinavia for an example of a country which has emphasized English for many decades now and has a very fluent population.
The city of Tainan in the south of Taiwan has launched a 10 year project in 2015 trying to make English a co-official language in the city.
Learning Some Mandarin
Thailand is actually quite a complex country in terms of languages, with many different ones spoken, but the major official language is Taiwanese Mandarin, spoken by over 80% of the population (Taiwanese Hokkien is also quite prevalent). Taiwanese Mandarin is broadly similar to the Standard Mandarin spoken in mainline China, with a few minor differences
For general tourist purposes, standard Chinese Mandarin is a good place to start. It will be enough for you to be understood in Taiwan; any subtle differences and dialect and pronunciation can be picked up along the way. Here are some everyday Mandarin phrases that might come in useful for a trip or longer stay.
|Hello||Nǐ hǎo||Nee How|
|Thanks||Xiè xiè||Siee Sieeh|
|You're welcome||Bù kèqì||Boo kerchi
|Sorry||Duìbùqǐ||Dooey boo chi|
|It's OK/It doesn't matter||Méiguānxì||Meh gwan chi|
|How are you?||Nǐ hǎo ma?||Nee how ma?
|I'm very good||Wǒ hěn hǎo||Woah hen how|
|Good morning||Zǎo ān||Zao an
|Good night||Wǎn'ān||Wan an|
|OK||Hǎo de||How da|
The pronunciations are only approximate, since Mandarin is a complex language phonetically, with many different intonations or inflections of words required to speak it correctly. Sometimes your pronunciation needs to go up, down or stay the same at the beginning or end of words. See the video for more on this, plus also this video for more on the minor differences between the Mandarin spoken in Taiwan versus mainland China.
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Travel Essentials For Visiting Taiwan
- Essential stats on Taiwan:
- Population: 23.8 million
- Time zone: EST +13 hours; GMT +8 hours.
- Currency: New Taiwan Dollar (TWD) ($1 = 31.14 TWD ; £1= 36.82 TWD at time of writing)
- International calling code: +886 (see here for getting a working local SIM card/number when abroad)
- Drives on the right
- Luggage allowances – see here for an excellent guide on luggage allowances (checked and cabin) for all major airlines worldwide.
- SIM Cards – If you’d rather not be messing about with physical SIM cards, E-SIMs (digital SIM cards) are now available. If your phone is unlocked and E-SIM compatible, you can take advantage of Airalo‘s cheap, data only (no calls/texts) E-SIM cards, available for 200 countries, which you can download to your phone. With customized cheap E-SIM packages tailored for your data needs and length of stay. Click here to view Airalo’s E-SIMs now (almost all countries covered). Pay for what you need, for how long you need – no getting ripped off with tourist SIM cards and roaming charges.