Chinese looks like a formidable language, it bears no resemblance to English at all. I have been trying to learn it for a while, and I must admit that I’m not getting very far with it. You are probably worried about your visit to Taiwan. Will people understand me? Will the language be a problem?

Can Taiwanese people speak English? The best answer I can give you is some of them do, yes. Do not worry about the language. You will always find way to communicate.

Surprisingly, many Taiwanese seem to be fascinated with English and England. Let me share with you some of my experiences and stories that will put your mind at rest.

The Lowdown

If you are lucky enough to spend a lot of time in Taiwan as I have done, you will start to notice things. There are a lot of Union Jacks here. You see them on motorcycle helmets, on T-shirts, even on socks. They are probably on other, more discrete, items of clothing too!
It’s fair to say that the Taiwanese have a fascination with English. Does this mean that everyone I meet speaks perfect English? No, that is not the case. But many people have a basic understanding of the language.

The Aspects of Languages

There is a lot more to a language than being able to utter a few sentences though. Reading, writing and comprehension are vital for accurate and fluent translation, and this is where things start to fall apart.

English is Trendy and Hip

There are smatterings of English everywhere, magazines on shelves often have English titles, restaurant menus will have category headings in English – “Sandwiches”, “Toasts”, “Teas” etc. But don’t be fooled by this. The content of the magazines will be in Chinese; the restaurant menu items will be in Chinese. The ability to speak and understand, or pretend to understand English, is seen as cool and trendy.

Taiwanese Education and English

Visit any major city in Taiwan, and you will find English language schools everywhere, it is big business! Children spend all day at school and then often get sent off to “Cram Schools” a few evenings a week to boost their English skills further. They are subjected to frequent and arduous testing too!

What Practical Advice Can You Give Me?

First and foremost, don’t worry. In the event of an emergency, there will be someone who can speak enough English to help you. For everything else, read on!

Restaurants

Reading restaurant menus is by far the biggest challenge I face on a daily basis. Many restaurants have extensive menus, but they are nearly always only available in Chinese. Yes, there are instances where an English menu is provided, but this is not very common. It can feel very frustrating. But not to worry, we all carry smartphones, right? I will recommend an app for you, there are, many apps that promise to solve all of your translation woes but in practice, very few of them work very well. This is the one that I recommend:

Waygo
This app is specifically for translations involving Chinese, Japanese and Korean to English. I find that it works well under most circumstances. It is free to try, but it will limit you to the number of translations you can perform each day. I upgraded, and I never had any regrets.
Waygo on the iOS App Store
Waygo app for Android

Airports and Train Stations

Everything is in both English and Chinese, so language should not be a problem. But, if you are the kind of person who leaves things to the last minute, then you should give yourself a bit more time.

Local Bus Stations

Smaller, local bus stations can be more problematic in my experience. I once tried to take a bus from Changhua to Lukgang, The timetables, and the bus signs were in Chinese only. This was the one time where nobody could speak English, so I ended up not going. It was not a big deal for me, but maybe for you it could be the difference between catching or missing a flight. Once again, give yourself plenty of time.

High-Speed Rail

High-speed train at Taichung station
High-speed train at Taichung station

This service is a marvel of engineering that cuts hours off the journey time from north to south of the island. The timetables and locations are in English. I have used this service a handful of times and have found it to be excellent. I do have a story to share with you about a friend who took the high-speed service to the airport. Not all of the trains stop at all of the stations. In this case, he ended up going past the airport by a fair distance. He had to wait for a train that was going back and sadly by the time he got to the airport he had missed his flight. There was a miscommunication somewhere, so it pays to give yourself plenty of time and double check everything, especially when there are international flights involved.

Transit App
Transit is the app I use for most of my transport needs. It’s free and works very well. It covers the entire rail network and has the MRT systems for both Taipei and Kaohsiung.
Transit app on the iOS app store
Transit app for Android

Shopping

You will generally find someone who can help you in most stores, but it’s always handy to have the Google Translate app at the ready, so you can be sure they understand what it is that you want to buy. 7-Eleven’s have a kiosk that allows you to purchase many different services and tickets. This machine is not in English, so you will need the help of someone who can translate for you. One of the convenience store’s staff will probably be able to guide you through the process. The Taiwanese are very friendly and helpful. Once, I asked a woman for help to buy high-speed rail tickets, and she ran outside to fetch her husband from the car to help me!

Should I Learn Some Chinese?

My answer to that would be an emphatic, Yes! It is a challenging language, so have no illusions. You will not master it in five minutes but if you could learn a few of the commonly spoken phrases that would go a long way.

There are Many Forms of Chinese, Which Should I Learn?

For Taiwan, you will need to learn Mandarin. It uses traditional Chinese characters. Do not learn Cantonese or simplified Chinese it will be useless in Taiwan.

How can I learn Chinese?

The best way is to enrol on a course. Perhaps at a local college or school. I would do an online search or visit an adult education centre. They should be able to advise you.

Related Questions

Q: Do Taiwanese speak other languages?
A: Many people in Taiwan can speak some Japanese as well as English.

Q: What about other European languages? Can I speak Spanish or German?
A: It is highly unlikely that you will find speakers of languages other than English and Japanese. I know a few people who can speak some German and French but they are not commonplace.

Q: Will there be other westerners around that can help me?
A: In Taipei, maybe but for the rest of the country that is unlikely.