Taiwan is a small country with a lot of interesting aspects to its linguistic profile.
Mandarin Chinese has been the official language of Taiwan since 1945, and is the most spoken language in the country. It’s remarkably unchanged from the mainland variant of Mandarin that immigrants brought out, primarily in the 1940s as they escaped political and military upheaval in that country. Prior to the 1940s Chinese immigration was often short-term as people sought investment opportunities or fled situations, leaving the local culture and language intact. Since the main flood of immigration, Mandarin has slowly penetrated everywhere. In Modern Taiwan you would be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t speak Mandarin as at least a third language.
Hokkien and Hakka were the primary local languages displaced by Mandarin. Hokkien, known colloquially as Taiwanese, remains a very common language. In fact, while Mandarin has settled in as the ‘official’ language and the language of government and the law, Taiwanese remains very popular and is usually the common language of everyday life.
Hakka Chinese is still spoken by a small population in Taiwan. The Hakka are an ethnic group within China in the same way Han Chinese are, and they have maintained their own language through the years. Slowly, Hakka is disappearing in Taiwan, supplanted by the twin threats of Mandarin and Taiwanese, however.
The Japanese ruled Taiwan for several decades after China ceded the island to Japan in 1895. As a result, sustained efforts to introduce Japanese to the population continued until 1945. Today there are still large numbers of older people in Taiwan who speak some amount of Japanese. Japanese also persists as an “elite” language for Taiwan’s business leaders, many of whom studied Japanese and visited Japan while in school.
Other indigenous languages still survive in Taiwan, but generally in very small localised populations that continue to shrink every year. Almost everyone speaks Mandarin and Taiwanese in addition to their traditional languages, and as a result the motivation to continue to speak and teach these local languages diminishes every year. The Formosan languages are the languages traditionally spoken by the indigenous populations of Taiwan, but even though 2% of the population is Formosan by birth, much less than that still speak their traditional languages.
As you can see, the language situation in Taiwan is complex and a bit messy. For a tourist, this is a problem – for a business translation pro like me, it’s simply a lot of fun!