Can You Live in Taiwan Without Knowing Mandarin?

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Not too many people in Taiwan speak English. Moreover, most English speakers are in the capital city, Taipei.

While Taiwan has plans to become a bilingual country by 2030 and integrate English throughout the country, that’s a ways off.

So, can you live in Taiwan without knowing Mandarin Chinese?

Summary:

You can live in Taiwan without knowing Mandarin. However, the path you can choose would be to live in Taipei or New Taipei cities, as those areas have the most English support. When dealing with medical situations or finding an apartment, you will want to consider contracting a translator.

Let me share my experience. That way, you can know whether you should move to the island nation.

My Experience of Not Knowing Much Mandarin While Living in Taiwan

I’ve chosen to stay in New Taipei City because I have found that it offers more affordable pricing while having the convenience that Taipei offers.

However, if you were to move to Taipei, you would have an easier time finding English support. For instance, if you need to shop at convenience stores, you’ll have a higher chance of encountering an English speaker.

Post Office

My most awkward experiences have come from dealing with post office staff. I’ll rarely encounter someone who speaks English. Thus, most of the time I rely on Google Translate or just hand them whatever application I’m filling out.

Dealing With Immigration

If you’re moving to Taiwan, you will need to make frequent visits to the National Immigration Agency. Whether you need to deal with your visas, Alien Resident Certificate, and ask questions.

Almost all the staff that I’ve encountered speak English except for the people who take fingerprints. However, the fingerprint taker deals with foreigners all day every day, so they’re patient.

Finding an Apartment

I haven’t dealt with finding an apartment in Taipei. From what I’ve heard from others, you will have a high chance of encountering a landlord who speaks English.

I found my first apartment on Tealit, and the landlord spoke English. So, I didn’t have to rely on real estate agents, which saved me a lot of money.

However, if you want access to varying apartments, you will want to consider hiring a real estate agent or a translator. Moreover, you’ll find yourself with rental contracts written in Chinese.

Shopping

Shopping in Taiwan is easy. Whether you’re going to a hyper- or supermarket, a convenience store, or a traditional market.

Stores mark all their items with price tags and already include sales tax. Therefore, you won’t need to have a surprise when going to pay.

Most stores here don’t have self-checkout, except for Carrefour. If you do use self-checkout, they have an English option, but you can’t use cash to pay.

With other super- and hypermarkets like Taiwan’s PX Mart, A-Mart, etc, look at the point of sales screen as the clerk scans your items for the price. Many of them may still pull out a calculator and show you the price.

In contrast to what I mentioned about traditional markets, there are plenty of vendors who won’t have price tags on their products. This means that you will want to say Duō-shǎo qián (多少錢), which means how much, and present a calculator on your smartphone.

From there, they will enter the price of whatever you want to buy.

The same goes for Taiwanese night market vendors. However, you’ll more likely run into stall workers who know English or have English on their menus. For those who don’t speak English, follow the steps that I listed by asking the price of an item from a traditional stall vendor.

Public Transportation

You won’t have any issues with language when taking public transportation except in one situation.

Taxis. But you still don’t have to worry, just give the taxi driver an address—an address in Chinese is your best bet—and watch the meter.

When using Uber, you request your ride on the app and show the driver your app when they arrive.

The Mass Rapid Transit systems throughout Taiwan all have English signage and the maps aren’t complicated to read.

If you have issues with your EasyCard, a smart card used to enter Taiwan’s public transportation, English-speaking staff can help.

Buses are a little tricky. If you’re using an EasyCard to pay, you tap your card on the sensor when entering and leaving the bus. If you’re paying with cash, you must pay with exact change when entering the bus depending on the type of ticket you need.

I recommend using a smart card. It’s only NT$100 ($3) and it makes your life significantly easier in Taiwan.

Registering for a Cellular Plan

I’ve found that when applying for a SIM card, sometimes you’ll have luck finding English speakers while other times you won’t. I recommend doing this in Taipei or shopping around for a provider that has English-speaking staff.

When I applied for my SIM card, the shop owner didn’t speak any English, but we managed to somehow communicate without a translator.

Reasons Why You Should Consider Learning Some Mandarin

Before continuing this article, if you intend on living here, I recommend learning the language. Even if Taiwan becomes a fully bilingual nation in 2030.

Here’s why you should learn at least a bit of mandarin:

  • Gives you more flexibility: you won’t need to rely on a translator or Google Translate when going out
  • More career options: if you plan on working for an employer here, they will require you to also know Mandarin Chinese
  • Improves brain functions: helps prevent cognitive decline. It also enhances your brain’s ability to process information

Here are some common Mandarin phrases that I recommend learning while you’re in Taiwan:

EnglishPinyinChinese
HelloNǐ hǎo你好
GoodbyeZài-jiàn再見
Thank youXiè-xiè謝謝
SorryDuì-bù-qǐ對不起
I don’t understand Chinese (Mandarin)Wǒ tīng bú tài dǒng Zhōng-guó我听不太懂中國
Do you speak english?Nǐ huì shuō yīngwén ma你会说英文嗎?
YesShì de是的
No
Don’t haveméiyǒu沒有
I
*No useMéi yòng沒用
How much does (money)Duōshǎo qián多少錢
This oneZhè ge這個
Do you have…?Yǒu méiyǒu有沒有
“Pardon me” and “sorry”Bù hǎo yìsi不好意思
This is a table that shows English translations of Chinese words along with romanized characters (Pinyin) to help people understand how to pronounce Mandarin Chinese words.

* A useful phrase when someone is asking you if you want them to microwave your food for you

If you’re traveling to or living in Southern Taiwan or the outlying islands you’re in for a surprise.

You will notice that more people speak Taiwanese, Hakka, or Formosan languages. Thus, in rare instances, people may not even speak Mandarin.

Where You’ll Need To Know Mandarin or Have a Translator

When you’re in Taiwan, even if you know a bit of Mandarin, you may encounter situations that don’t have the luxury of mistranslations.

So, I recommend having someone with you who can speak and read Mandarin Chinese in these situations:

Certain medical situations: most doctors speak English. In some cases, you may want someone who can translate your symptoms or the doctor’s diagnosis to prevent miscommunication.

Housing that’s not in main cities: if you don’t want to pay as much for rent, you’ll want to move outside Taipei. Doing so will result in finding fewer landlords who speak English. Thus, you’ll want someone who can help you set up your contracts and help you communicate with the landlord.

Filling out forms: if you encounter forms not in English, you will want someone who can confirm the information on the papers.

You Can Live in Taiwan Without Knowing Mandarin

Everyone’s experiences in Taiwan will differ. Therefore, you may have an easier or more difficult time navigating Taiwan without knowing Mandarin.

A majority of Taiwanese—at least that I’ve encountered—are patient and friendly toward foreigners. However, you might want to at least try to learn the language if you’re living here to integrate yourself with the people.

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