你会说中文吗？(Do you speak Chinese?)
When I first arrived in Taiwan, I would answer this question saying: 我会说一点儿中文 (I speak a little bit of Chinese). Very soon I learned, that in Taiwan people would realize I learned the Mainland Chinese when I said 一点儿 (yīdiǎnr). In Taiwan, “a little bit” means 一點 (yīdiǎn). This may not seem like a big communication barrier, however, sometimes the differences can be very important; e.g. when ordering 菠萝 (bōluó) you would receive a kind of bread in Taiwan, but a pineapple in China.
Before going more into detail regarding the differences of the Mandarin Chinese language, I would like to give some facts and figures about the two countries. I am sure that everyone knows about China, but according to personal experiences I found out, not everyone knows about Taiwan.
The Republic of China (ROC) or known as Taiwan is a small island state in the Far East of Asia with a total landmass of only 36,000 square kilometres and a population of 23,4 million inhabitants, which makes it almost 4.5 times more densely populated than China. Due to its strengths, including e.g. technological innovations and the export of electronics and petrochemicals, Taiwan is the 5th largest economy in Asia according to GDP. The country stretches along two climate zones, the subtropical north and the tropical south and has a lot of beautiful scenery to offer:
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) or short China is the most populated country in the world with 1.404 billion inhabitants. With a total area of 9,600,000 square kilometres it is the world’s fourth largest country by area and almost 267 times bigger than Taiwan. China is known as one of the world’s fastest-growing economies and the world’s superpower or 2nd superpower after the USA (depends on measurements and the point of view). China’s climate is very diverse, stretching from the subarctic far north to the tropical far south and therefore has a varying landscape:
But why is Taiwan called the Republic of China?
After the end of the World War II in 1945, the government of the Republic of China (ROC) took control of Taiwan and moved from China to Taiwan in the year 1949. At this time, the new government, the People’s Republic of China was founded in the Chinese Mainland.
Nowadays, there are still ongoing discussions of whether Taiwan is a sovereign, independent state or whether “Taiwan is China”.
The Mandarin Chinese language
In both countries the official and most spoken language is Mandarin Chinese, derived from the Beijing dialect. However, the Chinese language developed differently over the years.
One of the most common differences is the pronunciation of the retroflex initials (zh, ch, sh,) versus their non-retroflex counterparts (z, c, and s) which differ recognisably in China, whereas the difference in Taiwan is hardly noticeable.
十 shí (number 10) 四 sì (number 4)
in China sounds like: “shhh” (be quiet) in China sounds like: “s” (snake sound)
in Taiwan sounds like: “s” (snake sound) in Taiwan sounds like: “s” (snake sound)
The pronunciation of nasal consonants like -eng and -ing can be distinguished as well.
能 néng (can, be able to)
In China sounds like: “neng” (you can feel your nose ‘vibrating’, almost like a bell)
In Taiwan sounds like: “nen” (the ending is pronounced softer)
Mostly, the Mainland Chinese and Taiwanese use the same words, but there are some crucial differences in the vocabulary.
小姐 Xiǎojiě means Miss in Taiwan and is commonly used to address women; in China you should be very careful using this word.
土豆 When ordering tǔdòu you will receive potatoes in China, but peanuts in Taiwan.
研究所 When searching for a yánjiūsuǒ (yánjiùsuǒ) in China you will be going to a research institute, however in Taiwan you will be entering a graduate school.
China Mainland uses the simplified characters and Taiwan uses the traditional characters. One could say that the simplified characters seem like an “easier version” of the traditional characters. Some characters are the same or very similar:
中国 (China in simplified characters)
中國 (China in traditional characters)
However, some characters differ a lot:
台湾 (Taiwan in simplified characters)
臺灣 (Taiwan in traditional characters)
shénme (what? / something)
in simplified characters: 什么
in traditional characters: 什麼
To conclude, the Mainland Chinese and Taiwanese Chinese both derive from the same Mandarin Chinese dialect and are therefore very similar to each other. People from either country do not face major communication issues when travelling to the other country. However, there are some noticeable differences in the pronunciation, the word usage and of course, the writing between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China.
By Navina Frake