Speaking the tricky language of elections in Taiwan

TAIPEI (Reuters) - Most politicians don’t need to learn a new language to get elected, but in Taiwan it’s not just what you say, it’s what you say it in that can be key to getting into power.

Campaigning by candidates for January’s presidential poll has thrown the spotlight on the need to know not just the official Mandarin language but also Taiwanese, which is spoken by almost 80 percent of the population. The two are mutually unintelligible.

In Taiwan, language holds many pitfalls and is intimately linked with complex social, ethnic and political divisions between city and country, the richer industrial north and the poorer rural south as well as with the island’s tricky relationship with China.

“Every word you utter has the connotation ‘I am part of your group, I belong to you’,” said Henning Kloeter, professor and acting head of Chinese language and literature at Germany’s Ruhr-Universität Bochum.

“It is therefore crucial for any politician in Taiwan to consider the linguistic background of the people and to choose languages accordingly.”

Mandarin is the language of the later arrivals from the mainland, those who retreated to Taiwan with the Nationalists after their defeat in 1949 by Mao Zedong’s Communists. It is also the official language of mainland China.

It symbolizes Taiwan’s bond with China, and is the language of officialdom, business, academia and the social elite and predominates in the island’s north.

Taiwanese, variously called Hokkien, Hoklo or Minnan, is the language of those who left China’s Fujian province and settled the island from the late 17th century onwards. It is also widely spoken by overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia, including in Singapore.

The Nationalists banned public use of Taiwanese from 1949 until the late 1980s, but it has since revived and is a mark of individuality and separateness from China. It is the dominant language of Taiwan’s more rural southern half.

Most Taiwanese speak or understand both languages to varying degrees. The island also has a large number of speakers of the Hakka dialect, as well as some 10 aboriginal languages completely unrelated to Chinese that are spoken to varying degrees of fluency by its 500,000 indigenous inhabitants.


For the two presidential candidates, incumbent Nationalist Party President Ma Ying-jeou and opposition Democratic Progressive Party contender Tsai Ing-wen, it’s been a learning curve.

Ma, elected in 2008 and pushing for a second term, was born in Hong Kong of mainland parents. He has had to brush up his Taiwanese and now regularly peppers his speeches with the language, throwing in Hakka and aboriginal phrases too.

“The first cabinet Ma Ying-Jeou appointed was all mainlanders and people who had spent their whole life in Taipei,” said Bruce Jacobs, professor of Asian Languages and Studies at Australia’s Monash University.

That was a problem in 2009, Jacobs said, when the government confronted the widespread destruction in the south caused by typhoon Morakot.

“They couldn’t speak to the population,” he said.

For Tsai, born in the south of Taiwan of Hakka origin but predominantly a Mandarin speaker through her career in academia and politics, picking up Taiwanese has an added importance as her party’s stronghold is in the Taiwanese-speaking south.

A television station in September showed clips of her switching to Mandarin mid-sentence in speeches and audience members shouting the correct words back to her.

This month she delivered a speech entirely in Taiwanese, earning media plaudits for embracing the language. That could give her a boost among the party faithful.

“If politicians campaign in the south and don’t use Taiwanese, the people won’t understand as much. There’ll be a barrier,” said John Tse, emeritus professor of linguistics at National Taiwan Normal University.

Editing by Jonathan Standing and Elaine Lies