In Taiwan, you’ll hear a lot of Taiwanese people say,
“Aiyo, my Mandarin isn’t standard.”
“If you want to learn standard Mandarin, you have to go to China.”
You might also hear a lot of foreign people in Taiwan say,
“I want to learn Mandarin in China, so I can learn the kind of Mandarin that everyone understands.”
“Taiwanese people pronounce ‘zhi’ and ‘zi’ almost the same. So confusing.”
Every time I hear comments like these, my blood pressure goes up rapidly. These comments are often based on misperceptions about Taiwan Mandarin. What is Taiwan Mandarin? Don’t confuse it with “Taiwan Guoyu”! Taiwan Guoyu is the accented Mandarin spoken non-natively by people whose mother-tongue is Taiwanese (Taiwanese Minnan). Taiwan Mandarin, on the other hand, is one of the mother-tongues on this island now. Some Taiwanese people don’t speak the other “native languages” (Taiwanese, Hakka, or aboriginal languages), but only Taiwan Mandarin. Taiwan Mandarin may have come from Taiwan Guoyu, but it is now a separate variation of natively spoken Mandarin, just like the Mandarin in Beijing.
When the government of Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese Nationalist Party was defeated by the Chinese Communist Party and came to Taiwan, they practiced the “Guoyu Policy”, which means “National Language Policy.” What they meant by Guoyu, National Language, was Mandarin, or what’s called Putonghua in China now. In public, all the Taiwanese people, young and old, were forced to speak only Guoyu, a new language that they had to learn from scratch. Then, these Taiwanese people who used Mandarin as their second language slowly brought changes to this language. Here are some examples of Taiwan Guoyu spoken by people whose native language is Taiwanese Minnan: chi1 fan4 (eating a meal) becomes chu1 huan4, guo2 yu3 (national language) becomes go2 yi3. Today the people who tend to speak Taiwan Guoyu are people over 50, or those who live in the area of Taiwan where the vast majority of people still speak Taiwanese as their first language. One of the reasons why these people speak Taiwan Guoyu is that they didn’t have native speakers of Mandarin around to imitate when they were learning the language (The mojority of the people spoke Taiwanese then).
The younger generation in Taiwan mostly speaks Taiwan Mandarin now. Taiwan Mandarin is not mother-tongue-accented Mandarin. It is a fully developed language variation. Just like other languages, Taiwan Mandarin has both formal and colloquial forms. Formal form of Taiwan Mandarin is taught in school, and appears on TV news programs or subway announcements in Taiwan. It is almost the same as Putonghua (standard Mandarin spoken in China). Some differences are that the pronunciations of “zhi,” “chi,” and “shi” in Taiwan Mandarin are less retroflex (pronounced with the tongue curled back) than the same ones in China (but still sound different from “zi, ”“ci,” and “si”). There are also some variations in word usage and tones. The other kind of Taiwan Mandarin is the colloquial kind, which can often be heard when Taiwanese people chat with each other. In this variation, the pronunciation of “zhi,” “chi,” and “shi” are typically identical with “zi, ”“ci,” and “si,” though some Taiwanese people won’t ever admit that. Another pronunciation difference is the merger of “en, ” and “eng” (they usually won’t admit this either; just observe them typing Chinese sometimes). The informal Taiwan Mandarin is heavily influenced by Taiwanese Minnan in terms of vocabulary and grammar as well. For example, the “xiong1” in “yong4 hen2 xiong1” (meaning using extremely fast and in big amount) is a word imported into Taiwan Mandarin from Taiwanese. Asking people if they have been to the Love River in Kaohsiung, an informal Taiwan Mandarin speaker would say “ni2 you3 qu4 guo4 ai4 he2 ma?” but a Putonghua speaker will say “ni2 qu4 guo4 ai4 he2 le ma?”
The Taiwanese people who claim to have non-standard Mandarin often don’t realize that the variation of Taiwan Mandarin they speak has formal and informal variations. They probably are not aware that the variation they use when they give speeches is really similar to Putonghua, and this is the kind of Mandarin that foreign people will learn in Taiwan. The difference between the two is similar to that between American and British English. Some people might even mistakenly think that the Taiwan Mandarin they speak everyday is the same as what people call Taiwan Guoyu. Taiwan Mandarin is a newly arisen Mandarin variation. Everyone is still trying to figure out how to feel about it.
Whether you’re speaking the formal of the colloquial variation of Taiwan Mandarin, it is mutually intelligible with Putonghua in China. Even if you go to China to learn Mandarin, you still have to get used to different variations of Mandarin within China. I understand the merger of “en” and “eng” or “zhi,” “chi,” “shi” and “zi,” “ci,” “si” in colloquial Taiwan Mandarin can be confusing to Chinese learners, but one can certainly get used to it. Context is often enough to avoid misunderstandings. This is similar to how the English taught in schools is different from colloquial English in everyday life. In addition, Americans from different rigions all have different accents anyway. When we learn the Enlgish taught in schools, we still have to get used to the local variations when we really speak it in different areas.
The difference between Taiwan Mandarin and Putonghua in China is like the difference between British and American English. There are some variations in pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar, but it doesn’t prevent one from understanding the other. Aside from Taiwan Mandarin, there are also other variations of Mandarin, such as Hong Kong Mandarin, Singapore Mandarin and Malaysian Mandarin, just like how English has other variations besides American English, such as Australian English, South African English, or Scottish English. The language or the language variation you speak represent your background and ethnic identity. What language variation you want to learn depends on where you are going to live and which cuture you identify with. Saying that the language variation you speak yourself is non-standard is selling yourself short, and saying that the language variation other people speak is non-standard is arrogant and disrespectful.