“Do you speak Chinese?” “Yidiandian…”


One of the first things one notices after arriving to Taipei, is how well Taiwanese speak English. Another thing is, they they don’t seem to think so.

Caffeine in any form and Mandarin, my life basically.

Have you ever been to, let’s say, India or China? Ask any person there, if they speak English, and the answer is always an affirmative and self-assured “Yes!”. Surely enough, that might be the only thing they can say, but it would be enough to put it into your CV under languages. Of course, in China the only other answer is a grunt in Chinese and a look telling you to go away.

However, come to Taiwan, and the only answer you’ll ever get is “Yes, a little”.  I’ve talked to two different doctors, both of whom have published scientific articles and spoken at international conferences, who answered to my inquiry with “Very little” and of course, spoke absolutely perfect English. Same goes with our teacher, people in stores, almost anyone.

I’m being asked weekly if I speak Chinese. As much as I wish I could answer that question, how could I? Yes, I can order any food or drink in a restaurant, book a doctor’s appointment over the phone, chat with my teacher and classmates in class, and on some lucky occasions, tell jokes. I am more and more starting to understand what people talk about on the MRT, and have a couple of times helped a cashier with a customer with zero Chinese skills. More and more often I can find a better way to express myself in Chinese than let’s say in English, due to the insanely rich and deep grammar. But do I speak it speak it? My go-to answer is “Yidiandian”, meaning I speak just a little. I can’t have a conversation with any random person on a random topic, or talk about complex matters without checking my dictionary first. I don’t always get all the grammar in our book before it’s been explained to me ten times, and a lot times, it requires not just a Chinese explanation, but I have to confirm the teacher in English if I got it.

Sometimes I freeze and can’t get a word out of my mouth. Those times, I feel I should just say “No”, instead of claiming that I speak even a little. However, I find myself more and more having just normal, casual chats with locals. In Chinese. The situations I handled mainly with Chinglish in the beginning when we got here, would be pretty simple to take care of in Chinese now. I can read the street signs and menus most of the times, and compose complex sentences. I can memorize lyrics to a song I couldn’t understand at all five months ago, and learning new characters for school is getting easier and faster, much more for less time and effort. I can read and write, to a certain extent. I can tell jokes in Chinese, jokes which aren’t bad because of my Chinese but because of my bad sense of humor.

A Finnish style Mayday brunch, mainly from German and Swedish ingredients 🙂

Now, the enginerd is not like me. He is confident, he uses every single word he knows in Chinese every day, and is learning more and more even without going to school studying it. I envy people like him. With that confidence I would be fluent by now. And he, to all intents and purposes, has the right to say “Yidiandian” when being asked if he speaks the language.

It is still very difficult to see why people in Taipei say they don’t speak English, when they so clearly do. Did they have the same upbringing as most Finns, where one mistake means you know nothing? Now, how could you answer that question? Where to draw the line, how to answer the question “Do you speak the language?”.  I don’t know, and until I do, I will always answer “Yidiandian”.

PS: Been sick with the worst kind of illness ever, the manflu. As a result, I haven’t exercised since I came back from Finland, and have mainly been living on chocolate. Here’s a collage of the variety of my lunches this week.

Chocolate and nuts.
Chocolate and yogurt.
Chocolate and fruit. Living healthy 😉