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I'm planning on visiting Taiwan as a tourist for about one week next year. Both Wikipedia and Wikivoyage say that Mandarin Chinese and Taiwanese Hokkien are common languages there.

What advantages and disadvantages do the two languages have? Is one language easier than the other for a lazy person who only wants to learn a few phrases? Are both of them tonal? How many sounds that don't exist in English are there in the two languages? Does Mandarin Chinese have more learning resources in English-speaking countries like Australia?

(In my case, I'm a native speaker of English, and speak enough Japanese to get around as a tourist in Japan and have a little bit of a conversation)

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I suggest you learn Mandarin Chinese. Hokkien is a dialect, mainly used in Taiwan and Fujian Province -- as Hokkien is very different from Mandarin Chinese, most Chinese people don't understand it. But if you know Madarin, you can easily travel around whole China without language barrier. Furthermore, of course, learning resources of Mandarin are much more than Hokkien. BTW, you know Japanese, that's good, because many Taiwanese know Japanese too. –  Stan Jun 21 '13 at 10:21
    
@hippietrail what does the tag "Taiwanese" mean? –  Andrew Grimm Jan 27 at 5:56
    
@AndrewGrimm: Exactly. It's a poorly thought out tag that was here before I arrived. I started a meta topic about it but nobody joined in yet. In this case though I thought it must be intended to mean "The Taiwanese language" apart from Mandarin, which is more adequately called Hokkien. On it's own "Taiwanese" is just too ambiguous I think. –  hippietrail Jan 27 at 6:31

2 Answers 2

up vote 8 down vote accepted

If you're only going one week, just learn some Mandarin.

The advantages of learning Mandarin is that there are a lot of free resources, cheap and useful phrase books, and most people you will run into will understand Mandarin.

I've been studying Minnanhua (spoken in Fujian and pretty much mutually intelligible with Taiwanese) for about a year and I struggle with a couple of main obstacles:

  • The pronunciation is tough for English speakers. Lots of labial and glottal nonsense. I haven't counted the differences.
  • Pinyin is tough to figure out and there are two camps, there is a Xiamen University pinyin which favors consonants, and Peh-oe-ji, which was invented by missionaries in Taiwan.
  • There are more tones than Mandarin. Also some tones rules are not clearly expressed (some tones are based on pronunciation, for example if it ends in <-n>; <-m>, <-ng> then the word is tone 1)
  • Native speakers won't let me practice, they will often switch to Mandarin.

Have a good trip.

Also you can check out:

Peh-oe-ji

Hokkien

Learn Hokkien

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+1 for useful information, and also being unbiased enough to not just advocate the dialect that you're currently learning. –  Andrew Grimm Jun 23 '13 at 2:29

One advantage of Mandarin is that (due to the massive number of speakers) it will be useful beyond the one week that you will be in Taiwan.

Something else you might want to consider is learning a bit of both. With Hokkien being a dialect, progress you make with one may also extend to the other.

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I would say that just because it's called a "dialect", it's unlikely to help you much, especially at the "several weeks" level. Cross-dialect transfer is much more prominent in highly formal vocabulary once you have a strong understanding of phonetic correspondences. –  Stumpy Joe Pete Jun 22 '13 at 8:06
    
For a beginner, I would say that just the fact that some of the characters are shared (even though Hokkien has some of its own) will provide a lot of help with learning one once you already know some of the other. –  James Foster Jun 22 '13 at 8:13
    
If you're "weeks" into it, you're probably just going to learn high-frequency casual spoken stuff. And that tends to differ between the Chinese languages much more than formal stuff (which usually has the same characters, and at that point you'll probably understand the phonetic correspondences better). –  Stumpy Joe Pete Jun 22 '13 at 8:24

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