While back in Canada, chatting with strangers, I mentioned living in Taiwan. They asked if I speak Chinese. [Actually the question was whether I speak Thai, but that’s a story for another day]. I replied, “Well, define Chinese,” baffling the table. So I explained, “Yes, I do speak Chinese. I speak shit Chinese.” They clearly assumed I’d simply confirm my fluency. There is a reasonable expectation that long-term expats in Taiwan would have passable Chinese. Often that is not true.
Monoliguisticexpatitis is an English-speaker’s disease. Since English is the world’s lingua franca, it is too easy to be understood everywhere. It’s hard to imagine any reasonably large urban center or tourist destination where—when you’re recognized as a foreigner—people wouldn’t speak English. It’s detrimental to language learning. In Taiwan’s large centers, surviving with just English is easy. Often it’s hard to get Taiwanese people to speak Chinese with you.
Opportunities to speak Chinese are not as widespread as you’d assume. If you’re new to Taiwan most your Chinese interactions are probably with service people. These exchanges are often too simple to help with more than the basics, or descend into the surreal. My favorite occurs when the young counterperson freaks as I enter an American fast-food chain. Stone-cold terror. “Oh God my English is so bad. I can’t spell and have no idea when to use the auxiliary verb—what am I going to do? I should have studied harder for that test.” It doesn’t happen every time, but when it does I like to put them at ease right away with my smooth Chinese ordering, because I’m a nice foreigner: 請你給我一個1號餐. Usually that draws a bug-eyed gawp. Well, these things happen. So, ever the charming foreigner, I’ll repeat myself in passable Chinese, 請你給我一個1號餐. The steadily widening eyes by this point usually look like those of a drunken Russian getting kicked in the nards on YouTube. It begins to feel like a passion play, but it’s not clear which of us is Christ. Around this time the server will skitter off to find the manager. On their return, I get a third chance for some real-world Chinese practice, 請你給我一個1號餐. The manager, older, wiser, and unintimidated by my blonde hair, will probably recognize Chinese. These interactions have minimal positive impact on Chinese learning.
The opposite is also common. Sometimes you’ll meet Taiwanese dying to speak English with a native speaker. It’s almost impossible to get them to interact in Chinese. It is unnatural to continue speaking Chinese while being replied to in English. You’re being socially awkward. It can be demoralizing for the language learner. It feels like they think your Chinese is inadequate. Dealing with a conversation partner who’s either too scared or excited is not good for language learning.
Non-English-speaking Europeans tend to have better Chinese skills. Partially it’s that many come from multilingual countries and are used to interacting in their non-dominant language. But also, not many Taiwanese are going to speak to them in French. If their English is poor, they have to speak Chinese. For them, Taiwan is an immersive Chinese language experience. I’d never say it’s good to be French, but in this one way it’s advantageous.
While Europeans are often multilingual, English speakers tend to be monolingual. Partly it’s an accident of geography. English developed in England, relatively isolated from other languages. Insularity seems to have bred linguistic self-centeredness. Whether for historical reasons or pure arrogance, many English speakers have the attitude that: English is my first, and God willing, last language. [What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? English].
The stereotypical English attitude to other languages is a factor in some English-speaking expat’s monolingualism. Also, many of us—despite living in Taiwan—inhabit remarkably English environments. There’s a reason English teachers tend to have terrible Chinese. We spend our workdays speaking English in class, taking breaks with other English teachers, and interacting with staff in English. It is an entirely English work environment. Many other technical experts in Taiwan exist in a similar English bubble. It’s bad in many ways. It definitely makes Chinese fluency difficult. For these expats, learning Chinese in Taiwan has little advantage over studying Chinese in their home countries.
There is one last problem. Motivation. Sometimes comprehension is undesirable. I don’t want a clear idea what my in-laws are saying. When they’re talking I turn my brain to the Charlie-Brown’s-teacher setting: wah, wah, woh, wah, wah. Likewise, sometimes you just don’t want to know what your wife is saying. Nothing good can come from it, just more chores and probing insights into how you should change—monolingualIsm has its advantages.
The article is intended as an explanation—not an excuse. It is wrong to live in Taiwan and not make an earnest effort to learn the language. Personally, I do study and speak Chinese, but am embarrassed at my level of fluency.