According to Ethnologue, published by US-based SIL International, over 20 living languages are found in Taiwan as of 2016. The two diagrams below show the general relationship between the island’s languages and their cousins in other parts of the world. Click on the images to see details.

Formosan Languages

The Austronesian languages—from places like Madagascar, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Polynesian islands like New Zealand, Hawaii and Samoa—are an extraordinarily diverse and widespread family of related languages. Linguists have pinpointed Taiwan as the original homeland of all Austronesian peoples.

After centuries of extensive maritime exploration and migration, the Austronesian languages have spread far beyond the shores of Taiwan. The dialects of those who remained in Taiwan form the Formosan group of languages that continue to be spoken on the island. The Formosan languages are some of the oldest and most diverse branches of the greater Austronesian family.

Writing Formosan

An intriguing phenomenon in a number of Taiwan’s Formosan languages is in their script. Owing to the influence of Taiwan’s 17th-century Dutch colonizers and later Western missionaries, several of the indigenous Formosan languages employ the Latin script for writing. These include Amis, Atayal and Seediq.

This led to an interesting visual effect where early treaties and contracts between ethnic Han settlers of Taiwan and indigenous Formosans feature Chinese symbols and what appeared to be European languages written side by side. Those European letters, of course, represented not a European language at all, but Taiwan’s native Formosan languages.

Map: Languages of Taiwan
Taiwan’s linguistic communities—Indigenous languages (red), Taiwanese (green), Hakka (orange), Mandarin (white).

Sinitic Languages

The Sinitic (Chinese) languages comprise one of the two main branches of the larger Sino-Tibetan language family. This Chinese branch is made up of numerous languages and dialects. Three distinct varieties are widespread in Taiwan—Taiwanese, Hakka and Mandarin.

While Taiwanese is traditionally the most widely spoken language in Taiwan, Mandarin—introduced to Taiwan after World War Two—serves as the island’s primary lingua franca and is the most common second-language in Taiwan.

Systems of Writing

Modern Chinese languages and dialects (such as Mandarin and Cantonese) typically employ Chinese characters—adapted from the Classical Chinese script used in writing Old Chinese over 2,000 years ago. Taiwanese, however, enjoys a curious flexibility in that two entirely different writing systems have traditionally been utilized.

Chinese characters are used alongside the Latin alphabet (much like Taiwan’s indigenous Formosan languages) to write the Taiwanese language. The Latin alphabet—in a system known as Pe̍h-ōe-jī—was introduced and popularized by Western missionaries. Especially among Taiwan’s Presbyterian community, the Latin script is widely used in writing the Taiwanese language.

Image: Cavalry horsemen

Language vs Dialect

“A language is a dialect with an army and navy.” So the saying goes—on the arbitrariness of the distinction between the two.

Linguists currently have no universally accepted method for distinguishing between “language” and “dialect.” In academic circles, “variety” usually replaces the two poorly defined terms. The most widely used criterion by scholars to meaningfully distinguish between languages and dialects is “mutual intelligibility.”

So if speakers of two varieties can easily communicate with each other, then the two varieties are more likely to be regarded as dialects. If speakers of two varieties are unable to easily understand each other, then their two respective varieties may be regarded as distinct (but possibly still related) languages.

The languages of Taiwan fall into two main groups: Formosan (indigenous) and Sinitic (Chinese). Within each of Taiwan’s language families, varieties are sometimes regarded as dialects (like how English and Arabic are each respectively seen as one language with many regional variations).

But since most of Taiwan’s languages are not mutually intelligible, they are more accurately described as related but distinct languages (like how French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Romanian are all distinct languages that evolved from Latin).

Ultimately, language is a constantly evolving communication tool. Over time and distance, originally closely related accents, dialects and varieties can become increasingly dissimilar. Exactly at which point a dialect becomes a language (or vice versa) is impossible to tell, which means that an inflexible division between “language” and “dialect” does not accurately reflect reality.

What is certainly worth highlighting is that Taiwan definitely has a remarkably high degree of linguistic diversity, which reflects the island’s heterogeneous cultural and ethnic roots.