According to Ethnologue, published by US-based SIL International, over 20 living languages are found in Taiwan as of 2016.
The two following charts show the general relationship between the island’s languages and their cousins in other parts of the world. Click on the images to enlarge (best viewed on desktop).
The Austronesian languages are an extraordinarily diverse and widespread family of languages. Not all the languages in the above chart are native to Taiwan. Taiwan’s indigenous Austronesian languages are known as the Formosan languages. These are some of the oldest and most varied branches of the greater Austronesian language family.
The Sinitic (Chinese) languages collectively form one of the two main branches of the larger Sino-Tibetan language family. This Chinese branch is comprised 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 serves as the island’s primary lingua franca and is the most common second-language in Taiwan.
Language or Dialect?
“A language is a dialect with an army and navy.” So the saying—on the arbitrariness of the distinction between the two—goes.
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.” I.e., 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 may still be related) languages.
The languages of Taiwan fall into two main groups: Formosan (indigenous) and Sinitic (Chinese). Within each group, varieties are sometimes regarded as dialects (similar to the many regional varieties of the English language). However, since the majority of Taiwan’s languages are not mutually intelligible, those within the same family tree may be more accurately described as related but distinct languages (similar to how French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Romanian are all distinct languages that evolved out of Latin).
Ultimately, language is a constantly evolving communications 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 certain is that Taiwan indeed has a remarkably high degree of linguistic diversity that reflects the island’s heterogeneous cultural and ethnic roots.
To learn more about Taiwan’s diverse cultural and ethnic groups, please click here.