Can You Live in Taiwan Without Knowing Mandarin?

This guide will help you understand whether surviving in Taiwan without knowing Mandarin Chinese is possible. Read on to learn more.

My Mandarin sucks in every area (listening, speaking, etc). However, I’ve survived in the country for more than 5 years with minimal help from translators.

Keep reading to learn what areas you’ll do fine in and where you might struggle.

You Can Live in Taiwan Without Knowing Mandarin?

Everyone’s experiences in Taiwan will differ. Therefore, you may have an easier or more difficult time navigating Taiwan without knowing Mandarin.

I know that’s a vague answer, but my situation will differ from yours. I’m not a social butterfly and have minimal communication with folks aside from convenience store clerks and doctors.

Most Taiwanese—at least those I’ve encountered—are patient and friendly toward foreigners. However, if you’re living here, you might want to try to learn the language.

How Common is English in Taiwan?

Around 28.5% of Taiwanese people have at least basic knowledge of the English language [1]. 

Does that mean they’ll fully understand you? No. But it means that a decent number of people might understand you.

I have a rule that I recommend you adopt when speaking to your friends or family. Assume everyone can understand English and only say what you’d want others to understand. But don’t use this rule when speaking to Taiwanese folks. 

Some people may understand you but are too shy to speak English. Or some people may pretend not to understand you so they can catch you gossiping about them.

I’ve caught a fair number of people talking smack about me in Mandarin because they assumed that since I’m a foreigner, I have no Mandarin knowledge. Or they just didn’t care about what they said.

My Experience of Not Knowing Much Mandarin

The story’s moral is that Google Translate will make life much easier in Taiwan. And don’t speak to anyone in Mandarin unless you’re prepared to understand everything they say during the rest of your interaction.

I’ve made the mistake of talking to people in Mandarin to practice my language skills, then they assumed I fully knew the language, which is understandable. Save practicing your language skills for when you’re with friends or teachers.

If you were to move to Taipei, you’d have an easier time finding English support. For instance, if you need to shop at convenience stores, you’ll have a higher chance of encountering an English speaker.

At the Post Office

My most awkward experiences have come from dealing with post office staff. I’ll rarely encounter someone who speaks English. Thus, I mostly rely on Google Translate or just hand them whatever application I’m filling out.

Sometimes, I go to a post office branch, and they see me. They immediately search for English-speaking staff or at least someone who knows a bit of English.

When Dealing With Immigration

If you’re moving to Taiwan, you will need to make frequent visits to the National Immigration Agency. Whether you need to deal with your Alien Resident Certificate, ask questions, or register for a marriage.

Almost all the staff I’ve encountered speak English except those who take fingerprints. However, fingerprint takers deal with foreigners all day, every day, so they’re patient.

Finding an Apartment

I haven’t dealt with finding an apartment in Taipei. From what I’ve heard from others, you will have a high chance of encountering a landlord who speaks English.

I found my first apartment on Tealit, and the landlord spoke English. So, I didn’t have to rely on real estate agents, which saved me a lot of money.

However, if you want access to varying apartments, you will want to consider hiring a real estate agent or a translator. Moreover, you’ll find yourself with rental contracts written in Chinese.

I recommend having someone professionally translate these if you’re not poor.

Shopping for Groceries

Shopping in Taiwan is easy. Whether you’re going to a hyper- or supermarket, a convenience store, or a traditional market.

Stores mark all their items with price tags and already include sales tax. No surprises when going to pay.

Most stores here don’t have self-checkout, except for Carrefour. They have an English option if you use self-checkout, but you can’t use cash to pay.

With other super- and hypermarkets, like Taiwan’s PX Mart, A-Mart, etc., look at the point of sale screen as the clerk scans your items for the price. Many may still pull out a calculator and show you the price.

In contrast to what I mentioned about traditional markets, plenty of vendors won’t have price tags on their products. This means that you will want to say Duō-shǎo qián (多少錢), which means how much, and present a calculator on your smartphone.

From there, they will enter the price of whatever you want.

The same goes for Taiwanese night market vendors. However, you’ll more likely run into stall workers who know or have English on their menus. At least in tourist-focused night markets.

For those who don’t speak English, follow the steps that I listed by asking the price of an item from a traditional stall vendor.

Public Transportation

You won’t have any issues with language when taking public transportation except in one situation.

Taxis. But you still don’t have to worry. Just give the taxi driver an address—an address in Chinese is your best bet—and watch the meter.

When using Uber, you request your ride on the app and show the driver your app when they arrive.

The Mass Rapid Transit systems throughout Taiwan all have English signage. The maps also aren’t complicated to read.

If you have issues with your EasyCard, a smart card used to enter Taiwan’s public transportation, English-speaking staff can help.

Buses are a little tricky. If you’re using an EasyCard to pay, you tap your card on the sensor when entering and leaving the bus. If you’re paying with cash, you must pay with exact change when entering the bus, depending on the type of ticket you need.

I recommend using a smart card. It’s only NT$100 ($3) and it makes your life much easier in Taiwan.

Registering for a Cellular Plan

I’ve found that when applying for a SIM card, sometimes you’ll have luck finding English speakers, while other times you won’t. I recommend doing this in Taipei or shopping around for a provider that has English-speaking staff.

When I applied for my SIM card, the shop owner didn’t speak any English, but we managed to communicate through Google Translate.

Reasons Why You Should Consider Learning Some Mandarin

If you intend to live here, I recommend learning the language. Even if Taiwan becomes a fully bilingual nation in 2030.

Here’s why you should learn at least a bit of Mandarin:

  • Gives you more flexibility: you won’t need to rely on a translator or Google Translate when going out
  • More career options: if you plan on working for an employer here, they will require you to also know Mandarin Chinese
  • Improves brain functions: helps prevent cognitive decline. It also enhances your brain’s ability to process information

Here are some common Mandarin phrases that I recommend learning while you’re in Taiwan:

HelloNǐ hǎo你好
Thank youXiè-xiè謝謝
I don’t understand Chinese (Mandarin)Wǒ tīng bú dǒng Zhōng-guó我听不懂中國
Do you speak English?Nǐ huì shuō yīngwén ma你会说英文嗎?
YesShì de是的
Don’t haveméiyǒu沒有
No useBù yòng不用
How much does (money)Duōshǎo qián多少錢
This oneZhè ge這個
Do you have…?Yǒu méiyǒu有沒有
“Pardon me” and “sorry”Bù hǎo yìsi不好意思
English translations of common Mandarin Chinese words along with romanized characters (Pinyin).

Note: A majority of Taiwanese people don’t use pinyin for writing. Chinese language learning centers will teach them, but most Taiwanese won’t use this writing system. As it’s mostly used in China.

I’m a bit of a hypocrite with this section considering I’m not fluent in the language yet. Though I should be.

All I can say is it’s easy to get discouraged from learning the language since I barely go out. I’m sure you won’t be like me, though.

If you’re traveling to or living in Southern Taiwan or the outlying islands you’re in for a surprise.

You will notice that more people speak Taiwanese, Hakka, or Formosan languages. Thus, in rare instances, people may not even speak Mandarin.

Where You’ll Need To Know Mandarin or Have a Translator

Even if you know a bit of Mandarin, you may encounter situations that don’t have the luxury of mistranslations.

I recommend having someone with you who can speak and read Mandarin Chinese in these situations:

1. Certain medical situations: Most doctors speak English. In some cases, you may want someone who can translate your symptoms or the doctor’s diagnosis to prevent miscommunication.

2. Housing that’s not in main cities: If you don’t want to pay as much for rent, you’ll want to move outside Taipei.

Doing so will result in finding fewer landlords who speak English. Thus, you’ll want someone who can help you set up your contracts and help you communicate with the landlord.

3. Filling out forms: if you encounter forms not in English, you will want someone who can confirm the information on the papers.

Knowing Mandarin Is Nice, but Not Essential

If not knowing Mandarin is holding you back from moving to Taiwan, don’t let it. My art teacher from high school lived in Tainan for more than 5 years without knowing Mandarin.

And I’ve lived up north without being fluent in the language. If you have time to learn the language, I recommend doing so. Though I’m not fluent in it, it’s a pretty fun language to learn.

I’ll eventually write a piece that’ll show you all my past and present resources for learning Mandarin Chinese.