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20 Living Languages Still Exist in Taiwan

20 Living Languages Still Exist in Taiwan
Bernadine Racoma

Chinese Languages

According to Island Folklore, a Taiwan folk heritage website, it has mapped up the linguistic lineage that is unique to Taiwan or the Republic of China (ROC). Island Folklore says there are 20 living languages currently spoken in the island. These include Atayal, Bunun, Amis, Kanakanavu, Kavalan, Kaxabu, Paiwan, Saisiyat, Puyuma, Rukai, Saaroa, Seediq, Thao, Tsou, Yami, Sakizaya, Truku, Itbayat, Ivatan and Nuclear Austronesian.

These languages are spoken by Taiwan’s indigenous people and belong to the Formosan branch of the Austronesian language family. They are unique to the country except for Yami, a language spoken by people living in Orchid Island, which is inhabited by an ethnic minority group called Tao. It is located at the southeastern side of the main island, with the Bashi Channel separating it from the Batanes group of islands of the Philippines. The Northern Philippines is where the language Yami originated. Incidentally, Ivatan and Itbayat are also languages spoken in the extreme northern part of the Philippines. They are also two island groups that are very close and share various characteristics with Taiwan’s ethnic tribes.

By the number

Counting the native speakers in terms of numbers, the Chinese (Sinitic) languages are dominant in Taiwan. It is one of the two main branches of the family of Sino-Tibetan language, the other being the Tibeto-Burman.

Three major Chinese languages are spoken in the ROC: Hakka, Taiwanese and Mandarin. Many call them dialects but since they are mutually unintelligible from each other, they are considered as languages instead of dialects.

From the Sinitic languages stemmed Old Chinese, which broke into two: Middle Chinese and Min. The languages evolved and several offshoots developed.

Middle Chinese broke into Old Mandarin, Hunanese, Wu, Hui, Gan, Hakka and Cantonese. The Old Mandarin branch evolved into Jin and Mandarin, with the latter developing eight Mandarin languages including Beijing Mandarin. This later broke into two branches, the Taiwanese Mandarin and Standard Mandarin.

The Min branch developed into six branches: Northern Min, Central Min, Eastern Min, Pu-Xian Min, Southern Min, Hainanese and Leizhounese. Southern Min developed into Hokkien and Teochow. Hokkien further evolved into Amoy and Modern Taiwanese. Of the three Chinese languages, Hakka was the only one that did not evolve.


The official national language of the Republic of China is Mandarin. However, 70% of the population speaks Taiwanese Hokkien. About 15% of the inhabitants speak Hakka. The “waishengren” or the people from the Peoples Republic of China (PROC) who moved to Taiwan primarily speak Mandarin.

The language distribution in Taiwan is closely linked to its geography and history, according to Island Folklore. The Formosan ethnic languages are basically confined to the east coast and mountainous areas of the country. On the upper part of the northern coast, the dominant language is Mandarin while there are pockets in the interior of the western side of the island where Hakka is dominant. The rest of the country speaks Taiwanese. Taiwanese Mandarin is a more informal language, which is heavily influenced by English, Japanese, Hokkien and other languages.

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  • Joseph T. T. Wu



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