Reading, or Something Like It: Guest Essay from Catherine Chou
How to learn Taiwanese and read Mandarin in a year, plus two useful tools for learning these languages. And The Brothers Karamazov book club details.
Happy almost Lunar Year! (It’s Year of the Tiger!)
We’ve been so grateful to see so many new sign-ups lately! Thank you. We publish Chinese newsletters on Thursdays and English on Sundays; you can change the settings at “My Account.”
Today we are honored to share a guest essay from historian Catherine Chou. We’ve been delighted to spend time with her, and have been struck by her generosity, openness, and warmth. For the past year and half, Catherine has been deeply immersed in learning Mandarin and Taiwanese in Taiwan. This essay will inspire anybody who dares to embark on language study, but especially those seeking literacy in their parents’ native tongue. It is also an impassioned plea to revive the Taiwanese language. As Catherine puts it, Taiwanese is a “playful, complex, experimental” language that has adapted “in the face of decades of neglect and hostility from state and society.”
Other news: This week Michelle co-authored an essay with Father Peter Hung Ngueyn in The News Lens International. It documents the abuse of a Vietnamese migrant worker in immigration detention. Guards beat him, put him a bedless cell, and chained his hands and ankles. Through the migrant shelter that Father Nguyen founded, and where Michelle volunteers, he has gradually experienced a process of recovery and rehumanization.
Last, on the Chinese-language newsletter front: this past Thursday, we published an interview with the ebullient jazz musician and educator Victor Lin. Next Thursday, Chinese-language readers will hear from jazz musicians and educators Peter Lin, Hsinwei Chiang, and Jeff Chang.
Reading, or Something Like It: Guest Essay by Catherine Chou
This past year, at the age of thirty-seven, I learned to read again and then again. Like all the times I learned to read, except the first, these latest attempts have been partial accomplishments and full of backsliding.
I grew up in California in a house full of books I could not read. My father is an avid reader who loves history and his home country of Taiwan. He filled floor-to-ceiling shelves with books in Mandarin Chinese on these topics. I inherited these qualities in a refracted way. I became a historian of Renaissance Europe and learned to research in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English and French, including paleography, the deciphering of manuscripts. On the side, I nurtured an interest in advocating for a globally-recognized Taiwanese nation, a task I carried out in English. My knowledge about Taiwan was limited not only by my American birth and upbringing, but by my inability to read the sorts of books that my father owned in spades.
For a very long time, this fact did not make me feel discontent or at odds with myself. Thanks to my parents’ efforts, I could laugh, joke, and be affectionate with three generations of my family in both Mandarin and Taiwanese. It seemed accurate to describe myself as trilingual. Chaperoned as we were on our brief annual visits to Taiwan, my low levels of literacy in Chinese characters did not feel like a hindrance to connecting with the place my parents had come from. My father had been a dissident student under martial law, and his belief that the people of Taiwan deserved to govern themselves seemed to me like the truest and most important thing I ever needed to know about it.
How to explain then that one day I woke up at the age of thirty-five, three years after obtaining a PhD in early modern European history, two years after securing a much-wanted job teaching and researching in my field, feeling that I absolutely needed to learn to read in Mandarin and Taiwanese?
For the past year and a half, I have been living in Taiwan for the first time in my life. When I am asked why I moved here and started taking language classes on top of full-time work, I know I cannot give the real answer, which is full of melodrama and excess: one day I woke up a stranger to myself, consumed by an unlooked-for desire. I suddenly realized that if I had children, I could not teach them Mandarin or Taiwanese without knowing how to read. Literacy was the missing key. To learn to read—more than that, to learn to read while living in Taiwan—I broke my life, reneged on promises to people I loved, and gave up a chance to have children in the first place. These were nonsensical, callous decisions, and all for what?
In my first, heady quarter of graduate school, when I filled notebooks by hand with new vocabulary words, I was assigned the work of the social historian David Cressy, who made his career with a series of articles on reading and writing in early modern England. Cressy argued that typical measures of literacy—the ability to sign one’s name on a will or petition—ended up underestimating the size of the “semi-literate segment of the population.” Many people who could not write their own names, he noted, “may in fact have had some ability to read. The exact proportion in this midway zone or literacy penumbra cannot yet be calculated.”
Since I began taking Mandarin lessons again in the summer of 2020, I have been working to emerge from this “literacy penumbra.” Even into my mid-thirties, I remembered about half of what I had learned at weekend Chinese school as a child, perhaps a thousand characters. Yet knowing a thousand characters was almost useless for reading anything directed at an adult: advertisements, emails, menus, public health announcements, newspaper articles, novels, residency paperwork, and the instructions on the screens of the iBon Machines in 7-11 stores, which you could use to pay your bills or buy tickets for the train.
The threshold for being able to comprehend any of these texts was high. Crossing it probably required recognizing three to four thousand individual characters and the most common two-character words and four-character idioms, as well as grammatical functions and structures encountered in formal writing. For the first year of classes— four to six hours a week, squeezed in between my job—I could fluidly read almost nothing except the next chapter in my textbook series, A Course in Contemporary Chinese, also known as Dangdai, after the first two characters of the Mandarin title, 當代中文課程.
Most of the casual language learning advice for heritage speakers is aimed at improving our ability to do just that—to speak. It is possible to absorb a great deal of new vocabulary by traveling, making friends, and watching movies and television, in an immersive process disconnected from needing to read at all. Learning to speak is a social process; learning to read is often a much more isolating process. You sit at a table, facing a mute, antagonistic text that needs to be decoded word-by-word, sentence-structure-by-sentence-structure.
Thank goodness, then, for those who will read with us, and keep us company in those long early stages of unknowingness. At a party in Taipei, I met Daniel, a kind, funny, gifted fellow Taiwanese American who also wanted to learn to read in Mandarin. We signed up for a semester of classes together and it was Daniel who convinced our skeptical teacher to let us skip the oral exercises in the Dangdai textbook in favor of reading extra material related to the day’s lessons. Daniel was the kind of friend who would ask me to hang out so we could tackle a film review over a meal; who texted me sentences using our new vocabulary that they had discovered in the wild; who indulged my endless questions about whether we’d broken through the literacy bottleneck.
My metric for whether my reading had improved was how long a nap I needed afterwards. In those days, a seven-paragraph news story could take me three hours to wade through. I looked up unfamiliar characters in three ways: by hand-writing them in the Google Translate app; searching via their component parts in the Pleco Dictionary app; or utilizing a pop-up browser extension called Inkah, developed by a friend I met at another party. (I talked a lot at parties about wanting to learn to read. I was lucky that there were so many parties, because Taiwan managed to contain Covid for months at a time.) Until I could recognize at least ninety percent of the characters on a page, even technological assists like a screen reader, which allowed me to tap and instantly look up any of the words I wanted to, were of limited use. I could start a sentence and lose the thread midway through, stymied by my lack of exposure to the adverbs, conjunctions, abbreviations, and sentence patterns encountered in writing versus speaking.
I hand wrote new vocabulary in small green and pink booklets used by every elementary school student in Taiwan. The pages are divided into square grids, with narrow rectangular columns beside each grid for space to write the pronunciation of the character in zhuyin fuhao 注音符號, the 37-character phonetic system developed by the Republic of China (ROC) government in the 1910s, and that was exported to Taiwan after it came under ROC rule in 1945. My ingrained familiarity with zhuyin fuhao marked me as a Taiwanese person even as my accent and low literacy gave away my foreignness.
Yet I found that my desire for literacy outweighed my social shame. When I was out running errands, if someone used an unfamiliar word, I would ask them to type out the characters in zhuyin fuhao in my dictionary app so that I could see what they looked like. When I tired of studying at home, I took my notebooks out to bars and puzzled out a text over a glass of wine. One night a drunken European spotted me and shouted, “What’s a girl doing math at a bar?” and I thought, “Joke’s on you, I am learning to read at a bar.” At museum exhibits, which routinely lacked English translations, I corralled the senior citizen volunteers into reading the placards with me, explaining in response to their befuddlement that I had not moved back 搬回, but moved to 搬到 Taiwan for the first time - that I was both Taiwanese and a new immigrant.
I was waiting for the moment that my mind would kaiqiao 開竅, as my mother liked to say. The term means “to resuscitate” but is also used to indicate the beginning of consciousness and understanding. On days when it seemed as if this would never happen, I despaired at the choice to set aside my real life in exchange for something so mundane as language study. I’d had my whole life before this to raise my literacy in Chinese characters. But my attitude had ranged from indifference to refusal to resignation until past the point I committed to the kinds of jobs and relationships that might well be irreplaceable if I left. I had thought that annual two-week trips to Taiwan would be enough until they weren’t, and then this became my seventh move of more than a thousand miles in a decade.
How could I not have seen that I would have loved any children I had, no matter where they were born or raised, no matter what languages they did or did not speak or read? After all, this was the case for my own parents, who typed affectionate text messages and wrote cards to their American children in English, and who had instilled in me a love for Taiwan that had not depended on my reading skills.
For all the time I was spending on Mandarin, I had no particular attachment to it. Had my parents come from a country where nearly everything was written in Farsi or Arabic or Sanskrit, I would have devoted myself to learning a different script with a high degree of difficulty instead. Mandarin was a means to an end for me, of knowing Taiwan better, but also as it turned out, of increasing my literacy in Taiwanese, my parents’ first language and therefore my “mother tongue.”
Unbeknownst to me, I was seeking to improve my own skills at a juncture in the century-plus movement for modern Taiwanese literacy. When I was ten or eleven, a family friend taught me the fundamentals of Taiwanese “church romanization” or “vernacular script” (白話字 pe̍h-ōe-jī, or POJ for short). By coincidence, I went on to complete my graduate work at one of the few universities in the world to offer a course in Taiwanese. We used POJ textbooks produced in the 1960s by the Catholic Maryknoll Language Services Center in Taichung, in central Taiwan. POJ is a pronunciation-based system; it relies on diacritics to mark out the eight tones that make up Taiwanese (also known as Holo, Hokkien, Tâi-gí, and Southern Min). Arabic numerals above the diacritics indicate how to switch tones based on the placement of a syllable within a word or phrase, a phenomenon called tone sandhi. I could sound out words using POJ, but these sounds, and their alphabetic representation on the page, might not mean anything to me until I looked them up in a dictionary.
POJ was designed in the mid-nineteenth century for a population where the majority of all ages spoke Taiwanese fluently but could not read or write in any system. When the ROC government arrived in Taiwan at the end of World War II, it cut off the nascent POJ movement, restricting and sometimes censoring the production and circulation of romanized Taiwanese texts. It banned the use of Taiwanese and other “mother languages” in schools from the mid-1960s to the early 1990s, not just other Sinitic languages like Hakka, but also more than a dozen Austronesian languages belonging to the indigenous peoples of the island. Instead, the ROC party-state enshrined Mandarin—taught and written in characters—as the medium of education, government service, and upwardly-mobile public life. POJ continued to be used in specific or clandestine settings: in Christian churches, to teach foreigners the language, and in dissident emigre communities such as the one I grew up in.
It was a shock to me to discover this past year that knowing POJ was not enough to read many of the Taiwanese texts being produced today. The volume of this Taiwanese-language text was comparatively small but ranged widely, from children’s books, manga, and social media posts, to song lyrics, subtitles for news broadcasts, and elegant, rhyming poetry. It was often written not (only) in POJ or another system of romanization but rather in what is known as Hàn-lô 漢羅, a mixture of characters and romanization, or else entirely in characters, called Choân-hàn Tâi-bûn 全漢台文.
In contrast to a century ago, when the POJ campaigns were at their height, young people today possess near-universal character literacy but typically have far less experience listening to and speaking Taiwanese. The advantage of using characters to write Taiwanese today is that they often carry the same or overlapping meanings in Mandarin as in Taiwanese. This means a reader may be able to make their way through the content of a Hàn-lô or Choân-hàn text even if they do not know how all of the characters should sound in Taiwanese. (The major disadvantage is that characters do not encode their own pronunciation the way a romanized system like POJ does.) There are also characters that are routinely used in Taiwanese but appear only rarely in Mandarin, or else differ widely in their definitions between the two, providing clues as to which language is on the page. As an example, the sentence I should diligently study Taiwanese every day can be rendered in the following ways:
POJ: Góa eng-kai ta̍k-kang phah-piàⁿ tha̍k Tâi-gí.
Hàn-lô: 我應該逐工 phah-piàⁿ 讀台語.
Choân-hàn Tâi-bûn: 我應該逐工拍拚讀台語.
For an American heritage speaker like myself, however, this character-first trend in Taiwanese was like being sent on a prolonged journey to a destination different from the one I wanted to see. It is possible to teach Chinese characters to English speakers using Taiwanese rather than Mandarin. But there is no complete textbook series yet that takes this approach; developing such a series will take time, money, and resources that grassroots organizations may lack and the state has so far proven unwilling to invest.
To understand what a Hàn-lô or Choân-hàn text said, I thus had to know how to read comfortably in Mandarin first. Some knowledge of Hàn-lô in turn was necessary to find and operate many of the newest tools meant to aid in Taiwanese proficiency, such as keyboards for typing in POJ and Hàn-lô, dictionaries with English definitions, romanization-to-character converters and vice versa, and text-to-speech readers. Hàn-lô was the currency for accessing information about citizen-organized Taiwanese reading groups, language classes, and lecture series taking place online and in-person. Without English-language outreach, these events and communities were nearly undetectable to diaspora born and raised abroad, even those who spoke Taiwanese passably.
To read in Mandarin, I learned as much as I could of one writing system, following clearly-marked pathways. To read in Taiwanese, I had to learn the fundamentals of no fewer than three orthographies in an ad hoc and piecemeal way. I could ask almost any adult I met for help with a Mandarin text; when it came to Taiwanese texts, I had a brilliant teacher but could not count on most of the other people I encountered—even those fluent in spoken Taiwanese—for assistance.
I know what a Mandarin text will look like: all characters, perhaps with zhuyin fuhao added in if it is meant for children. By contrast, every Taiwanese text is a surprise: the proportion of characters to romanization, not to mention which kind of romanization, varies according to the author and publisher, as do extra audio, video, or annotated features. There is no Google Translate yet for any Taiwanese writing system; there are no shortcuts for someone like me through a Taiwanese text. Improving my reading abilities in Taiwanese has showed me in real time how people who care about linguistic transmission, in the face of decades of neglect and hostility from state and society, can produce a corpus of writing that is playful, complex, experimental, highly variable and difficult for outsiders to crack, and above all, a testament to how learned and capacious this language is.
After I had been in Taiwan for almost a year and a half, my father came to visit. It was his longest stay since his emigration nearly forty years ago. I had not lived within easy driving or sometimes even flying distance from my parents for fifteen years, but for these four months, I was able to see him for lunch or dinner any time I pleased. I felt acutely that my father should be a grandfather and regretted my choices that seemed to foreclose this possibility. But here I was in Taiwan alongside him, unexpectedly, and however long I lived I would always be glad we had these exact days.
We went to museums and he waited patiently as I read the placards out loud to him, filling in the gaps that remained for me. I helped him register his American vaccination records based on information I gleaned from reading local news reports. We took turns reading from the Mandarin translation of the book Becoming Taiwanese 成為台灣人 by the historian Evan Dawley, about the development of Taiwanese identity under Japanese rule between 1895 and 1945. The pages I finished were covered in zhuyin fuhao and English definitions I added in.
Around Thanksgiving, I joined my father for the launch of the journalist Chen Ming-Cheng 陳銘城’s new book on political prisoners during the White Terror, the period of political persecution by the one-party ROC government between the 1950s and late 1980s. The speeches at the event were mostly in Taiwanese and when Chen led us in a rendition of the Taiwanese song 伊是咱的寶貝 I sī lán ê pó-pòe (She is our Treasure), my father sang by memory while I sang according to the lyrics in Hàn-lô. After the new year, I brought him to a talk by a teacher named Ông Chông-hiàn 王崇憲 who fought for many years to expand Taiwanese education in public schools. 2022 is the first year that once-a-week “mother language” classes will be offered at the junior high level in addition to primary school. Ông walked us through a brief sample lesson - about space exploration - using textbooks and Powerpoint slides written solely in characters.
One afternoon over coffee, I asked my father about the books on his shelf back home in the US, which were all in Mandarin. I told him I wished there was an equivalent corpus of books in Taiwanese, and that he had been given the chance to learn POJ when he was younger. “I just translate the Mandarin automatically to Taiwanese in my head as I’m reading,” he said. He paged through the Taiwanese-language POJ and Hàn-lô books I had brought to the shop with me to practice. “I’m used to reading in one way”, he continued. “But you are learning to read in another. Look at all that you’ve done already.”
Two Helpful Tools for Learning Taiwanese
Catherine shares screenshots of two tools that she relies on every day:
Virtual Book Club: The Brothers Karamazov, Friday, January 28th, 7 PM EST
We’ve been in need of some spiritual rebirth via intellectual pain, so we chose Dostoevsky. A special shout-out to newsletter fan Cyrus Habib, who persuaded us to choose The Brothers Karamazov. Cyrus is studying to become a Jesuit priest and might drop in. Come join us on Friday, January 28th, 7 PM EST. Don’t worry if you haven’t read it; we are very chill. We will send out the zoom link today to prior club members; if you’re new, write us for the zoom link. All are welcome!
Housekeeping & Welcome to New Readers
As always, we love hearing from readers. If you want to respond to Catherine’s post or previous posts, please don’t be shy. What experiences have you had learning (or re-learning) languages? What languages do you long to learn, and what has kept you from it? You can comment in the thread, reply at email@example.com or reply to this email. (You can see our most recent batch of reader responses here.)
If you’re new to this space, welcome! Please subscribe and feel free to drop us a note. (And let us know if you’re in Taiwan!) All our posts are free. Here are some of our most-read posts:
Michelle reflects on marriage, discovering heritage through your partner, & moving to Taiwan; Albert replies, thinking through the return to his “motherland.” (The Chinese version is here and here.)
Albert notices a sea change in his classroom: students overwhelmingly think that dropping the atomic bomb was a war crime.
And here are two Taiwan-centric pieces:
Should informers to an authoritarian regime get restorative justice? We make the case, discussing a Taiwanese legislator who was recently outed as a former informant. (The Chinese version is here.)
We discuss the language wars in Taiwan and the push to make multilingualism a practice instituted in the everyday affairs of state.
And last: two cats nuzzle at our local coffee shop that doubles as a manga library: