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Amusing and confusing Taiwanese English

Dynamic interplay between English and local languages is fun and fascinating, but sometimes leads to confusion

Amusing and confusing Taiwanese English

Screengrab of Taiwanese usage of V.S.

TAICHUNG (Taiwan News) — As a native English speaker, one of my most common embarrassing experiences is not one that Taiwanese expect: When they ask me if there was anything I did not understand during a speech or presentation given in Mandarin. I rarely have any problem understanding the parts delivered in Mandarin, it’s the parts that are not that throw me.

No one is surprised that I get lost when they switch to Taiwanese, though I am embarrassed at how weak my abilities are in that language. What does surprise people is that I almost never understand all the English acronyms they use.

English has entered into daily Taiwanese communications in many different and sometimes unusual and unexpected ways. Often this is helpful for native English speakers, but sometimes it is confusing.

Early on, it appears that English entered local spoken languages through two routes. One is through transliteration into Mandarin, especially for names and for unfamiliar items.

Common examples include ‘sa-fa’ (沙發) for sofa, and ‘pi-sa’ (披薩) for pizza. In English we have similar loan words, like mahjong and tea (which is apparently from ‘de’ in Taiwanese and was originally spelled t’ea).

The other route is more specific to Taiwan: Via Japanese loan words during the colonial era that then entered local languages. For example, ‘lighter,’ ‘concrete,’ ‘tomato’ and ‘camera’ are pronounced in Taiwanese approximately ‘lai-da,’ ‘kang-ku-li,’ ‘ta-ma-toe’ and ‘ka-may-la’ (forgive my rough romanizations).

In my early years in Taiwan a fellow English speaker shared a neat trick with me for dealing with mechanics when you do not know the words for various parts: Say them like the Japanese would. I’ll never forget the first time I tried this and wanted to replace my clutch cable.

I told the mechanic I wanted to replace the ‘ku-la-chi ka-bu’ and without batting an eyelid he immediately replaced it. I did not even have to point at it, he understood immediately.

To this day I still have no idea how to say clutch cable in Mandarin. Knowing that I’m on the Chinese Communist Party’s naughty list means I’m not going back to China any time soon, so I can live without learning it.

A more recent phenomenon is the importation of English acronyms. Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), for example, is famous for his constant use of SOP (standard operating procedure).

Acronyms, for both Taiwanese and native English speakers, is a handy way of compressing a whole concept into a few short letters. For Taiwanese it has the added benefit of avoiding having to say so many long and complicated English words, which are often quite a mouthful for speakers of local languages.

This is where my embarrassing situations come from, I often have no idea what the acronyms stand for, but somehow have become widespread locally. It’s awkward because often they have forgotten the exact English words they stand for, creating a weird communication barrier.

Sometimes locally used acronyms and abbreviations do not even have English language origins, or have changed their meanings entirely. For example, LKK stands for a Taiwanese term (lao kok-kok) for someone that in English we would call an ‘old fart.’

Some are created whimsically to represent imaginary English terms, or to represent terms it would never occur to a native speaker to abbreviate. 3P is a three-way (ménage à trois) and appears to represent ‘three people.’

FB is Facebook, IG is Instagram and APP (saying the three letters) represents app (as in something you download onto your phone, an application). Promotional videos are referred to as CF (commercial film), NG is ‘not good’ or bad, but no one has been able to explain to me the origin of the bizarre (and amusingly offensive sounding to native English speakers) FU, which apparently means ‘to feel.’

Then there is the confusing use of vs. which is often used in Taiwan to mean ‘and’ or ‘with’ but when they want to communicate ‘versus’ they use PK (penalty kick) instead.

Another interesting importation is add ‘ing’ to a term, meaning the same as it does in English, to be currently in the process of doing something, which is a bit clumsy to express in Mandarin, though it is possible. Recently I saw a campaign poster where the candidate touted that he was ‘TWing,” mixing the abbreviation for Taiwan (TW) with ‘ing’ to mean…I’m not 100% sure.

But when it comes to creative importation of an English word, the transliteration of ‘hello’ (哈囉 ha-luo) has taken on multiple meanings and is simply part of the language now. The most common usage is something akin to ‘hey’ or ‘hey you’ to get someone’s attention (anyone, not specifically foreigners).

Common examples might be if someone is walking out of the store and has forgotten something (‘hey, you forgot your change!’), and you want to get their attention, or if someone walks into a shop and it appears the shopkeep is in the back (‘hey, is anyone here?’). In both cases ‘hello’ would be called out to get their attention.

Similarly, people trying to get the attention of a newborn baby might use it as well. It has no connection at all to foreigners in this usage, at least not any longer.

How the English got incorporated into the language to take on this meaning, I’m not sure. I guess it filled a linguistic void.

Another use I have heard for ‘hello,’ though only rarely, is as a blanket term for Westerners, as in ‘a hello.’ The most memorable example of this usage I can recall was Chen Chin-hsing (陳進興) using the term to refer to his kidnap victims in 1997, the South African military attaché and his family.

He said he wanted to kidnap a ‘hello’ to get attention, and one presumes as a way to go out with a splash after being on the run after being part of a gang that kidnapped and murdered the daughter of a popular performer and surviving multiple shootouts with the police.

There are many more examples than the ones here, and English is not the only language that continues to appear in new and interesting ways in local languages. Japanese, for example, also continues to contribute terms and phrases.

The dynamic interplay between languages is a fun and fascinating topic. Next time you are out at a KTV sipping on a boba tea, you will be using three terms that came from this part of the world.

Courtney Donovan Smith (石東文) is a regular contributing columnist for Taiwan News, the central Taiwan correspondent for ICRT FM100 Radio News, co-publisher of Compass Magazine, co-founder of Taiwan Report ( and former chair of the Taichung American Chamber of Commerce.