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Pinyin In Taiwan

By October 6, 2008

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Taiwan has a rather chaotic approach to Romanizing Chinese characters. Rather than a country-wide standard, individual jurisdictions within Taiwan were free to adopt whatever system they chose.

This resulted in a confusing mixture of spellings on street signs and maps - a mixture that is widely criticized by foreign visitors. We Taiwanese don't mind that much since we don't usually pay much attention to the English spellings.

Of course, it would be nice to have a standard Romanization, but the question is, which one? Hanyu pinyin is used in Mainland China (and also by the United Nations), but for many people, that's reason enough to reject it. Besides, Hanyu pinyin jars with the spelling of many place names that have been used for more than a century. For example, Taipei would become Taibei, and Kaohsiung would become Gaoxiong.

The issue is about to come to a head. According to China Post columnist Joe Hung, the "Ministry of Education decided on September 16 to enforce a Mandarin Romanization policy as of January 1 (2009)" at a cost of between NT$1 billion and NT$10 billion (US$ 30 million to US$ 300 million).

But is it needed?

Hung make the point that tourists "donít care in whatever way those names are spelt. Japanese and Korean travelers read Chinese. Native English speakers canít read Hanyu pinyin or any pinyin unless they have learned it."

It seems the primary beneficiaries of standardized Pinyin would be long-term foreign residents, but according to Hung, they "have no hard time getting along around Taiwan, for they are by and large used to the Mandarin Romanization tower of Babel."

Education is certainly one area where it's important to have standards, but most Taiwanese textbooks already use Hanyu pinyin. Students may gripe that the spellings they see in their textbooks and the spellings they see on street signs are not the same, but is that worth spending billions to correct?

If you've visited Taiwan and would like to share your thoughts on this issue, please post a comment or leave a message in the forum.


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