Entertainment is part of life.
Whether it’s your jaw-dropping reaction to a “Game of Thrones” episode or excitement about Beyoncé’s most recent performance, popular culture seeps into day-to-day dialogue in a natural way.
This is true of any country, any culture, any language.
So, a great way to engage in language immersion is to plunge into the pop culture of a language.
And if you’re learning Mandarin, Taiwanese dramas are a great step into Chinese-language pop culture.
Why Are Taiwanese Dramas Great for Pop Culture Immersion?
They acclimate you to the culture. If you’re a Chinese learner with an interest in one day visiting, studying or working in Taiwan, watching Taiwanese dramas is an easy entry point into the Taiwanese pop culture scene. Watching Taiwanese dramas will automatically give you a topic of conversation with others who have watched the same or similar dramas. You’ll be able to talk about surprising plot twists or often-exaggerated acting in certain scenes.
They make it easier to relate to native Chinese speakers. We tend to bond with those with the same taste in music or movies, so becoming familiar with Chinese-language pop culture and figuring out what you like can make it easier to develop friendships in a new country. It’s also great to become familiar with pop culture icons themselves so if you hear a group of people debating whether Ming Dao, Mike He or Ethan Ruan is a better actor, you can join the conversation!
They tell you who’s who in Taiwan. Taiwanese idol dramas in particular tend to star popular singers of the time in major roles and feature their songs in the soundtrack. This is a strategic way that the Taiwanese entertainment industry markets a singer, their album and the drama at the same time. Therefore, watching idol dramas can lead you to discover new Taiwanese songs and artists.
How Taiwanese Dramas Help with Language Acquisition
Some parts of language are best learned through repetition and imitation, because it can be difficult for explanations and examples of grammatical rules to account for every conversational situation. For example, as many Chinese learners know, the use of the particle 了 (le) is difficult to capture in one rule. It can be used to intensify an adjective, to express duration after a verb, or to indicate completion of a thought at the end of a sentence.
In what situations should you use了? Where in the sentence does it go? These are questions that start to become instinct after hearing it in action in a drama over and over again. The same goes for 啦 (la), a particle similar to了, whose frequency of use varies from region to region.
Speaking of regional differences, watching Taiwanese dramas is a fantastic way to learn regional slang, everyday phrases and pronunciation differences. For example, the younger generation in China and Taiwan tends to use the word 超 (chāo) as a superlative. While it normally means “to exceed,” as in the phrase 超过 (chāo guò, to surpass), when added before an adjective it becomes a more casual use of the word 太 (tài, super), but is more commonly used in a positive context. Some examples include:
- 超好吃 (chāo hăo chī — really delicious)
- 超棒 (chāo bàng — really amazing/good)
- 超厉害 (chāo lì hai — really capable)
However, the word 超 (chāo) is pronounced slightly differently in Taiwan than in China. Many consonant sounds in mainland Mandarin (“ch,” “sh,” “zh”) tend to be replaced in Taiwanese Mandarin by a shorter version (“c,” “s,” “z”), so 超 (chāo) is often actually pronounced cāo. This is an example of the little everyday idiosyncrasies you can pick up on while watching Taiwanese dramas.
As with any language, context is everything. The same phrase said in different contexts can drastically change the meaning of that phrase. Therefore, watching various situations and conversations unfold during the course of a drama can help you learn the multiple meanings of certain commonly used phrases. A great example of this is the phrase 怎么样 (zĕn me yàng), which can be used to ask how someone’s day is going, how they feel, or even to express anger or annoyance.
In Chinese, there are also several sound words that in themselves don’t mean anything but in certain contexts can convey a sentiment or emotion. An example of this commonly used in Taiwan is 哇塞 (wā sāi), an expression similar to “wow.”
Tips for Learning with Taiwanese Dramas
- Pause and replay. If you didn’t hear a certain phrase or wanted to see how a particular word is written in the subtitles, the capacity to pause or rewind can help you out. Streaming online or using a DVD allows you the freedom to take your time with an episode and to go at your own pace, digesting and processing what’s being said in a way that you simply can’t do in real-life conversations. A few online streaming resources for Taiwanese dramas are YouTube, Youku and Crunchyroll.
- If you can, get dual subtitles. Try your best to find a version of the drama with both Chinese subtitles and subtitles in your native language. This basically provides you with a written Chinese script of the drama and a translation, which can make comprehension easier, especially for beginner learners. Since the official written language of Taiwan is traditional Chinese, Taiwanese drama subtitles are typically written in traditional rather than simplified characters, so this will help you develop your reading and writing skills in that form of Chinese—important if you want to read menus, road signs and other written materials in Taiwan!
- To get more reading + listening practice, use FluentU in short bursts between your drama binges. FluentU takes real-world videos—like movie trailers, music videos, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons. Like dramas, FluentU lets you dive into pop culture, but you can get short bouts of intense practice, which help warm you up for spending longer periods of time watching and learning from Chinese-language dramas.
- Keep a notebook. It’s always good practice to take note of phrases or words you might use. This is also a great opportunity to practice actually writing the characters rather than just hearing them or seeing them trail across a screen. Of course, there’s a certain correct order to the strokes in each word that’s difficult to ascertain merely from looking at it. But stroke order is really only important if you plan on learning to write in cursive in Chinese. Otherwise, producing the character itself is good enough.
Learn Chinese with 5 Taiwanese TV Shows Full of Pop Culture
These shows in particular are ones that younger people who were born in Taiwan probably grew up watching, so they can be very useful for having conversations there. Enjoy!
“王子變青蛙” (wáng zǐ biàn qīng wā) — “Prince Turns to Frog”
Starring Ming Dao from the band 183 Club and Joe Chen from the band 7 Flowers, this drama tells the story of a rich, arrogant hotel CEO and his accidental encounter with a working class girl.
Ye Tian Yu (Joe Chen) accidentally hits Shan Jun Hao (Ming Dao) with her car, causing him to get amnesia and forget who he is. With his background and upbringing erased from his memory, Shan Jun Hao gets to know Ye Tian Yu without the impediments of class differences.
However, what will happen to their budding relationship when his family comes looking for him?
Speech is rather fast-paced in this drama and Ye Tain Yu’s family members all speak with a slight rural accent. Advanced speakers will enjoy the variety of scenes that occur and the corresponding vocabulary—from business terminology to wedding proposals to medical/physical injury words, this drama covers them all.
However, I think beginners will still benefit from being able to gain exposure to quotidian speech and mannerisms.
“惡魔在身邊” (è mó zài shēn biān) — “Devil Beside You”
Qi Yue (Rainie Yang) is a slightly spacey college girl who often daydreams during class. The star of those daydreams is the captain of the basketball team, Yuan Yi (Kingone Wang). The series starts on the day Qi Yue decides to tell Yuan Yi how she feels about him and prepares to give him a love letter.
However, in her nervous flustered state, she accidentally presents the letter to Jiang Meng (Mike He), a guy with a bad boy reputation, before dropping it and running away.
Jiang Meng decides to have a little fun, teasing her and threatening to publicize the letter if she doesn’t do as he says. Naturally, Qi Yue thinks he’s a despicable person—a devil, even. But little does she know, their relationship is about to get much more complicated.
This is a great drama for beginner learners because the speech used is rather casual (usually scenes between friends or family members) and the acting a bit exaggerated, which helps with understanding what’s going on even without subtitles in your native language.
Since it’s a romance-focused drama, much of the language used concerns dating, falling in love, encountering love rivals and expressing a variety of emotions. In addition to improving vocabulary, advanced learners can pay attention to the use of sound expressions and particles; the over-acting makes it slightly easier to notice them and pick up on recurring patterns.
“惡作劇之吻” (è zuò jù zhī wěn) — “It Started with a Kiss”
Yuan Xiang Qin (Ariel Lin), a high school girl struggling in her classes, has a huge crush on the school genius, Jiang Zhi Shu (Joe Cheng). Xiang Qin decides to tell Zhi Shu how she feels with a love letter, but he rejects her, humiliating her in front of the entire school.
That might have been the end of their interactions, except unfortunately, there’s a minor earthquake that afternoon and Yuan Xiang Qin finds out her family’s house has been destroyed. Her father’s old friend, Uncle Li, takes them in. Xiang Qin is surprised to discover that Jiang Zhi Shu is Uncle Li’s son and that they’ll now be living under the same roof.
In terms of language use, this drama is very similar to “Devil Beside You.” There’s plenty of everyday speech and conversational patterns that all learners can benefit from.
“戰神” (zhàn shén) — “MARS”
Chen Ling (Vic Zhou), a motorcycle-riding playboy, is rushing to visit his injured friend when he stops to ask Han Qi Luo (Barbie Hsu), a shy college art student, for directions to the hospital. She draws him a map on the back of one of her sketches and then runs off.
They actually go to the same college, and one day, Chen Ling witnesses Han Qi Luo being sexually assaulted by a teacher. He intervenes, and slowly, Han Qi Luo starts to open up to him. But as their friendship develops, secrets about each of their pasts start to surface.
This drama does an excellent job of portraying darker subjects like mental illness, suicide, sexual assault—and in doing so, gives you the vocabulary to talk about these topics. But there are also plenty of lighter, playful scenes that make this a captivating story and a great language learning platform.
“命中注定我愛你” (mìng zhòng zhù dìng wǒ ài nǐ) — “Fated to Love You”
Chen Xin Yi (Joe Chen) is an eager-to-please office assistant at a law firm who plans a romantic cruise with her boyfriend, hoping to take their relationship to the next level.
Ji Cun Xi (Ethan Ruan), the rich heir of a cleaning products company, happens to be on the same cruise with plans to propose to his long-time girlfriend. During the cruise, Chen Xin Yi finds out that her boyfriend has cheated on her and that he was planning to break up with her.
Elsewhere on the ship, Ji Cun Xi has been stood up by his girlfriend. After a night of drinking, drugs and confusion, the two of them wake up in the same bed. And so their lives become entangled in the consequences of this one night stand.
This is a rom-com style drama—hilarious and scandalous at once. Watching situational comedy is a fun way to get a sense of culturally relevant humor and advanced learners may enjoy that element of this show. It also contains language concerning marriage, sex, romance and emotions that would be relevant to any Chinese language learner.
Note: There’s a Korean re-make of this show by the same name. Be sure to look for the Taiwanese version! This title is sometimes also translated into English as “You’re My Destiny,” and is currently available on Netflix under that title.
After watching these dramas, you’ll automatically have a topic of conversation with Taiwanese people born in the ’90s, a better understanding of everyday phrases and expressions, and an ear for regional differences native to Taiwan.
And who knows? Maybe you’ll become a lifelong fan of a particular Taiwanese singer or actor!
Jandy Gu is an anthropologist, ethnographer, writer, editor, teacher, curriculum designer and aspiring polyglot. She is a native English speaker, Mandarin Chinese heritage speaker and Brazilian Portuguese language learner. Her passions include traveling, eating, social justice issues and cuddling with dogs—not necessarily in that order.
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