FEATURE: Language barrier a problem for foreigners in Taiwan

Staff writer, with CNA

Tue, Feb 19, 2013 - Page 5

Taiwan touts its friendliness and hospitality, but some foreigners who live here have complained about inconvenience in their daily lives, citing as examples the lack of sufficient information available in English.

Paul Groff, an American who teaches English in Taipei, told the Central News Agency (CNA) recently that he did not know how to dump his garbage when he first came to Taiwan.

Because there was no notice of when to take the trash out and when the garbage truck would come to his neighborhood, he simply dumped his garbage on the street, he said.

The language barrier is another problem he has had since arriving a year ago, Groff added.

For example, information about whether he should go to work on a typhoon day or what he should do when there is an air raid drill is all in Mandarin, which he does not understand, he said, adding that he cannot read the signs on the street such as “no scooters,” either, and needs his friend to translate for him.

According to Groff, who used to teach English in Thailand, Taiwanese are generally much shier than Thais.

“Their English might not be better, but they’re willing to speak,” he said.

Liz Wiest, a California native who also teaches English in Taipei, said life in Taiwan was convenient, but added that the biggest concern over the past two years for her has been seeing a gynecologist.

“I couldn’t find any information on the Web about what the gynecologist’s gender is, even though I can read Chinese,” said Wiest, adding that she would prefer to consult with female doctors.

Wiest said when she was in California, she had a checkup every six months, but in her first 18 months in Taiwan, she did not do so.

Only after she asked her local friends for help did she begin to see a gynecologist, she said.

Many female foreigners here share the same experience, she added.

Another example is Timothy Barnes, an American working as a technical writer.

The 31-year-old said Taiwan has a sound healthcare system, but added that the language barrier had been a problem for him when seeking medical assistance.

Barnes said his Mandarin was not good enough to understand medical terms and that he had tried two physicians before finding one with whom he could communicate in English.

Even then, to avoid communication problems, he said that he always searches for information on related medical issues on the Internet and prepares questions before seeing a doctor.

The Department of Health said that the vast majority of hospitals all over the country have multilingual signage and documentation designed to provide a friendly environment for foreigners.

Amid an increasing number of foreign spouses and foreign residents, the health authorities also said that many hospitals have staff members or volunteers available to provide translation services.

Some hospitals also have international medical centers geared toward assisting foreigners, the department added.

Despite the inconveniences, Barnes still had high praise for the healthcare system, saying that he needed to ask his friends for help registering at a hospital only once, and after that, he was able to make appointments and get his prescriptions by himself quite easily.

“I tell most people I think the medical services here in Taiwan are good, provided that you inform yourself of your health issues before you go to see the doctor,” he said. “If you don’t, then the communication problem puts you at a disadvantage in ensuring you get the treatment you really need.”

To better assist foreigners and make their lives easier, the National Immigration Agency launched its “Information For Foreigners in Taiwan” Web site in 2005, which contains information on different aspects of living in Taiwan.

The agency also has a 24/7 hotline providing services in English and Mandarin.

Agency officials said they have been working to make the Web site more useful and better able to meet the needs of foreigners in Taiwan.

Information on sorting garbage, keeping pets and contingency measures after the loss of passports and others might be added to the Web site, they said.

More languages could also be made available on the Web site, which currently has Chinese, English and Japanese versions, the officials said.

The Taipei City Government added that foreigners facing difficulties or inconveniences in the capital can call the toll-free 1999 citizen hotline for help. Available in English and Japanese, the hotline provides services ranging from city affairs to assistance in daily life.

The Directorate-General of Personnel Administration, whose Web site provides information in Mandarin on whether schools and offices are closed on typhoon days in every city and county in Taiwan, said it would consider launching an English version of the service.

Last month, the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei released its latest report on the quality of life in Taiwan, in which it listed the pros and cons.

“Taiwanese are extremely nice” was ranked the top benefit for the second consecutive year this year, and surveyed business leaders also praised the country’s safety, ease of living, quality health and dental services and reliable electricity supplies.

However, they also expressed concern about the “English-friendly” environment, flood controls, quality drinking water, financial services and reliability of sewer systems.