Taipei MRT moves to adopt nicknumbering system

“He’s much too unreasonable,” interrupted the Mathemagician again. “Why, just last month I sent him a very friendly letter, which he never had the courtesy to answer. See for yourself.”

He handed Milo a copy of the letter, which read:

4738 1919,

667 394017 5841 62589
85371 14 39588 7190434 203
27689 57131 481206.

5864 98053,

“But maybe he doesn’t understand numbers,” said Milo, who found it a little difficult to read himself.

“NONSENSE!” bellowed the Mathemagician. “Everyone understands numbers….”

— from The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster

The Taipei MRT system has announced that it may be adopting a nicknumbering system for stations within the system.

Bad idea.

And, really, it should be obvious even to city officials what a bad idea this is, given what a complete failure the city’s previous attempt at a nicknumbering system was. (The old attempt, from 2000, had Ma Ying-jeou adding things such as “4th Blvd” to road signs rather than simply fix the signs to use correct Hanyu Pinyin. But the MRT system has used Hanyu Pinyin for years, so foreigners aren’t complaining about a lack of that in 2015.)

I have, however, been complaining for many years about mistakes in the names of some MRT stations and how the MRT system has chosen some bad names. To no avail. But when a politician with no particular history that I’ve seen of giving a damn about what foreigners in Taiwan want decides to grandstand his half-cocked notion, the authorities behind the MRT system jump to implement it, no matter what the supposed beneficiaries might want. Shame on them.

Indeed, this particular politician’s history is of opposition to what foreigners want in terms of signage, as shown by his partisan remarks in favor of Tongyong Pinyin (which is widely despised by Taiwan’s foreign population) and against Hanyu Pinyin (which is almost universally preferred). So I see ample reason to question his motives here.

This new nicknumbering system, by which MRT stations will be assigned additional names (e.g., “R13” and “O11”, for one particular station) is being touted as something aimed at helping foreigners. But I know of no foreigners who have needed any great help on the MRT system — at least not since the city finally implemented Hanyu Pinyin many years ago. Certainly there has been no great outcry from foreigners for any change of this sort. Instead, the nicknumbering system is simply a bad idea that will make things worse, not better. And it will be expensive to implement — money down the drain.

Let’s look at the fragment of the nicknumbering map that the Taipei City Government included with its post.

Taipei MRT nicknumbering map fragment

Try to ignore the horrific clutter for the moment.

Note the red line (which also has a line number … that no one uses except for the MRT system itself in its announcements, something implemented in the previous bad idea from the MRT system). Anyway, along the red line, Da’an Park (which the MRT system wrongly labels “Daan Park”) is nicknumbered “R06,” Da’an as R05, and Xinyi Anhe as R04. That would make Taipei 101 / World Trade Center station R03; and Xiangshan, which is presently the terminus, would be R02. The problem here is that at least two more stations are already planned for that end of the line: Songde (松德) and Zhongpo (中坡); that would mean the final(?) station would need to be oddly nicknumbered R00, though there are no other zero stations given elsewhere. And if any stations are added after that, either the whole system would need to be renumbered or the numbers would need to head into negatives. Absurd! Such is likely also the case with other lines.

This is the sort of thing that strongly indicates that the authorities haven’t really thought this through. They’re just going forward anyway, which is foolish.

For that matter, why are there zeros marked in the numbers below ten? (For example, why “R04” rather than “R4”?) Putting zeroes next to the capital letter O (for the orange line) is certainly not going to help clarity either. For example, are people going to get “O05” right at a glance? I doubt it.

Let’s get back to the matter of clutter. This is a real problem. The more information crammed into a map, the less clear the individual elements are.

And unlike distinct station names, nicknumbers are not easy to remember. If any foreign tourist asks someone how to get to BL13, for example, people likely won’t know how to answer them. Nicknumbering is thus the opposite of helpful, which is likely part of why almost no subway system in the world uses this, other than Tokyo, whose system is much larger than Taipei’s.

Also, I can’t help but wonder how they are planning on handling this in the announcements within the cars. Those announcements are in four languages (Mandarin, Taiwanese, Hakka, and English), which takes some time to get through. Adding nicknumbers in all of those languages is going to make for never-ending talking on the announcement system — and that’s without even figuring in the nicknumbers of transfer stations as well.

I note that, to date, the comments in English to the city’s Facebook post on this are more than twenty to one in opposition to the new system. Is anyone in the city government paying attention? I hope that readers here will add their own comments to the city’s Facebook page on this. (I’m not on Facebook myself.)

The last time the city of Taipei implemented nicknumbering for anything, this was met with near-universal derision from those it was supposedly designed to help. Most people in Taiwan’s foreign community quickly recognized it was a terrible idea — really, really terrible — which unfortunately didn’t stop Taipei from cluttering up the city’s signage with largely useless information. I would have thought that the city would have learned its lesson by now.

Ma Ying-jeou gives a thumbs-up in front of a nicknumbering system street sign in Taipei
This photo from 2000 shows an almost perfect storm of bad ideas supposedly meant to help foreigners. Ma Ying-jeou, during his days as mayor of Taipei, gives a thumbs-up to a road sign with his new nicknumbering system. And above the sign for 4th Blvd is a street sign from Chen Shui-bian’s tenure as mayor. It’s in the much-hated Tongyong Pinyin romanization system — or what was Tongyong Pinyin until the designers of Tongyong Pinyin changed the system (e.g., zh –> jh) and made a lot of their own signs wrong. And to top it off, it employs InTerCaPiTaLiZaTion, another annoying bad idea that still infects the street signs of Taipei.

Here, Taipei City Government officials, is what most foreigners need and want: correct Hanyu Pinyin. For the most part, that’s what the MRT system already has. Don’t screw it up.


Bill on indigenous languages of Taiwan moves forward

It is my impression that most of what the bill detailed below calls for has already been enacted, so I’m not sure what’s really new here. But if those painfully obvious points indeed have not yet been codified into law, it’s about damn time. (Speaking of related things that are long overdue: how about full secondary education on Lanyu (Orchid Island), with at least some classes taught in the language there?)

Citing UNESCO on anything concerning Taiwan, whose government is excluded by the United Nations, certainly raises eyebrows. And it would surprise me if any of the languages of Taiwan’s tribes are not at least “vulnerable.” But, for the record and later reference, here’s the story.

The Executive Yuan passed a draft bill Thursday to foster the development of indigenous languages.

The draft bill states that the government should hold accreditation tests for aboriginal language proficiency and that signage written in indigenous languages should be installed at government agencies and public facilities in indigenous areas.

It will be submitted to the Legislative Yuan for deliberation in the near future.

The Council of Indigenous Peoples (CIP, 原住民族委員會) said that Taiwan’s indigenous languages are important cultural assets and that indigenous languages are gradually dying out amid socio-cultural changes.

According to the UNESCO list of endangered languages, nine of the 42 languages and dialects spoken by Taiwan’s indigenous peoples are considered vulnerable: Amis, Bunun, Paiwan, Puyuma, Rukai, Taroko, Tayal, Tsou, and Yami, while Kanakanavu, Kavalan, Saaroa, Saisiyat and Thao are in critical danger of disappearing, and Siraya is considered severely endangered.

The indigenous language development bill states that the CIP should work out a system for writing the languages, complete the compilation of teaching materials of the languages and formulate policies for their preservation.

The CIP should also hold accreditation tests for aboriginal language proficiency, work out policies to cultivate teachers of the languages, compile teaching materials and data, publish textbooks and promote the development and preservation of the languages by offering subsidies, according to the bill.

source: Cabinet approves indigenous language development bill, CNA, November 26, 2015

Pinyin font: Skarpa

Today’s Pinyin-friendly font is Skarpa, by Aga Silva of Poland. It’s a bit quirky (e.g., second-tone o’s and lowercase q’s) but still sharp.

Hanyu Pinyin pangram using the Skarpa font

Skarpa was later modified into Skarpa 2, which is not free but which comes in several weights and types.

Most of Silva’s other fonts also can handle Pinyin with tone marks. Those are all commercial rather than free.

AP language exams and Chinese in U.S. high schools

Today I’m continuing my look at the U.S. high school Advanced Placement foreign language exams, focusing especially on the AP exam in Chinese Language and Culture. (See also AP exams: using highest and lowest scores to look at the case of Chinese.)In the graphs below, “Chinese” is the first column on the left.

The first and obvious point from graphing the numbers of high school students from the class of 2015 who took an AP foreign language exam is the dominance of Spanish. Combined, the exams for Spanish Language and Spanish Literature outnumber all of the other language exams put together … times three.


Now let’s look at the figures above broken down into the grade during which people took the exam. As you can see, there’s something different about when people take the Chinese exam. For all other foreign languages, most people take the exam their senior year. But the Chinese Language and Culture exam is most often taken by juniors.


That’s a little lopsided. So let’s take Spanish and Spanish Lit. out of the mix so we can compare the other languages more easily.

In just a few years Chinese has grown to be the third-most popular AP foreign language exam, behind Spanish and French. OK: way, way behind Spanish and about half of the number that French has. And Chinese comes in fourth if you count Spanish Literature. Still, Chinese now has more test takers than German. And it has more than Latin, Italian, and Japanese put together. But — you knew there’d be a but — the numbers for the AP Chinese Language and Culture exam are relatively large because most of the people who take it already know the language and didn’t learn it in an AP class. That is reflected in the charts above showing when people took the exam. (Note that Spanish also has a relatively high number of juniors taking the exam.)

The closest measure we have for native speakers and others with a much higher level of exposure to the language in question than other students is what students indicate themselves to the College Board on their answer sheets. Here’s how the College Board defines a “standard” student: They “generally receive most of their foreign language training in U.S. schools. They did not indicate on their answer sheet that they regularly speak or hear the foreign language of the exam, or that they have lived for one month or more in a country where the language is spoken.”

Here are the numbers for “standard” students in 2015 across various languages.


In this, Chinese drops from third place to fifth, behind Spanish, French, Latin (which is without a question on the standard group), and German, but still ahead of Italian and Japanese. When all test-takers are considered, AP exams in French outnumber those in Chinese by a little less than 2:1, which sounds very impressive (and, to some degree, it is). But when only the standard groups are considered, AP exams in French outnumber those in Chinese by more than 7:1.

Later in this series, we’ll look further at both the standard group and those not in it.