Is Cantonese an endangered language?

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      An article recently published in the China Post claimed that due to the widespread use of Mandarin in Hong Kong over the last decade, Cantonese is a dying language. Since Hong Kong was handed back to China by Britain in 1997, more than 160 primary schools have switched over from teaching students in Cantonese to Mandarin. According to the article, more parents are speaking to their children in English and Mandarin, in hopes that it will help their kids enter an international school. Also, the number of visitors from Mainland China to Hong Kong has increased, and many businesses have made it a priority that staff greet customers in Mandarin.

      I noticed this trend on my last visit to Hong Kong, which was two years ago. On prior trips, hearing people speak Mandarin was a rarity. A basic understanding of Cantonese was all you needed because most of the street and building signs were written in English—as were maps, menus, and almost anything else a traveller would need to read. Additionally, nearly everyone in Hong Kong can speak some English (due, in part, to 156 years of British colonization), so knowing Mandarin wasn’t very useful in Hong Kong.

      On my last visit, I noticed the influx of visitors from China, especially around the high-end commercial districts. Entering a shop, restaurant, or hotel popular with Mainland Chinese tourists, you were more likely to be greeted with “ni hao” than in Cantonese or English. It didn’t really occur to me then how the city had changed until I arrived back in Vancouver and noticed a similar trend.

      The influx of Chinese immigrants that moved to Vancouver during the 1980s and 1990s were from Hong Kong. Back then, almost all of the Chinese language schools in Vancouver reflected this population and taught Cantonese exclusively. When I was dragged (usually kicking and screaming) to Chinese school at the Vancouver Chinese Presbyterian Church on Saturday mornings throughout most of my elementary and highschool years, the three-hour-a-week lessons comprised of Cantonese reading and writing (where we learned traditional characters rather than simplified, which is popular in Mainland China) with a half-hour slot of Mandarin using pinyin.

      Today, the idea that “Cantonese is an endangered language”, which Stephen Matthews, an associate professor in linguistics at the University of Hong Kong, said in the China Post article, isn’t far-fetched. In Vancouver, the rise in immigrants from Taiwan and Mainland China is changing the language dynamics of the city’s Chinese population. Now, quite often, if you hear Chinese being spoken, there’s a good chance that what you’re hearing is Mandarin rather than Cantonese, and the number of Chinese schools teaching Mandarin—and the number of students flocking to schools to learn one of the world’s fastest growing languages—is increasing each year.

      A quick search online, and I see that the Chinese school I attended has kept with their Cantonese and half-hour of Mandarin program. Another religious-affiliated school, Pui Ying Christian Services Society, which runs 14 Chinese schools across the Lower Mainland, also has some classes offered in Cantonese (depending on which location you go to), but the majority are in Mandarin.

      At local colleges and universities, Langara College offers Mandarin lessons only to school-age children; however, there are two Cantonese courses offered at the Continuing Studies level. Both Vancouver Community College and the Vancouver School Board offer basic Cantonese language courses, while UBC’s Continuing Studies Chinese program is taught in Mandarin only.

      According to the linguistics professors interviewed in the China Post article, a language must be used at home and in “literature and cultural arts and all the complicated domains of language use” in order to thrive. Thomas Lee, a linguistics professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, pointed out in the article that if Cantonese is not used in mainstream education in Hong Kong, it could decline the same way Shanghainese has (which is spoken by less than half of the population in Shanghai).

      While I’m learning Mandarin these days, I still try to maintain what I absorbed in nearly a decade’s worth of Chinese school by using Cantonese at every chance I get. Often, when I do, I get asked when I immigrated to Vancouver from Hong Kong, to which I reply that I was born here. I have a feeling the assumption that if I learned Chinese in Vancouver, it would be Mandarin, and if I can speak Cantonese, I must be from Hong Kong will only increase as I get older and the number of Cantonese-language schools decline in the city. Hopefully, people won't stop using it completely. There are some funny and beautiful words and phrases that can only be expressed in Cantonese. In Metro Vancouver, especially if you’re around Chinatown or Richmond’s Golden Village, and you try to use one of these Cantonese idioms, you’ll still get an acknowledging nod and smile—for now.

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      anonymous person

      Jun 14, 2012 at 2:53pm

      Given Canton (Guangdong) province itself has 10x more cantonese speakers than HK, why no mention of it? Has it died there already?

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      Save Vancouver

      Jun 14, 2012 at 7:21pm

      Let's hope so. It's probably one of the most unpleasant languages to listen to, like two cats fighting in a sack. How can it be so different from the beautiful Mandarin is a mystery.

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      Chinese Canadian

      Jun 14, 2012 at 7:34pm

      can't wait tell the anglo-racists start blabbing about how vancouver and richmond have too much cantonese speaking "wei"

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      Zhen de ma?

      Jun 14, 2012 at 8:09pm

      I was born & raised here as well and learned to speak Cantonese at home, can't read or write. I was just in Guangzhou for a month and it was quite frustrating that many people didn't understand me. Many people that live there are migrants that don't bother to learn the local dialect. Most Cantonese speakers can pick up Mandarin but not vice versa which is even more frustrating. Traditional Cantonese has 7 tones while Mandarin has 4 so Mandarin speakers often can't 'hear outside the box'. Mandarin also has a much smaller vocabulary. Folks interested in learning Chinese should learn Cantonese first then Mandarin, it's a lot easier that way! I hear a lot of Mandarin in Vancouver, it's a shame that Cantonese is a dying language/dialect.

      HK use to be/is the Chinese Hollywood, so a lot of Chinese people who don't speak Cantonese at home learned it by watching TV/movies, listening to music. These days Taiwan is pretty big in that area resulting in Cantonese disappearing even faster.

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      Jun 14, 2012 at 10:28pm

      Not only is Cantonese an endangered language but ALL regional Chinese language varieties may face extinction in the long term if China continues its over zealous homogenizing policies (ie: ban on regional languages from entering the education system) in order to create social cohesion and preempt regional fragmentation. China, of course, is not alone. Many Advanced Industrialized Economies today have in the past (and may even presently) officially and actively discouraged the use of what is deemed non-standard varieties. Sometimes the 'varieties' are as different to the standard language as say French is to Italian. This is true for France with in the case of Occitan, as well as Japan in the case of the Ryukyu languages and the list continues.

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      Jun 15, 2012 at 3:50am

      1) The author of this article is a disgrace. I live in Hong Kong and Mainland China full time. 160 did not switch over to Mandarin. They just added a Mandarin course for 45 mins, 2x/week. The Language of instruction is Cantonese. To be realistic, how can all of the teachers in Vancouver switch over to French so quickly? Same situation with HK.

      2) The classroom photo is in Mainland China, not HK.

      3) Everyone is HK does not speak English. Only a small fraction can communicate in it. Only the tourist areas have English, everywhere else is only available in Chinese words. The standard of English in HK is very low.

      b) Parents do not speak to their kids in Mandarin or English. Look in public. How can their Cantonese parents learn Mandarin so quickly in 15 years and start talking it to their kids?

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      Jun 15, 2012 at 10:14am

      On the one hand language is culture and history, no argument there. I see value of language in itself – in this case a dialect.

      But I have come to realize the Chinese uses it as a form of discrimination. When two people living in the same country with equal education, yet cannot communicate with each other due to the way they pronounce words – that is a form of discrimination in my book.
      I believe the Chinese people are one of the rare races where they discriminate their own through the sound of their voice. It is not about skin colour, everybody looks the same. It is almost like the caste system from India. Where India’s system is out in the open and people can see it, talk about it. This Chinese language discrimination is more subtle and harder to even ‘talk’ about, it is very frustrating. Somebody living in one part of China (lets say the poorer part in the mountains) will not be able to work / communicate effectively in the coastal cities, due to their voice.

      Think about it... Shanghai has their local dialect. A Shanghai person cannot talk to somebody from HK or Guangzhou. Same for Taiwan... etc

      It is a quick way for the locals to tell you are from out of town... a ‘foreigner’.

      If you see it this way, that is why there are so many dialects in China. It was designed to keep the locals and those from out of town separate. During war periods, this was used to screen people.

      The bigger and I hope better picture is - Will China become friendlier towards their people and ultimately the rest of the world? Treat everybody as equals when their language barrier is removed? I believe this is a real problem and just like human rights, politics, this language barrier must go too.

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      Taxpayers R Us

      Jun 15, 2012 at 11:10am

      What was that joke that Russel Peters made about the language ~ falling off a hill? Perhaps it's doing itself in for sounding so incredibly ridiculous :)

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      Jun 16, 2012 at 2:03pm

      I am very happy to see talk of the Cantonese language's situation in English media. There is a pernicious push by the government of China and Chinese culture to eliminate the Cantonese language, and I am glad that people are discussing the situation of this language.

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      Zhen de ma?

      Jun 18, 2012 at 2:31pm

      @ HK - Maybe it depends on the school? I met a family in HK, the school their kids attend are taught in Mandarin - not Cantonese anymore. I was quite surprised by that.

      @ 2cents, I agree about the discrimination. Chinese people can be quite racist and discriminatory against their own. I'm half Chinese but look full Chinese, I definitely did not get treated as nicely as my foreigner looking friends. There were times where I didn't understand what was going on and the locals were quick to judge and be rude until they realized I was a foreigner. Cantonese people in Guangzhou definitely look down at Mandarin speaking migrants from the mainland and get quite offended if you mistaken them for one. Same thing in HK and even in Richmond!

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