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.
You can follow Michelle da Silva on Twitter at twitter.com/michdas.