The Disappearance of the Cantonese Language

UBC linguistics researcher details the complex, worrying trend of Cantonese “cultural genocide”

News 1 - Tasman Brewster

(Tasman Brewster)

The language with the most native speakers in the world, Mandarin, is threatening to overtake the traditional Cantonese language group of Southern and Southeastern China, including Hong Kong and Macau.

Multilingualism proponent Zoe Lam, a University of British Columbia linguistics researcher and PhD candidate, sees solutions to this problem at home and school during a child’s formative years.

Lam, who in principle sees no issue with both languages coexisting, deems the lack of intergenerational transmission of Cantonese to be one factor in determining the scope of the threat.

“Why don’t we see both Cantonese and Mandarin schools at the same time? It is because of the attitude of some Cantonese speaking parents [who] think that if they do not speak English to their children at home, they will not be able to learn English and catch up at school.”

What she deems “the intentional killing of a generation of speakers,” however, is the flip side of this issue. The cultural genocide of Cantonese, says Lam, is a deeply political matter that problematizes the authenticity of language—“the carrier of culture”—and encourages parents to abandon their local dialects to satisfy more contemporary concerns. This abandonment is what effectively puts an end to the intergenerational transmission of the Cantonese language.

Lam likens the fading away of Cantonese to the atrocities committed by Canadian residential schools.

“At the government policy level, you just need one generation to kill a language. When there are no children picking it up as their mother tongue, then that is the end. As a linguist, I am sad to see banners in [Chinese] schools saying ‘civilized people speak Mandarin.’”

The connotation of such signage is clear for Lam. The speakers of local Cantonese dialects have become a marginalized group in China, she says. “If children see these banners everywhere, they will believe they are true.”

Regarding the extent that patterns of migration can contribute to an informed discussion of these topics, Lam says we should look closely at changes in Census Canada data.

“In recent years, the demographic changes imply that the need to learn Mandarin has increased. In 1991 and 1996, the top country of birth of recent immigrants was Hong Kong,” where Cantonese is the traditional language.

In contrast, 2001 and 2006 saw the People’s Republic of China, where the use of Mandarin is encouraged in schools and in the media, take over top spot. India and the Philippines rounded out the top three respectively in these later years, with Hong Kong falling out of the top ten.

“Mandarin replacing Cantonese in Chinese schools reflects the market trend as well as what parents think,” says Lam. “Different varieties of Cantonese historically have been taught in Chinese schools in BC.”

Recently, though, with greater immigration from Mainland China, Mandarin is understood to be the more profitable and pragmatic of the languages from a business perspective. Of the two languages, Mandarin is also the favoured one in most immigrant households for some of these same reasons.

An increased demand for learning to speak Mandarin—due to a jump in Mandarin-speaking immigrants and the Chinese government’s preference for Mandarin—has put into motion a greater number of Mandarin schools relative to Cantonese ones in the Lower Mainland of B.C.

Being that it is the official language of the Chinese government and ruling elite, Mandarin, and the intentions of many of its advocates, seems to be politically-charged.

“Some of the organizations that promote Chinese language are actually sponsored by the Chinese government,” says Lam. “Because they have the money, they have the power.”

“When people talk about Cantonese versus Mandarin, they think that the two languages are mutually exclusive—this is not true. People can pick up several languages.”

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