You Say Hello, I Say Goodbye to Cantonese?

Is the marginalization of Cantonese by the university a reflection of a larger problem: the death of the language?

by casey tran

Hola. 你好. Bonjour. नमस ्ते Guten Tag. こんにちは. Xin chào. Mabuhay. Shalom. Sua s’dei. 안녕하세요. Pause and listen to the many different languages and dialects spoken by students on the UC Berkeley campus. Whether it is Spanish, Mandarin, Hindi, German, Japanese, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Hebrew, Khmer, or Korean, students here are learning to say “hello” in many different languages. From the dead language of Latin to the romantic language of French, the university has a diverse course offering. One language, however, has been left out of the picture: Cantonese.

Cantonese is a dialect that originates from Southern China. It is primarily spoken in the Guangzhou and Macau provinces and Hong Kong. Within the U.S., Cantonese is heavily spoken in the Chinatowns of San Francisco and New York. Both Cantonese and Mandarin share the same written characters; however, the pronunciations for the languages differ to the point where a Cantonese speaker cannot understand Mandarin.

According to Maricela Chan-Liang, one of the Intermediate Cantonese DeCal instructors, most of mainland China speaks Mandarin rather than Cantonese.
“Cantonese is more of a dialect within China. A lot of people speak Cantonese in Hong Kong and the south part of China, but then for the rest of China, it’s all Mandarin,” Chan-Liang said.

The widespread use of Mandarin has spread to other parts of Asia such as Singapore and Malaysia. The Chinese government has declared that Mandarin is the official language of the country despite the many other dialects in the country. As a result, the government has the tendency to
overlook the other dialects and instead promote Mandarin. Most of China’s media such as CCTV and People’s Daily are Mandarin-based.

China’s education system also marginalizes the Cantonese language in favor of Mandarin, a fact reaffirmed by Chan-Liang’s experience in Hong Kong. When she studied in Hong Kong, she could not write in her native tongue. “Cantonese is not an official language. When you write it down, it’s considered slang. Like in Hong Kong, when I studied there, for Chinese essay that you have to write for composition, [you would write down how you would] say it in Mandarin. You cannot write what you actually say in Cantonese as an official, formal language,” Chan-Liang said.

How sad is it that the majority of students studying in Hong Kong are taught that their native tongue is slang? How sad is it that these students are taught that the language that their ancestors spoke and passed down through generations is considered illegitimate?

Governments and institutions make languages illegitimate. Languages and dialects that have been spoken by people for centuries don’t become illegitimate without institutional policy or violence. Cantonese is an example of a language that has been suppressed by institutional practices. The Chinese government has set up an education system in Hong Kong that teaches its youth that their native tongue is illegitimate and that Mandarin is the superior language.

This perception of Mandarin as the superior language over Cantonese can be seen in our American schools and universities. A recent New York Times article reported that in the New York Chinese School, the number of Mandarin classes outnumbered Cantonese classes by three to one. A community that was once primarily Cantonese is slowly turning Mandarin. Which leads to the question: is Cantonese a dying language?

The East Asian Languages and Cultures Department at Berkeley offers Mandarin, but not Cantonese. This may be because of the perceived universal advantages of Mandarin over Cantonese. Chan-Liang speculates
that perhaps there is an emphasis placed on Mandarin within the university
because it is one of the top three universal languages along with English and Spanish. Students who learn Mandarin can go overseas to China or elsewhere in Asia and communicate effectively for business other professions. However, who says that students who learn Cantonese can’t put those language skills to use? Hong Kong is a major industrial city where Cantonese is mostly spoken. Who says that Cantonese speakers can’t do business there?

In the Bay Area, there is a larger population of Cantonese than Mandarin speakers. Go into Chinatown Oakland or San Francisco and it is more likely that you’ll hear Cantonese over Mandarin. Who says that students who learn Cantonese can’t go into those communities and do non-profit work? Who says that students can’t write for those communities? Or open up medical firms that would be geared toward those Cantonesespeaking communities?

Learning Cantonese is just as beneficial as Mandarin. Mandarin may provide more opportunities for students looking to go overseas given the 850 million speakers in the world. However, the 70 million Cantonese speakers
in the world should not be overlooked either. Both languages provide local and international opportunities.

At a university that prides itself on diversity and its academics, Berkeley should embrace all the languages and dialects of the world and not shut out certain languages that are perceived to be non-beneficial to the future endeavors of students. Students should be able to learn a language just to learn. The university is here for the student to learn everything and anything. And by learning everything and anything, the student should be able to decide what he or she is passionate about and pursue that subject. By shutting out certain languages, the university is taking away opportunities from the student. It also means a loss of connection to personal history and culture for many students.

Chan-Liang affirms this sentiment. “It’s good that they would know Mandarin, but that means that the younger generations wouldn’t know Cantonese, which is bad,” Chan- Liang said.

The Chinese government has decided that Cantonese is inferior to Mandarin. It has labeled Cantonese as informal and slang. Since when does Berkeley simply accept a government’s decisions without critically thinking about
them? What were the Chinese government’s motivations in marginalizing Cantonese and its speakers? Is it right to marginalize a language that has been spoken by people for centuries and currently has millions of speakers worldwide?

No, it isn’t. It isn’t right to marginalize Cantonese given its potential opportunities for students and its rich history. In the past, Berkeley has made controversial and progressive decisions about its academics such as the establishment of the Ethnic Studies program in 1969. The university should continue to challenge the conventions of academics and pioneer new areas to be explored. Why can’t we have both Cantonese and Mandarin? Why are we forced to choose only one? Cantonese may be a difficult language to teach given that it is not standardized and does not have its own writing system, but we are Berkeley after all. And at Berkeley, we don’t let the difficulty of a challenge stop us from trying to find a solution.

The consistent popularity of the Cantonese DeCal on campus is evidence of students’ desire to maintain a connection to their history and culture. It is also evidence of students’ continuing interest in the Cantonese language. Cantonese is not obsolete or dying. Given the 70 million speakers worldwide and the large concentration of Cantonese speakers in the Bay Area, it is still thriving, but we need to continue to fight for its inclusion in universities. Not just for the Cantonese language, but also for other languages and cultures that are being marginalized by governments and institutions. Only then can we receive the education that we want and deserve. many different dialects in China.