SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Three decades ago, finding opportunities to learn Cantonese in San Francisco wasn’t difficult. But today, in the city that has drawn speakers of Cantonese from southern China for more than 150 years, there are fears that political and social upheaval could diminish a language that is a cultural touchstone.
Chinese government pressure for wider use of Mandarin – already the national language, spoken by 1 billion people – as well as the country’s changing migration patterns have contributed to an undeniable shift in Cantonese. It is a change that has reverberated from East to West.
From the US to the UK and beyond, native and second-generation Cantonese speakers are concerned about the preservation of the language, spoken by some 85 million people worldwide. They fear that their children will not be able to communicate with elderly parents. Or worse, the Cantonese language and culture will not survive another generation.
Ceci Pang, a former kindergarten teacher, leads classes for children at the Rainbow Seeds Cantonese school in London. Most of his students come from families of mixed origins.
“A lot of (parents) want their kids to be able to communicate with their grandparents,” she said. “It’s so hard here, there are so few learning resources and a lot of parents get frustrated and give up. That’s usually when the parents come to see me.
In the UK, as in the US, most primary and secondary schools offering Chinese teach Mandarin. This has left many migrant families struggling to find ways to pass on their heritage.
Some are taking to social media for advice and camaraderie – a Facebook group called “Cantonese Parents” has thousands of members sharing advice on everything from Cantonese books to YouTube videos. Some organize local Cantonese family get-togethers, while others seek out Cantonese tutors.
Pang said she didn’t notice many explicit concerns about the death of Cantonese as a language. But, she said, that could change as more Hong Kong migrants move to the UK. Britain opened its doors last year in response to China’s crackdown on civil liberties in the city. Since then, thousands of Hong Kong families have fled to the UK
“I think in a few years, when more and more families from Hong Kong move here, there may be more parents worried that their children will completely reject Cantonese when they are so immersed in the English environment,” she said.
In China, there has been concern for years about the decline of Cantonese, spoken in the province of Guangdong (southeast China) and in the cities of Hong Kong and Macao. The promotion of Mandarin was enshrined in the Chinese constitution in 1982. A suggestion in 2010 to increase Mandarin programming on a Cantonese television channel caused such a public reaction in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong, that the government was forced to reassure that Mandarin would not replace Cantonese.
Guangzhou, formerly known as Canton, is considered the birthplace of Cantonese. But today, it’s a hub of manufacturing and tech jobs attracting Mandarin speakers. Nowadays, many young people only understand Cantonese but do not speak the language.
While Cantonese is no longer dominant in people’s lives as it used to be, it’s too early to say that the language is in crisis in Guangzhou. It is still spoken in homes and among friends, and there are Cantonese television channels as well as Cantonese announcements in public transport.
On the other hand, Cantonese has retained its primacy in Hong Kong. It’s the city’s lingua franca, used by 90% of the population, said Lau Chaak-ming, assistant professor of linguistics at Hong Kong University of Education.
“Everyone who comes to Hong Kong should learn some Cantonese. And to succeed in most careers in Hong Kong, you need to be fluent in Cantonese,” said Lau, who launched an online Cantonese dictionary in 2014 to help people learn the language better.
While most lessons in Hong Kong schools are still taught in Cantonese, many have added Mandarin to their curriculum as Beijing tries to tighten its grip on the semi-autonomous city. The influx of mainland Chinese for work or education also boosted Mandarin, and more Hong Kong residents learned to speak Mandarin to do business with the mainland.
But such changes have not eroded Cantonese, Lau said. “Cantonese has never been so strong in Hong Kong,” he said.
That’s a far cry from the United States, where even in San Francisco there are few opportunities to pursue Cantonese in high school and beyond. The San Francisco Unified School District offers Cantonese and Mandarin language immersion programs for students in kindergarten through 8th grade. But in high school, Mandarin is the only option to study Chinese for foreign language credits.
In 1990, when Grace Yu was hired at City College of San Francisco, there were four Cantonese teachers and a dozen Cantonese courses offered each year. But for the past six years, Yu has been the only Cantonese teacher, teaching just three classes a year.
“Vacancies have not been replaced by Cantonese instructors. Instead, they hired Mandarin instructors,” Yu said.
She described her situation as “a little lonely”.
Yet there is a glimmer of hope. One of City College’s administrators—who grew up speaking Cantonese—proposed a resolution to preserve the Cantonese curriculum with at least one instructor. The board approved it this spring.
“Cantonese classes won’t be canceled if I retire,” Yu said.
Like Yu, Sik Lee Dennig was the only Cantonese lecturer at Stanford University until her retirement last year. After more than 20 years, the school chose not to renew its contract, which effectively eliminated the Cantonese language program. A “save Cantonese” petition has generated an endowment. But the university would only restore half of the classes.
This prompted Dennig to strike out on her own and start a non-profit organization, the Cantonese Alliance, to help teachers and interested learners around the world. The online resource includes podcasts, videos and documents, as well as Cantonese pop music and comics.
“Cantonese is not a dialect of Mandarin” as some people mistakenly think, Dennig said recently over a Cantonese dim sum meal of pork and shrimp dumplings.
Cantonese can be particularly difficult to learn. In writing, Mandarin and Cantonese use the same Chinese characters. But spoken, tonal languages - where even the most subtle word inflection can change the meaning – are not similar or interchangeable. Mandarin has four basic tones. Cantonese has nine, which can be difficult to tell apart.
Meanwhile, independent Chinese schools are helping fill the void as Cantonese-speaking communities grow — and not just in Chinatowns.
Aleyda Poe has supervised the Cantonese kindergarten at Merit Chinese School in Plano, Texas for more than a decade. Initially a parent who enrolled her two sons to pass on her cultural roots, she now does so for other families.
“I hope it’s not a dying language,” Poe said. “But you know, we’ll do our part and see how long they take us.”