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Vancouver university begins Cantonese courses amid fears the language is being lost to Putonghua

With Putonghua increasingly dominant in Chinese language classes worldwide, news that the University of British Columbia will introduce Cantonese courses has caused a stir

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 September, 2015, 6:03pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 September, 2015, 10:48am

Safeguarding Cantonese has become an emotive issue in recent years in Hong Kong and Guangdong, where many citizens worry that their mother tongue is being marginalised in an increasingly Putonghua-speaking world. So when the University of British Columbia in Vancouver announced that it would offer credit-bearing Cantonese courses starting this month, the news immediately generated a buzz.

It even brought a stream of daily e-mail messages to Professor Ross King, the university's head of Asian studies, thanking him for helping to save the language.

But that's not why the university introduced its Cantonese programme. The idea is to offer a course that reflects the community of Vancouver as well as the history of Chinese immigrants in the city, King says.

"It's about doing justice, doing what's right by a robust and intellectually comprehensive programme. It makes sense for teaching and research, too, though there is a lot of worry about the legal status of Cantonese."

There are different kinds of Cantonese - street talk and then more formal [language] that's used in TV news. At UBC we'll do both
Raymond Pai Kit

The development has drawn attention in publications from Sing Tao to The Economist. Fairchild Radio, a Chinese-Canadian radio network, also recently devoted an entire session of its phone-in programme to the topic.

The show's host, Wallace Chan Shum-tin, has been surprised by the intense interest in the Chinese community. "After I picked the topic, I found out there was also lot of discussion in Hong Kong."

In fact, there were so many people phoning in to his show, quite a few couldn't get through.

One caller complained of Putonghua becoming dominant in Vancouver and believes it is the result of a policy to marginalise Cantonese speakers, Chan says. Another caller grumbled about shop staff who would not serve her unless she spoke Putonghua.

"In the end they resorted to speaking English. It's as if they are saying, 'You should speak to me in Mandarin'," Chan recalls.

Such anxiety over an apparent downgrade of Cantonese usage perhaps stems from the influx of immigrants from China, whose numbers far outstrip those from Hong Kong.

Census data show the number of people from China in Vancouver rose 88 per cent from 1996 to 137,245 in 2006, while the Hong Kong immigrant numbers fell 12 per cent to 75,780 in the same period. The demographic shift has widened even further in recent years as the numbers of Hongkongers shrink while immigration from China continues to climb.

The university is offering two Cantonese courses at the 300-level (typically third year), and students must have studied Chinese for at least a year before they can enrol. This prerequisite is partly to weed out students who are looking for easy credits and also to avert the difficulties of trying to cope with a class of hugely varying abilities. Both courses are led by Hong Kong-born linguist Raymond Pai Kit.

I want people to know Cantonese is a language, not a dialect. It is spoken by so many people all over the world.
Chi-Sum Watt, UBC donor

Pai, who will teach basic conversation for everyday situations such as going to a restaurant, shopping and checking the weather, says the curriculum won't be much different from a typical first-year language class. But students continuing in the course next year will focus on learning traditional Chinese characters instead of simplified characters used in the Putonghua programme.

"The goal will be to have students able to read both simplified and traditional [characters], and possibly to do more writing in advanced classes," he says.

"Some people think Cantonese cannot be learned in the classroom, but it depends on the resources and time invested," Pai says. "There are different kinds of Cantonese - street talk and then more formal [language] that's used in TV news. At UBC we'll do both."

Among other things, students will be learning Cantonese slang, and Pai will use expressions from Canto-pop, movies and television shows, including a series featuring the home-grown cartoon pig, McDull.

"Cantonese is a dynamic language and it's constantly evolving," he says.

King concedes the classes are being rolled out at a time of heightened sensitivity about the place of Cantonese language in Hong Kong and China  - and the growing dominance of Putonghua in Vancouver.

But he says the department has long mooted the possibility of integrating Cantonese into its Chinese-language programme, which was established in the late 1950s.

The Cantonese classes are supported by a C$2 million (HK$11.7 million) donation from the Watt brothers, Chi-Sum and Alex. Hong Kong immigrants who settled in Vancouver several decades ago, they have a long record of philantropy at the university and agreed to help fund the courses after King and his colleagues flagged their interest informally three years ago.

"We thought it was a good idea. Not long ago some community centres offered courses in Cantonese, but nowdays it's only Mandarin," Chi-sum Watt says. "I want people to know Cantonese is a language, not a dialect. It is spoken by so many people all over the world."

Historians still argue over the accuracy of a tale about how China almost adopted Cantonese as the official language (it lost by a few votes when revolutionary leaders met in 1912 to decide on which language to be used in the new Chinese republic). But many linguists agree that the grammar and pronounciation of Cantonese is closer to ancient Chinese than Mandarin, also referred to as Putonghua, or the common language.

Henry Yu, a UBC historian whose parents came from Guangdong, says because Vancouver was the top destination for Hongkong migrants before 1997, they tend to look to the city as a bastion for Cantonese. At the same time, there is a sense of futility about the future of the language in Hong Kong, so people are pinning their hopes on UBC.

Radio host Chan has observed an obvious rise in the use of Putonghua in Vancouver, especially in the past decade, but he views this as a natural development, as is Canadian government officials' adoption of the language.

"Canada and China have more economic interaction so it's understandable for them to use more Mandarin, and second-generation Chinese-Canadians are learning Mandarin, even Westerners," he says.

"As someone who was raised in Hong Kong, I am very happy someone has donated money to preserve Cantonese, but I think the two can coexist. We have to accept the reality that Mandarin will be dominant."

With China poised to overtake the US as the world's largest economy, the UBC's existing Chinese programme, which uses Putonghua, is in demand as never before. Still, King believes Chinese officials should welcome the addition of Cantonese courses as a step that will help enhance understanding of the country and its people.