With more speakers of Mandarin than Cantonese in Canada now, what future for the southern Chinese dialect there?

Within 50 years, Cantonese may no longer be spoken in Canada. Blame the steady fall in immigration from Hong Kong and Guangdong in the past 20 years, and a steep rise in migrants arriving from the rest of China

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 September, 2017, 7:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 11 September, 2017, 6:54pm

If you took a time machine back 50 years to Vancouver and told Toishan speakers their dialect was heading for extinction, they would have laughed at you. So says Zoe Lam, a linguistics researcher and PhD candidate at Canada’s University of British Columbia (UBC).

Spoken by natives of Taishan, a city in Guangdong province with a population of about one million, it was then Vancouver’s dominant Chinese dialect. Today, it’s rarely heard spoken on the city’s streets.

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The question now is whether Cantonese could suffer the same fate. Data from Canada’s 2016 population census confirms what immigration data would suggest: the country has more Mandarin than Cantonese speakers – 592,040 versus 565,270.

In British Columbia, the province where Vancouver is located, the number of Mandarin speakers has almost caught up to – and could soon overtake – the Cantonese-speaking population. In a region that has long been a Cantonese stronghold, the census found there were 186,325 Mandarin speakers compared to 193,530 residents who spoke Cantonese.

Lam isn’t surprised. “If you look at the statistics from 1991, 1996, 2001, 2006, Hong Kong was the top origin of immigration from 1991 to ’96. Since then it’s changed to China,” she says.

In Hong Kong, you have to speak Mandarin in order to have a future, both economically and socially
Henry Yu

Henry Yu, an associate professor in the department of history at the university, says Hongkongers represented almost all Chinese immigrants to Canada between the 1970s and 1997 – the year of the city’s handover from Britain back to China. After ‘97, numbers dropped off significantly. Since 2000, most Chinese migrants to Canada have come directly from China.

Traditionally, Hongkongers primarily settled on the east side of Vancouver, and mostly remain in these same neighbourhoods, Yu adds.

Urban planner Andy Yan, of Simon Fraser University, illustrates this demographic clearly with a map of the city showing the predominance of Cantonese speakers in East Vancouver, while immigrants from China are more widespread, but with noticeably larger numbers living on the city’s west side, where property prices are higher. In the neighbouring municipality of Richmond – which was once a Hong Kong immigrant stronghold – there are more or less equal numbers of Mandarin and Cantonese speakers.

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Yu says if Yan’s map is put into context, “then Cantonese is threatened with extinction”. There’s a bigger, political factor at play in the fate of the Cantonese dialect globally, Yu points out, and that is unfolding far beyond Canada’s borders.

“It’s the power of the [Chinese] state to determine the dominant language because practically everyone in China speaks Mandarin. Even though Cantonese was the dominant language in Guangdong, within 50 years it’s [going to be] under threat,” Yu says. “The long-term trend is ... Mandarin is the language of the state. In Hong Kong, you have to speak Mandarin in order to have a future, both economically and socially.”

Yu goes as far as to say he’s noticed that Cantonese is even losing its relevance in popular culture. “What used to be a thriving film industry in Hong Kong now needs the China market, and music used to be localised, with Canto-pop in the 1980s, but now it’s increasingly smaller,” he says.

There is a silver lining for the dialect, though, according to Raymond Pai, the senior Cantonese instructor at UBC. He has seen growing enthusiasm for his classes.

Pai says 60 students signed up for his first course in 2015. There are now 300 students enrolled for the coming academic year in beginner, intermediate and advanced classes.

Pai, who is Indonesian-Chinese and grew up in Hong Kong speaking Mandarin and Cantonese, observes that more than half the students taking his classes are native Mandarin speakers. His students have friends or relatives who speak Cantonese; some of them want to work in Hong Kong, or believe if they work in Vancouver it’s helpful to know both Cantonese and Mandarin.

“Vancouver is a very ideal environment to learn Cantonese ... you can learn from watching media or talking to neighbours and friends, or use it to order food in restaurants,” Pai says.

He even believes that interest in learning the dialect has led to a revival of Cantonese culture in Vancouver, including Cantonese opera, and more interest in slang words. Pai returns to Hong Kong at least once a year and enjoys learning new vocabulary that locals have created, inspired by popular culture and news events.

Pai does not believe that the growing number of Mandarin speakers spells the end of Cantonese. He says such a suggestion is an oversimplification. “The [2016 census] doesn’t surprise me. When I arrived two years ago in Vancouver, the sheer number of [Chinese] immigrants around me speaking Mandarin was greater than Cantonese. On the streets I would hear more Mandarin,” he recalls.

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Pai says he has observed that people from Guangzhou seem to feel more comfortable speaking Cantonese in Vancouver than in China. “There isn’t a strict policy of having to speak Mandarin here, so they feel more willing to speak Cantonese,” he says.

Linguistics researcher Lam, who is originally from Hong Kong, points out that previous censuses only gave respondents the option to state that they spoke “Chinese”. The 2016 census allowed them to specify whether they spoke Cantonese, Mandarin or another dialect. This might help explain why it’s only just come to light that there are so many Mandarin speakers in the country, she says.

Lam’s particular interest in the census stems from her research on Canadian-born Chinese of Cantonese parents and how much of the language they learn and retain. What she has discovered may hold the key to the fate of both Cantonese and Mandarin.

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“In the past, heritage language was stigmatised. Immigrant parents wanted their children to speak English so that they would assimilate into society faster and easier. But people can be multilingual,” she says. “In Canada we are proud of diversity, but some think if you pick up a heritage language, you can’t learn English. That’s not true. The public needs to be educated about the benefits of multilingualism.”

Lam adds that in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Chinese migrants came to Canada from just one province (Guangdong), hence the general predominance of Cantonese speakers in Vancouver. Nowadays, with Chinese immigrants arriving from across the country, the “general language-scape” is changing.

“When you go to a Chinese restaurant, you can’t assume all the waiters are Cantonese-speaking. In places like Richmond, I see more property agents putting up signs with their names in simplified Chinese, whereas in East Vancouver it’s more traditional Chinese characters,” she says.

As for the future of spoken Chinese in Canada, it will be up to the future generations to determine. Lam says the next generation of Chinese immigrants, in 10 to 15 years’ time, will decide what languages will be more dominant.

I have many students who came to Canada in the early 2000s and they only speak conversational Mandarin – they can’t read or write because they aren’t taught it.
Henry Yu

“If the current trend continues, Cantonese will decline. Adult learners may not be native speakers. Will they speak Cantonese to their kids? Lam asks. “There are people who went to Chinese school as a kid and then regretted not learning and tried to learn as an adult, and it’s harder. I don’t want to see Cantonese decline, but it could in 50 years.”

On the weekends, Lam teaches practical Cantonese phrases to adult students in Vancouver’s Chinatown, with about 80 people on the waiting list for the small class. Half the class is non-Chinese, the other half are Canadian-born Chinese. When she asks them why they are in the class, the latter reply they want to be able to communicate with their grandparents.

UBC professor Yu says that although the statistical increase in the number of Mandarin-speaking immigrants changes the context of what it means to be Chinese-Canadian – traditionally southern Chinese – future generations may speak neither Mandarin nor Cantonese.

“If you bring a kid from China, as young as three to four years old, to Vancouver and then they go through [English] kindergarten to grade 12, the chances of them being bilingual by the time they’re 18 is slim. It’s like other Cantonese-speaking migrants.”

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He says that despite talk of the “rise of China”, English is still the dominant language in Vancouver, and always be. “I have many students who came to Canada in the early 2000s and they only speak conversational Mandarin – they can’t read or write because they aren’t taught it,” he says.

“[Chinese] aren’t used to generations of migration – they have no idea what is going to happen to their kids. They think their children are going to speak English without an accent, but not realise they will only be able to speak basic conversational Mandarin later.”