Speak Cantonese loud and proud – there is no need for it to play second fiddle to Mandarin
Like the youngest child in a family, Cantonese, which is unpredictable and delightful, does not follow rules and is far more influential than people give it credit for
Every now and then, the political rumour mill in Hong Kong is abuzz with talk of replacing Cantonese with Mandarin as the medium of instruction in schools.
It happened again earlier this month, but this time it wasn’t the usual brand of gossip setting passions aflame. Education chief Kevin Yeung Yun-hung suggested experts should look into whether the official tongue of mainland China should be used instead of Cantonese to teach the Chinese language.
Most Hongkongers were particularly offended by his comment, in which he said “the future development of Chinese language learning across the globe will rely mainly on Mandarin”.
His comments unwittingly hit a raw nerve with Hongkongers because many see their southern dialect as an exemplification of their proud heritage and distinctive identity. As a result, Yeung had no choice but to clarify it was not his intention to force schools to teach Mandarin.
I was at a school talk recently and was asked by a student whether I thought Cantonese was a dialect or language.
My answer was a simple one: it does not actually matter whether Cantonese has status as a language or a dialect. I elaborated my point with an unusual – but hopefully apt – analogy. If one owns a priceless antique but leaves it to collect dust in the corner rather than display it proudly, then what purpose does it serve?
At the end of the day, Cantonese serves an all-important function, and every day it is spoken it continues to evolve and develop; this is good news for Cantonese, as it means that it will continue to remain relevant and will certainly not fade into obscurity.
Cantonese has been around for 2,000 years and it is spoken by at least 60 million people in overseas Chinese communities. It is versatile, colourful, and ever evolving, and it is also fun, characterful, and very often cheeky and sarcastic.
Like the youngest child in a family, it does not follow the rules, and that is why it is so delightful and unpredictable. That is the beauty of Cantonese that makes people – even non-Chinese – love it so much and want to do their utmost to preserve it.
It is certainly not a problem to promote Mandarin in schools, but it does not have to be done at the expense of Cantonese. In fact, the more languages or dialects are spoken in a community, the better it is for diversity and development.
We should support and promote linguistic diversity because learning languages helps broaden our personal or even world perspectives. And speaking different dialects also affects how people of the same ethnic background think and behave. An individual’s point of view or behaviour can be influenced by the different varieties of a language or dialects they speak. For example, a Chinese who speaks Cantonese will think quite differently from one who speaks Shanghainese.
In the early 20th century, linguistic relativism – most commonly known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – was a fashionable theory stating that an individual’s world view and cognitive ability is influenced by the language he or she speaks. Although this theory has fallen in and out of fashion over the years and has been continually disproved, there has been some interesting research into linguistic relativity in Chinese, and some – albeit limited – research into the significance of Cantonese.
In 2000, a linguist at the University of Maryland named Minglang Zhou published an article exploring the metalinguistic effects experienced by Cantonese speakers. He found that people who spoke fragmented Cantonese in Guangzhou – thanks to the economic boom experienced in the region over 40 years – tended to adopt some Cantonese-specific cultural practices.
For example, the auspicious practice of displaying potted orange trees and serving oranges in celebration of a newly opened business is particular to Cantonese speakers, as the words gam and gat, meaning mandarin orange and auspicious respectively, sound very similar. Therefore, when these southern mainland businesses refer to said orange trees, they do so with a Cantonese accent rather than in Mandarin.
This may seem insignificant, but the point is that Cantonese is far more influential than people give it credit for. Furthermore, there is a great deal of anecdotal evidence from the city’s own pool of bilingual speakers who claim they feel like a different person when they code-switch between Cantonese and English.
This phenomenon of possessing different “souls” has been observed in many multilingual individuals, and Cantonese is no exception.
Multilingualism builds bridges, connects people, and leads to an inclusive society. It is the same with dialects. All languages and dialects should be equally respected and valued.
Linguists and psychologists have long been saying that speaking two or more languages is a great asset to the cognitive process. There is no need to fixate on making Mandarin superior to Cantonese. In fact, Cantonese and other dialects within the Chinese language are, essentially, a means of communication. Having access to multiple Chinese dialects adds to the variety of the Chinese language, and can even strike a responsive chord with non-Chinese people.
For example, the common Cantonese expression “ai yah” is a case in point. I featured this insanely versatile and colourful Cantonese slang in my weekly video tutorial for the Post and it went viral. The phrase can represent a wide range of emotions encompassing surprise, anger, disappointment, disgust, or even sympathy.
People from different age groups and ethnic backgrounds responded to this phrase because it serves the fundamental purpose of communication: it communicates and it elaborates.
So remember everyone, make sure to speak Cantonese loudly and proudly.
Luisa Tam is a senior editor at the Post