University of British Columbia (UBC) linguistic researcher Zoe Lam says that the preference for Mandarin shown by the Chinese government threatens the existence of Cantonese. Zoe Lam says that if the current trend continues, the language COULD disappear. Cantonese is the more common Chinese language spoken by Chinese communities overseas, especially in Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, the United States, Western Europe, Australia and Canada. Mandarin and Cantonese are two distinct languages but they also share several words. Their written forms are closely related as well, but speakers would not be able to understand each other.
Zoe Lam is a PhD candidate and a first place winner in the recent “Three Minute Thesis Competition” of the University of British Columbia says that although it is estimated that there are about 70 to 100 million speakers of Cantonese worldwide, the Chinese government’s preference to Mandarin, the Putonghua language, is a definite threat to Cantonese. She says that there are even banners in China that promote the use of the language. Banners in the airport read: “Be civilized. Speak Putonghua” according to Lam. She added that in Hong Kong, where Cantonese is the official language, an unofficial survey indicated that about 72 percent of primary schools are now using Putonghua as the medium of instruction when classes in Chinese language are conducted.
Unlike his previous predecessors, Leung Chun-ying, Hong Kong’s new chief executive used Putonghua when he took oath of office, a fact that was viewed by many as kowtowing to Beijing. In Guangdong, the National Language Regulations now restricts the media on using Cantonese.
The situation is worrying, according to the UBC linguistics researcher. If the Chinese government is saying that Putonghua is the language of the civilized, then children will learn to associate Cantonese as a language for the country bumpkins and Mandarin as the language of the urbanites, a language that could lead to better job prospects in the future.
The phenomenon is not only occurring in China, according to Lam. She said that in Vancouver, there are plenty of Cantonese speakers whose children learned the language through their parents. They are called heritage speakers. However, these heritage speakers are predicted to speak only in English to their future children. In Richmond, Vancouver, Cantonese is very important since most of the immigrants residing in the area are Cantonese speakers who came from Hong Kong in the 1990s.
But now several of these Cantonese parents choose not to teach their children Cantonese because the common language of business is now Mandarin. Some are opting not to teach them any Chinese language for fear that this would impede the ability of their children to speak English. Lam said that it is all right for children to learn Mandarin as it would be useful for their job hunting in the future, but it is not right to forget their mother tongue because of it.
Lam added that the richness of Cantonese language and culture could not be found in other Chinese cultures. The Cantonese language is richer and has more idioms that only exist in the language, including proverbs and the meanings and teachings behind them, which would be very difficult for Mandarin speakers to grasp and fathom.