Cantonese: a Dialect in Peril?

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The language of Chinatowns across the world is changing. Traditionally, Cantonese speakers dominated most Chinatowns. But that is changing, as Chinese immigrants are arriving from many different regions of China.

Two people speaking different, mutually incomprehensible dialects are likely to fall back on China's lingua franca, Mandarin.

But one Cantonese-American in New York has made it her mission to save her dialect. Every Thursday night you can find Kim Mui at a noisy café in the heart of Manhattan's Chinatown.

Mui teaches Cantonese to adults. Her students pay no tuition, just donations. There are no fancy flashcards, just a book she has put together over nearly a decade of teaching.

"My ancestors came to America during the gold rush to build the transcontinental railroad," says Mui. "I know they struggled a lot. So I want to pay tribute to my ancestors by teaching other people Cantonese."

A decade ago the majority of Chinese Americans were of Cantonese origin and Cantonese was the Chinese dialect spoken in Chinatown. Not anymore.

New immigrants from different regions of China have brought different dialects, like Fuzhou and Hakka.
Dialect differences

Chinese shares a common writing system. But when spoken, each dialect is mutually unintelligible.

Take the Chinese for I love you. Written, it's æ??ç?±ä½ . Spoken, there is "no structural difference" between the Mandarin and Cantonese, according to Julie Tay, director of the Asian Cultural Exchange, a learning center in New York's Chinatown. But it sounds very different from one dialect to the next. In Mandarin, it sounds like "woh ai knee." In Cantonese: "noh noi nay."

So no matter which Chinese dialect any two people speak, they can share the same newspaper. They can "read the same article and laugh about the same things but they may not be able to speak to one another," says Tay.

More and more speakers of Cantonese and other dialects are turning toward the northern dialect of Mandarin. Mandarin is the broker dialect between dialects.

The growing influence of Mandarin in New York mirrors, to a certain extent, what's happening more forcefully in China. Every city — in some cases, every town — speaks some dialect variety.
No alternatives

There's much more internal migration in China today, so people often have no alternative but to turn to Mandarin. What's more, the Chinese government is stepping up its enforcement of Mandarin as the lingua franca of the country, according to lexicographer David Prager Branner.

Children speak Mandarin in school. Mandarin is used for government, business and commerce.

"There are a lot of people who simply don't know the language of their grandparents," says Branner. "That's causing friction. "Local language is a big part of what makes you feel that you are who you are."

Last summer, in the Cantonese-speaking province of Guangdong, a politician proposed that regional television news be broadcast in Mandarin instead of Cantonese.

His comments sparked demonstrations. Protestors held up signs that read, "If you can't understand what we're saying, then go back to where you came from."

Julie Tay of Asian Cultural Exchange says Beijing was quick to recant the politician's proposal. Tay recalls that a spokesman promised government support for Cantonese language and culture.

But, she says, the spokesman "was saying it all in Mandarin."

In places like New York, no one is enforcing Mandarin over Cantonese. And while Mandarin is increasingly used for day-to-day interactions, Cantonese speakers find their own dialect more expressive.

"Most people see Mandarin as being pale and humorless," Tay says. "And it's not a language you can make love in or fight with."

Cantonese is still the native tongue of more than 70 million people, in China and around the world. But outside the home, it's spoken by far fewer people than a generation ago.