The quest to save Cantonese in a world dominated by Mandarin

Laura Ng had a dual motive for taking Cantonese classes at Stanford.

As a doctoral student in anthropology, she was researching the history of Chinatown in Los Angeles.

She also wanted to communicate better with her parents, Chinese immigrants who worked as seamstresses and cooks.

In late 2020, she was stunned to learn that Stanford, citing COVID-related budget issues, was firing her longtime Cantonese teacher, Sik Lee Dennig.

As efforts began to save Cantonese at Stanford, the language remained under threat worldwide.

It is overwhelmed by Mandarin, the official language of more than a billion people in China and Taiwan, as different from Cantonese as Spanish is from French.

Orlando Kuan stands outside Eastern Bakery hoping to attract customers to San Francisco’s Chinatown. Cantonese is the language of the neighborhood’s dim sum restaurants and herbal shops.

(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

Many Americans are more familiar with the lilting cadences of Cantonese than the more clipped tones of Mandarin.

Cantonese is the language of dim sum restaurants and herbal shops in San Francisco’s Chinatown, northern California towns such as Marysville, where Chinese gold miners settled in the 1850s.

But in the United States too, Mandarin is what many new immigrants speak and what is taught in elementary through middle school classrooms.

Many descendants of Cantonese speakers are third-, fourth-, or fifth-generation Americans who are finding fewer and fewer places where they can learn their ancestral language, either to connect them to the distant past or to living relatives.

City College San Francisco’s Cantonese program was also saved from the abyss earlier this year.

As with Cajun French, Irish, Navajo or Okinawan, the reasons for preservation are more related to history and heritage than practicality, whereas dominant languages ​​such as English and Mandarin are increasingly the lingua franca.

Students at Stanford University.

Students at Stanford University. It is one of approximately 20 universities, including Cornell, New York University, Ohio State, University of Hawaii, and Williams College, with Cantonese courses.

(Ben Margot/Associated Press)

But for some Cantonese speakers, the connection to their roots is no less important than the ability to understand a news program or negotiate a contract. They bristle at linguists’ classification of their family’s native language as a dialect rather than a language in its own right.

After taking Dennig’s classes, Ng was able to go beyond basic questions with her parents to discuss emotions – their fears of illness or their isolation during the pandemic.

“Cantonese is not an esoteric language that only serves the interest of the few,” said Ng, 28, now a visiting assistant professor at Grinnell College, specializing in the archeology of trans-Pacific migration and Asian diaspora communities.

Those who speak both say Cantonese is more colorful and idiomatic than Mandarin, with more swear words.

The four tones of Mandarin are enough to confuse English speakers. For example, depending on the inflection, “ma” can mean “mother”, “numbed”, “horse”, or “howl after”.

With nine tones, Cantonese is even harder to learn. Scholars say it is closer to Ancient Chinese than Mandarin – a poem from the Tang dynasty would sound more like the original if read in Cantonese.

Both languages ​​share a common writing system. Some words sound relatively similar, while others diverge.

Dim sum – which literally means lightly touching the heart – is dian xin in Mandarin.

In Mandarin, “xie xieis “thank you”. In Cantonese, it is “m-goi” or “doh i.” The first is when someone helps you or does a favor. The second is to be preferred when you receive a gift or when you want to emphasize how grateful you are.

The corner of Jackson and Stockton streets in San Francisco's Chinatown, with the Bay Bridge in the background.

The corner of Jackson and Stockton streets in San Francisco’s Chinatown, with the Bay Bridge in the background.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

Many early Chinese immigrants to California came from the Taishan region of Canton Province – now romanized as Guangdong Province. The Cantonese they speak is significantly different from the Hong Kong version considered standard.

In China, people in many regions learn Mandarin at school while speaking another dialect at home. Authorities have launched an aggressive campaign to promote Mandarin, hoping to convert 85% of citizens by 2025.

Hong Kong, a stronghold of Cantonese, is firmly under Chinese control, and Mandarin is poised to gain more prominence there.

In the Los Angeles area, Mandarin has become more dominant in recent decades with the arrival of immigrants from Taiwan and China.

Sophia Leung, case manager at the LA Chinatown Service Center, made sure a recent Zoom training for bystanders on hate crimes was offered in Mandarin and Cantonese.

With Heidi Lau, coordinator of the Stop Hate program at the Asian Youth Center, she explained in Cantonese what to do if you witness a hate crime, which has increased against Asian Americans during the pandemic.

“Of course, we need both languages ​​to reach the whole Chinese community. You can’t cut off a large part of the population,” said Leung, who was born in Hong Kong and speaks Cantonese at home with her husband and son.

After teaching Cantonese at Stanford for more than 20 years, Sik Lee Dennig launched a nonprofit to preserve the language.

After teaching Cantonese at Stanford for more than 20 years, Sik Lee Dennig launched a nonprofit to preserve the language.

(Paul Kuroda / For The Time)

Dennig, a Hong Kong native with a doctorate in educational linguistics, began teaching Cantonese at Stanford in 1997.

Once, a student wanted to know what to say on her grandmother’s 90th birthday. Dennig suggested a blessing from the East Sea, so that the grandmother’s life would overflow with goodness.

“To bring language to life, to make it magnetic, you have to apply it beyond the classroom,” said Dennig, who is in his 60s.

She taught students how to make rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves for the Dragon Boat Festival and showed them around San Francisco’s Chinatown. The resurgence of martial arts in pop culture inspired her to lecture on Bruce Lee.

“I try to imagine if I was a student, what would be interesting or fascinating? What would help us feel comfortable and inspired by the language? said Dennig.

For Gina Anne Tam, the Cantonese she learned in Dennig’s class was essential to her research into the role of local languages ​​in shaping Chinese national identity.

“Not offering these classes – not giving others the immersion that I experienced – it’s sad because to be fluent in a language is to gain so much more of its culture, depth and her beauty,” said Tam, now an assistant. professor of history at Trinity College in San Antonio.

Jamie Tam – unrelated to Gina – described Dennig’s classes as “100% crucial” to his understanding of his Chinese-American identity.

Raised in Castro Valley, Tam longed for a closer relationship with her elders and didn’t want to keep asking others to “translate whenever I got stuck.”

“Without these classes, there’s no way I can communicate with my grandmother right now,” said Tam, 33, now a professor at Yale’s School of Public Health, who took Cantonese. during the four years of university. “It’s not just a bunch of language lessons, to be honest. It’s deeper than that.”

After Stanford officials told Dennig in August 2020 that his contract would not be renewed, Jamie Tam started a “Save Cantonese” petition.

More than 5,000 people have signed it. Many former students have written testimonials about how Dennig helped them connect with their families or further their academic pursuits.

School officials eventually said they would restore two Cantonese classes, up from three before the cuts. Dennig could continue to teach, but she would be paid by the hour.

Stanford is one of about 20 universities, including Cornell, New York University, Ohio State, University of Hawaii, and Williams College, with Cantonese courses.

Over the past 14 years or so, enrollment in language courses at universities nationwide has fallen by 20%, Stanford spokeswoman Joy Leighton said. Stanford still offers more than 40 languages, from Afrikaans to Vietnamese.

“The Cantonese curriculum was never eliminated,” Leighton said. “This decision to reduce classes, for Cantonese as well as many other languages, was based in part on student demand.”

In February, Scott Chun Ho Suen, general manager of SJ Distributors, a local Asian food wholesaler, donated $1 million to create an endowment for Cantonese at Stanford.

“For it to be inherited, it has to be spoken continuously,” said Suen, who grew up in Hong Kong. “If the number of speakers of this language decreases, an important part of Cantonese culture will also be lost.”

Suen and his wife, Jenny Lin, hire a private Cantonese tutor for their children — most Chinese Saturday schools only offer Mandarin.

Even with Suen’s gift, Dennig does not return.

Instead, she launched the Cantonese Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the language.

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