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 PhD student in anthropology, she was researching the history of the Inland Empire Chinatowns.
She also wanted to communicate better with her parents, immigrants from China who worked as a seamstress and a cook.
In late 2020, she was stunned to hear that Stanford, citing COVID-related budget problems, was laying off its longtime Cantonese teacher, Sik Lee Dennig.
As efforts began to save Cantonese at Stanford, the language remained under threat worldwide.
It is being swamped by Mandarin, the official language of more than 1 billion people in China and Taiwan — as different from Cantonese as Spanish is from French.
Many Americans are more familiar with Cantonese’s singsong cadences than the more clipped tones of Mandarin.
Cantonese is the language of San Francisco Chinatown’s dim sum restaurants and herbal shops, of Northern California towns such as Marysville, where Chinese gold miners settled in the 1850s.
But in the U.S. too, Mandarin is what many new immigrants speak and what is taught in classrooms from elementary school through college.
Many descendants of Cantonese speakers are third-, fourth- or fifth-generation Americans who find fewer and fewer places where they can learn their ancestral tongue, either to link them to the distant past or to relatives who are still alive.
The Cantonese program at City College of San Francisco was also saved from the brink earlier this year.
As with Cajun French, Irish, Navajo or Okinawan, the reasons for preservation have more to do with history and heritage than practicality, when dominant languages such as English and Mandarin are increasingly the lingua franca.
But for some Cantonese speakers, connecting with their roots is no less important than the ability to understand a news broadcast or negotiate a contract. They bristle at linguists’ classification of their family’s native tongue as a dialect rather than a full-fledged language.
After taking Dennig’s classes, Ng could go beyond basic queries with her parents to discussing emotions — their fears of illness, or their isolation during the pandemic.
“Cantonese is not an esoteric language that only serves the interest of a few,” said Ng, 28, now a visiting assistant professor at Grinnell College with a focus on the archaeology of transpacific migration and Asian diasporic communities.
Those who speak both say Cantonese is more colorful and idiomatic than Mandarin, with more cursing.
Mandarin’s four tones are enough to flummox English speakers. For example, depending on the inflection, “ma” can mean “mother,” “numb,” “horse” or “yell at.”
With nine tones, Cantonese is even more challenging to learn. Scholars say it is closer to ancient Chinese than Mandarin is — a Tang Dynasty poem would sound more like the original if read in Cantonese.
The two languages share a common writing system. Some words are pronounced relatively similarly, while others diverge.
Dim sum — which literally means to lightly touch the heart — is dian xin in Mandarin.
In Mandarin, “xie xie” is “thank you.” In Cantonese, it’s “m-goi” or “doh-je.” The first is for when someone helps you or performs a service. The second is preferred when you receive a gift or when you want to stress how grateful you are.
Many early Chinese immigrants to California were from the Taishan region of Canton province — now romanized as Guangdong province. The Cantonese they speak is substantially different from the Hong Kong version considered standard.
In China, people in many regions learn Mandarin in school while speaking another dialect at home. Officials have launched an aggressive campaign to promote Mandarin, hoping to convert 85% of citizens by 2025.
Hong Kong, a bastion of Cantonese, is firmly under Chinese control, and Mandarin is poised to gain more primacy there.
In the L.A. area, Mandarin has become more dominant in recent decades with the arrival of immigrants from Taiwan and China.
Sophia Leung, a case manager at the L.A. Chinatown Service Center, made sure that a recent Zoom training for bystanders to hate crimes was offered in both Mandarin and Cantonese.
With Heidi Lau, the Stop Hate program coordinator at the Asian Youth Center, she explained in Cantonese what to do if you witness a hate crime, which have been on the rise against Asian Americans during the pandemic.
“Of course, we need both languages to reach the whole Chinese community. You can’t cut off a big part of the population,” said Leung, who was born in Hong Kong and speaks Cantonese at home with her husband and son.
Dennig, a Hong Kong native with a PhD 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 the grandmother’s life would overflow with goodness.
“To make language come alive, make it magnetic, you need to apply it beyond the classroom,” said Dennig, who is in her 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 were a student, what would be interesting or fascinating? What would help us get comfortable and inspired by the language?” Dennig said.
For Gina Anne Tam, the Cantonese she learned from Dennig’s class was vital to her research on the role of local languages in the making of Chinese national identity.
“Not to offer these classes — not to give others the immersion that I experienced — it’s sad because to be at ease in a language is to gain so much more of its culture and its depth and its beauty,” said Tam, now an assistant professor of history at Trinity College in San Antonio.
Jamie Tam — no relation to Gina — described Dennig’s classes as “100% crucial” to her understanding of her 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 every time I was stuck.”
“Were it not for those classes, there’s no way I’d be able to communicate with my grandmother right now,” said Tam, 33, now a professor at Yale’s School of Public Health, who took Cantonese all four years of college. “It’s not just a bunch of language lessons, to be honest. It’s deeper than that.”
After Stanford officials told Dennig in October 2020 that her contract would not be renewed, Jamie Tam started a “Save Cantonese” petition.
More than 5,000 people signed it. Many former students wrote testimonials about how Dennig helped them connect with their families or deepen their academic research.
School officials eventually said they would restore two Cantonese classes, down 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, the University of Hawaii and Williams College, with Cantonese classes.
In the last 14 years or so, enrollment in language classes at universities nationwide has declined by 20%, said Stanford spokeswoman Joy Leighton. Stanford still offers more than 40 languages, from Afrikaans to Vietnamese.
“The Cantonese-language program was never eliminated,” Leighton said. “This decision to reduce courses, for Cantonese as well as many other languages, was based partly on student demand.”
In February, Scott Chun Ho Suen, chief executive of S.J. Distributors, a local Asian food wholesaler, donated $1 million to establish an endowment for Cantonese at Stanford.
“In order for it to be inherited, it needs to be spoken continually,” said Suen, who grew up in Hong Kong. “If the number of speakers of this language dwindles, a significant part of Cantonese culture will also be lost.”
Suen and his wife, Jenny Lin, hire a private Cantonese tutor for their children — most Saturday Chinese schools only offer Mandarin.
Even with Suen’s gift, Dennig is not coming back.
Instead, she is launching the Cantonese Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the language.
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