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As Cantonese declines, efforts to preserve it grow

By Terry Tang, Haven Daley and Sylvia Hui
Associated Press

Photo by Karolina Graboska

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Thirty years ago, it wasn’t hard to find opportunities to learn Cantonese in San Francisco. But today, in a city that has drawn Cantonese speakers from southern China for more than 150 years, there are fears that political and social unrest is weakening the language as a cultural touchstone.

The Chinese government’s push for wider use of Mandarin — already the national language spoken by a billion people — and the country’s changing immigration patterns have undeniably contributed to the Cantonese shift. This is a change from east to west.

From the US to the UK and beyond, native and second-generation Cantonese speakers are concerned about protecting Cantonese, which is spoken by some 85 million people worldwide. They worry that their children will not be able to communicate with older relatives. Or worse, Cantonese and Cantonese culture will not be passed on for another generation.

Ceci Pang is a former kindergarten teacher who teaches children at Rainbow Seed Cantonese School in London. Most of her students come from mixed-race families.

“many [parents] Want their children to be able to communicate with their grandparents,” she said. “It’s so hard here, there are so few learning resources, and a lot of parents feel frustrated and give up. This is usually the point that parents come to me with. “

In the UK, as in the US, Mandarin is taught in most primary and secondary schools offering Chinese. This makes it difficult for many immigrant families to find ways to pass on their legacy.

Some turn to social media for advice and camaraderie — a Facebook group called “Cantonese Parents” has thousands of members sharing tips on everything from Cantonese books to YouTube videos. Some organize local Cantonese house parties, while others look for Cantonese tutors.

Pang said she hasn’t noticed many explicit concerns about Cantonese’s demise as a language. But, she said, that could change as more Hong Kong immigrants settled in Britain, which opened its doors last year in response to China’s crackdown on civil liberties in Hong Kong.Thousands of Hong Kong families have since fled to the UK

“I think in a few years, when more and more Hong Kong families are settling here, there may be more parents who are worried about their children being completely immersed in English and rejecting Cantonese entirely,” she said.

The decline in Cantonese usage in China, Guangdong province, and the cities of Hong Kong and Macau has been a concern over the years. The promotion of Mandarin was written into the Chinese constitution in 1982. In 2010, a proposal to increase Mandarin programming on Cantonese television channels sparked public backlash in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province, and the government was forced to reassure that Mandarin would not replace Cantonese. .

Guangzhou, formerly known as Canton, is considered the birthplace of Cantonese. But today it is a hub for manufacturing and tech jobs, attracting Mandarin speakers. Now many young people can only speak Cantonese, not Cantonese.

While Cantonese is no longer as dominant in people’s lives as it used to be, it’s too early to speak Guangzhou’s language in crisis. It is still used at home and among friends and has Cantonese TV channels as well as Cantonese announcements on public transport.

In contrast, Cantonese has maintained its leading position in Hong Kong. It is the lingua franca spoken by 90% of Hong Kong’s population, said Liu Zeming, an assistant professor of linguistics at the Education University of Hong Kong.

“Everyone who comes to Hong Kong needs to learn some Cantonese. To be successful in most careers in Hong Kong, you need to be fluent in Cantonese,” said Lau, who founded the online Cantonese dictionary in 2014 to Help people learn Cantonese better.

While most classes in Hong Kong schools are still taught in Cantonese, many have added Mandarin to the curriculum as Beijing seeks to tighten its grip on the semi-autonomous city.

The arrival of mainlanders working or educated in the mainland has also boosted the development of Mandarin, and more Hong Kong residents have learned to speak Mandarin to do business with the mainland.

But the changes have not weakened Cantonese, Liu said. “Cantonese has never been stronger in Hong Kong,” he said.

This is a far cry from the US, where even in San Francisco there are few opportunities to learn Cantonese in high school and beyond. The San Francisco Unified School District offers Cantonese and Mandarin immersion programs for grades K-8. But in high school, Mandarin is the only option for studying Chinese for foreign language credit.

When Grace Yu was employed at City College of San Francisco in 1990, there were four Cantonese teachers and a dozen Cantonese classes per year. But for the past six years, Yu has been the only Cantonese professor, teaching only three classes a year.

“The vacancies were not replaced by Cantonese teachers. Instead, they hired Mandarin teachers,” Yu said.

She described her situation as “a little lonely”.

Still, there is a silver lining. A trustee at City College – who grew up speaking Cantonese – introduced a resolution to keep at least one teacher in Cantonese classes. The board approved it this spring.

“If I retire, Cantonese classes will not be cancelled,” Yu said.

Like Yu, Li Xinni was the only Cantonese lecturer at Stanford until her retirement last year. After more than 20 years, the school chose not to renew her contract, effectively canceling Cantonese classes. A “Save Cantonese” petition prompted a donation. But universities will only resume half of their classes.

This prompted Denig to go out on his own, starting the Cantonese Alliance, a non-profit organization to help teachers and interested learners around the world. Online resources include podcasts, videos and handouts, as well as Cantonese pop music and comic books.

“Cantonese is not a dialect of Mandarin,” Denig said recently over a Cantonese dim sum meal of pork and shrimp dumplings, as some people mistakenly believe.

Cantonese is especially challenging to learn. In writing, Mandarin and Cantonese use the same Chinese characters. But in spoken language, tonal language — where even the slightest inflection of words can change meaning — is not similar or interchangeable. Mandarin has four basic tones. There are nine in Cantonese, and it’s hard to tell them apart.

Meanwhile, as the Cantonese-speaking community grows, independent Chinese schools are helping to fill the void — not just in Chinatown.

Aleyda Poe has managed Cantonese preschools at Merit Chinese School in Plano, Texas for over a decade. Originally, she was a parent who let her two sons inherit her cultural roots, and now she is doing so for other families.

“I hope it’s not a dying language,” Poe said. “But you know, we’ll do our part and see how long it takes them.”

Associated Press news associate Caroline Chen in Beijing and video producer Katie Tam in Hong Kong contributed to this report.

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