The Cantonese language is spoken by millions around the globe, but UBC linguistics researcher Zoe Lam, winner of UBC’s Three Minute Thesis competition, says societal and government pressures mean it could disappear within a couple generations.
Is Cantonese really in danger?
There are 70 to 100 million speakers of Cantonese now, which is equal to the population of Italy. It might sound crazy to say that Cantonese is in danger, but linguists look at the longer trend, instead of this current point in time. And we don’t look just at the absolute number of speakers; we also look at the government’s attitudes and speakers’ attitudes.
UNESCO uses a number of different criteria to assess the situation of a particular language, and a language can quickly disappear in one or two generations’ time. For example, in Vancouver there are a lot of Cantonese speakers whose children are “heritage speakers,” which means they learn the language from their parents. But when those heritage speakers have children they will probably speak English to their kids.
What is the situation in China?
In southern China, the Guangdong National Language Regulations were enacted to restrict the use of Cantonese in the media. When I was last in China, there were banners saying “Be civilized, speak Putonghua (Mandarin)” everywhere, including at the airport.
In Hong Kong, a 2008 curriculum document stated that using Putonghua to teach Chinese in schools is the long-term goal. Many people see that as a threat of cultural genocide. The Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Leung Chun-ying, took the oath of office in Putonghua, unlike the former Chief Executives, who did it in Cantonese. Many people think that his language choice was a “kowtow” to Beijing.
According to an unofficial survey, 72 per cent of primary schools in Hong Kong use Putonghua as the medium of instruction in Chinese language classes. That’s worrying. For a lot of abstract concepts like political science or philosophy, they may only know how to think in Mandarin, and not be able to express themselves very well in Cantonese.
Why is it important to preserve a language?
A lot of people believe that language is the carrier of a culture, so the loss of a language is the loss of a whole culture as well. We cannot guarantee how many speakers we will have 50 years down the line. It’s like the frog in hot water. When you are in the pot you feel, “No big deal, my friends speak Cantonese and my parents speak Cantonese,” and you don’t see the bigger threat in the bigger picture. I think as a linguist I have this responsibility to tell people what’s happening.