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Cantonese still thriving in Metro Vancouver despite wave of Mandarin-speaking immigrants

February 1, 2016

By Chuck Chiang, Vancouver Sun |

METRO VANCOUVER — Walk the streets of almost any Lower Mainland neighbourhood during the Chinese New Year season, and it’s still common to hear the greeting “Gung Hay Fat Choy”. Today, however, the words increasingly generate a blank stare from the city’s newest Chinese immigrants.

The phrase is in Cantonese, the traditional language of the southern Chinese province of Guangdong (and still the main language in Hong Kong and most overseas Chinese communities). Over the past decade, however, the language spoken by the vast majority of new Chinese immigrants has shifted to Mandarin, China’s official language.

The question of the changing Mandarin-Cantonese dynamic is being felt (to varying degrees) in almost every community where both Chinese languages are spoken. Not surprisingly, the debate is percolating in Vancouver, a city with high concentrations of both communities.

Last September, UBC started its first for-credit undergraduate Cantonese language course, with the help of philanthropists from Hong Kong, while rejecting a similar offer from Mainland Chinese officials to expand Mandarin classes, a language that is increasingly perceived as more useful and mainstream in the world today. The controversy drew significant media attention and was even reported by The Economist.

UBC defends its decision.

“What we wanted to do was to make Cantonese a reward to students who have already made a commitment in the department to Mandarin, so that it gives them a little extra in being able to jump to Cantonese, as well,” said Ross King, head of UBC’s Asian Studies program, of the new class. “It’s that little extra boost in their Asian literacy.”

King added the controversial decision to disallow native Mandarin and Cantonese speakers from applying to the class was to focus on Asian Studies students whose mother tongue is not Chinese, but have shown a certain level of aptitude and interest in Mandarin. Given the limited teaching resources (there is only one instructor at the moment), King said the decision was made to spread Cantonese language knowledge to non-heritage speakers, rather than those who have family or cultural background in Chinese linguistics.

“If we opened up all eight sections of Cantonese to native speakers of Mandarin, they would all fill and have wait-lists,” King said. “And the students would be from commerce, from science, not Asian Studies students. We wanted that, with our limited resources, the priority would be going to our students.”

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