The Decline of the Cantonese Language

I have a 2-year-old son. He’ll be a second-generation Chinese-American, who — unless our lives completely go sideways for the next two decades — will attend American schools and absorb American culture like any other kid around the neighborhood. My wife and I have made a point to converse with him solely in our native tongues to try to cram as much as we can of his ethnic heritage, but we both know that it’ll be a matter of time before he’ll settle with American English as his comfort language.

For now, though, my son speaks about 80% Cantonese1. Funnily enough, if we were to enroll him in Chinese language classes onward, they’ll very likely be teaching Mandarin.

Some background. Cantonese is one of a few major dialects of the Chinese language, one that’s spoken in many of the southern regions of China. Mandarin is the country’s official language, and the Chinese government has been pushing every one of its citizens to standardize both the language as well as its accompanying simplified system of writing. On many occasions, this bifurcation of language and the attempts at assimilation via unification have caused political strife, both in Taiwan and in Hong Kong.

The disconnect comes from the history of immigration to the west. Prior to China’s economic revival of the past 20–30 years, Chinese immigrants who were economically and politically able to move to a western country were mostly from Hong Kong and southern China. Back then, my family left the city-state due to the transfer of sovereignty from the UK back to China, and in every North American city we visited, the population of Chinese immigrants shared the same Cantonese language and culture.

Of course, times have changed since then. Mandarin has become an important language to learn, even in the west. There are now many more Mandarin-speaking Chinese moving to American cities, as students and investors, and vacationers. Go to Chinatown in a major city in North America, and you’ll hear Cantonese, the language of early immigrants; go to a university, and there’ll be Mandarin, spoken by international students.

My worry is that we’re immersing our son in a language that’s fated to become obsolete, stuffed out by the political will of a much bigger and more powerful contingent. My generation will likely be the last one described as “Chinese” internationally; it has enjoyed outsized recognition based on the aforementioned immigrants, along with a formerly bustling media industry that produced numerous international movie stars and its own sub-genre of music. Even now, these media industries are retooling themselves in Mandarin to appeal to an even bigger mainland Chinese audience.

That said, compared to actual endangered languages, Cantonese is many decades and hopefully centuries removed from truly being vulnerable to extinction.

I just hope it can remain relevant for his children.

  1. My childhood was spent in Hong Kong, and my spouse’s in Guangdong.

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