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Where is the Cantonese at Stanford?
Illustrated by Sunny Li.

Where is the Cantonese at Stanford?

June 30, 2014, a couple months before New Student Orientation. I needed to register for my language placement tests, yet when I opened the registration site, the language that I speak as fluently as English wasn’t listed.

I grew up speaking Cantonese as my first language, a language indigenous to southeastern China and Hong Kong, from which my parents immigrated. In fact, part of the reason why I chose to attend Stanford was that I got a brochure from the language department during Admit Weekend, listing Cantonese as one of its offered languages. I was excited to attend a university that would formally recognize my language and my culture as important enough to be taught.

Confused, I emailed the language department to ask whether there had been a mistake. My heart sank when I received their response: “Cantonese conversation courses do not fulfill the language requirement. If you have any experience with Mandarin, please take the Chinese placement test.”

Mandarin and Cantonese are as similar as Portuguese and Spanish. The spoken word is different; the characters vary depending on whether they are written in the simplified form of Mainland China or traditional form of Hong Kong and Taiwan. Linguistically, they are two separate languages. Cantonese is incomprehensible to a Mandarin speaker, and vice versa.

In short, the advertisements were false; my bilingualism did not meet the one-year language requirement. Cantonese classes are important enough to be taught, but not important enough to be recognized for the language requirement.

Why doesn’t Cantonese count for the foreign language requirement?

The real reason definitely doesn’t have to do with the number of Cantonese speakers in the world. There are an estimated 80 million Cantonese speakers across the world. In the U.S. alone, according to the U.S. Census, 458,840 people speak Cantonese and 487,250 speak Mandarin — a very close margin. In fact, there are more people that speak Cantonese in the U.S. than most of the other offerings in the language department that count toward the language requirement, such as Hawaiian (26,205) and even Japanese (449,475). Even Latin — a “dead” language — fulfills the language requirement, but not Cantonese.

It also doesn’t have to do with political legitimacy. Cantonese is an official language of Hong Kong and Macau, but not China. Yet Tibet is not its own country either — and Tibetan is recognized for the foreign language requirement.

Other peer institutions recognize and offer multiple Cantonese language classes beyond the conversational classes at Stanford. BYU, NYU, University of British Columbia, and University of Toronto provide one year of introductory Cantonese. Even at the high school level, San Francisco Unified School District, where over 75% of all the Chinese-American children identify as Cantonese speakers, has offered Cantonese bilingual programs for years—and they have a placement test.

Most confusingly of all, Stanford has a mechanism for earning a “Proficiency in Foreign Language Notation” through an Oral Proficiency Interview and Writing Proficiency Test. The tests are scored on the Foreign Service Institute/American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages scale. And guess what? Those tests are offered in Cantonese.

The very same language testing system the Stanford Language Center uses for proficiency evaluation recognizes Cantonese as a foreign language and provides mechanisms for placement testing. I could shell out $209 and take the exact same test that Stanford uses to assess proficiency in a foreign language — the problem clearly isn’t that placement tests are nonexistent.

In addition, after writing this article, the Stanford Language Center offered to proctor the Stanford Chinese placement test for me, customized for Cantonese. I would encourage students who speak languages without placement tests to contact the Language Center on an individual basis to see if an alternative placement test can be conducted. However, Stanford continues to lack an official Cantonese class that meets the language requirement.

So why is Cantonese excluded?

The Stanford Language Center

To find out more about how the Stanford Language Center decides which languages fulfill the requirement and which do not, I spoke with Elizabeth Bernhardt, director of the SLC and professor in German Studies.

According to Bernhardt, “All foreign languages meet the language requirement, with some caveats. Students must demonstrate proficiency in reading, listening, speaking and writing, which is usually fulfilled with a one-year sequence in the language. There is no prohibition against any language.” The reason Cantonese classes currently do not meet the language requirement, according to Bernhardt, is that the current conversational courses are not offered in a 12-15 unit sequence.

However, Stanford has offered a 12-15 unit Cantonese sequence in the past. According to Professor Sik Lee Dennig, who taught Cantonese at Stanford in 1997 and from 2001 to the current day, conversational Cantonese courses have been offered since 1997. In fall 2006, a one-year 15-unit Cantonese sequence, “First-year Comprehensive Cantonese,” was introduced for the first, and only, time after a group of students petitioned for its creation.

When I asked Bernhardt about why the Cantonese sequence ended after 2007, she cited a lack of student interest. “The problem is that students need to be proactive about their needs and rally interest in their communities,” the same way the original group of students in 2006 was able to raise support for a Cantonese class.

There needs to be “at least 10 students to request a full sequence in a language,” she said, for a class offering to be financially feasible. The funding in 2006-2007 came from the Vice Provost, which was a one-time grant that was not renewed after the cohort of students finished the sequence. Without additional funding, the only way to offer a 15-unit sequence in Cantonese would be to cancel an existing conversational or film class, which Bernhardt fears would reduce Cantonese enrollment even more.

Bernhardt’s concerns about a lack of student interest and finite budget are understandable. However, if the option to request classes or take a placement test in languages not taught at Stanford is inaccessible, how would students know to do so? If other students, like me, emailed the SLC Student Services Officer and received the same terse, “Cantonese does not meet the language requirement,” I wonder how many of them would be able to find out that they could request a language on their own.

Moreover, the current low enrollment in Cantonese could very well stem from the fact that conversational Cantonese does not count toward the language requirement. Stanford students may not have the academic space to take additional units of conversational Cantonese on top of their one-year language course. I imagine that if Cantonese offered a first-year sequence like Mandarin Chinese, more students would enroll.

Not to mention the high barriers to getting a Cantonese language sequence started as a student — Bernhardt’s student interest rationale is incongruous with the enrollment numbers in Special Language Programs, which have always been eligible for the language requirement. According to Explore Courses for the 2016-2017 school year, there was one student enrolled in first-year Bengali, two students enrolled in first-year Ukrainian, and five students in first-year Tagalog. Clearly, there are very few students enrolled in most of the Special Language Programs, yet these courses are still offered for the language requirement.

When I asked Bernhardt to clarify her 10-student criterion for successful petitioning for a language course, she replied, “Ten students who say they are passionately interested in taking a class generally translates into three students when everything is arranged and one or two by the end of the sequence.” Yet for Ukrainian, Tagalog, and other small language classes, there is no activation energy required, no initial ten students. They are offered year after year.

It seems that there is an undue burden placed on students who want Cantonese to be taught and recognized — a burden not placed on any other language. The problem with the status quo is that for Cantonese, and Cantonese only, SLC’s expectation is that students must fight for the class to exist, while most languages are continuously, not contingently, available without any student action.

Stanford’s Cantonese roots

Early Chinese-American students at Stanford. The Stanford Quad yearbook, 1942.

Stanford’s refusal to recognize Cantonese classes for the language requirement ignores the integral role that Cantonese and Cantonese speakers have played in the university’s very conception.

Leland Stanford amassed his massive fortune (which funded Stanford’s founding) largely through the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad, which had recruited and imported thousands of Chinese laborers to work on the railroad. Most of these laborers came from southern China and spoke Cantonese.

Records show that these early Chinese Americans were often given the most dangerous jobs, such as detonating explosives for train tunnel construction. Additionally, they were often discriminated against and underpaid for their work. The Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project has documented the histories of these early Chinese.

Beyond the unnamed Chinese railroad workers who added to Leland Stanford’s wealth, many of these railroad workers transitioned to positions in the early days of Stanford’s founding as butlers, employees, janitors and chefs.

I spoke with Bright Zhou ’16 M.S. ’17, who curated the exhibit, “Chinese American at Stanford: A Reflexive Archaeology,” that remains on display at the Archaeology Center through May 15. Some of the pieces in Zhou’s exhibit come from the excavation of the Arboretum Chinese Quarters, one of the housing sites for Chinese workers right on campus.

“Most of the payroll records of Chinese railroad workers have names that start with Ah, like Ah Ming, which is a linguistic choice found in Cantonese speakers,” said Zhou. “Jane Stanford’s butler and confidant, Ah Wing, also followed this linguistic pattern,” indicating that he too was likely Cantonese-speaking.

Although Leland Stanford himself publicly lobbied against Chinese immigration, the railroad workers and blue-collar workers he employed for his own enterprises speak to the contributions of Chinese (and particularly Cantonese-speaking) people to his legacy.

Cantonese today

Bright Zhou ’16 M.S. ’17 curated a student exhibit on Chinese Americans at Stanford that remains on display until May 15. (Courtesy of L.A. Cicero)

Stanford’s lack of a Cantonese course that fulfills the language requirement is even more baffling given the impact of Cantonese-speaking Chinese-Americans on the Bay Area. Walk into San Francisco’s Chinatown and chances are somebody is speaking Cantonese. Chinatowns, especially those created before the latter half of the 20th century, were populated by the initial exodus of Chinese immigrants from southern China.

Currently, however, Cantonese is declining in popularity. Many parents in the U.S. teach their children Mandarin exclusively, knowing that many institutions like Stanford do not recognize Cantonese. Chinese schools across America, including bilingual schools and extracurricular classes, have stopped offering Cantonese classes due to declining enrollment. The weekend school I grew up attending, Wisdom Chinese School, announced that they would stop offering Cantonese classes after nearly 20 years because the small enrollment was not enough to justify the cost of hiring teachers. It wasn’t until outraged parents joined forces to both petition the school and fundraise money to hire a teacher that the school finally relented and tentatively continued Cantonese classes.

Yet most experts are optimistic about the future of Cantonese. I spoke with Professor Sik Lee Dennig, the only Cantonese instructor at Stanford, about the role of Cantonese in modern society. “Cantonese is often called a living fossil,” Dennig explained. “As a hybrid of the ancient Chinese language and the indigenous languages in southern China, Cantonese has preserved many of the characteristics of these ancient languages. A notable example is the set of final stop consonants in Cantonese (–p, -t, and –k), which features prominently in rhymes in classical Chinese poetry.” Mandarin has lost these endings.

Dennig is a strong believer in inherent cultural value, and when I asked her about a popular view that Cantonese will be pushed out by Mandarin, she said, “I don’t feel Cantonese is dying.” Dennig pointed to protests in Guangzhou in 2010 to preserve Cantonese TV stations and creative approaches in teaching Shanghainese, another regional language, in after-school programs.

Still, Dennig thinks that the future of Cantonese and other regional languages will depend on a mix of factors, including “the Chinese government’s stance on languages,” which currently allows for regional languages to be spoken at home but requires Mandarin Chinese to be taught and used officially; migration patterns and “grassroots efforts to preserve regional languages.”

Personally, I felt the absence of Cantonese greatest in my freshman year at Stanford. Chinese culture is very diverse, and although I grew up with tons of friends who spoke Cantonese at home and had a similar cultural background to mine, I came to Stanford to find myself incredibly alone. Even in the Hong Kong Students Association, which I tentatively joined, very few students actually spoke Cantonese.

I made my first Cantonese-speaking friend at Stanford in the dining halls — an ironic continuation of the contributions of early Chinese dining hall workers at Stanford.

Karen Wong has been working at Stern Dining Hall since 2015. She says hi to every student who swipes in, and when she helped a boy in front of me in line practice his Mandarin, I said hi to her in Mandarin (one of the few words I know). When she asked me if I was fluent, I admitted that I didn’t know Mandarin at all and that I spoke Cantonese. She was thrilled, telling me that Cantonese was her first language too.

From then on, I always chatted to her about life and school in Cantonese whenever I stopped by the dining halls. Hearing the tones of a language I grew up with soothed some of the homesickness I carried. For Chinese New Year, she gave me a red envelope, a holiday tradition, and I nearly cried because I hadn’t expected anyone to celebrate with me that year.

Unfortunately, Karen has been laid off by Stanford Dining and will end her time at Stanford this spring. It’s a personal blow for me but also devastating for the community of students who look forward to her friendly greeting at every meal. It’s also another reminder of how fragile Cantonese existence is at Stanford.

Stanford’s refusal to allow Cantonese classes to meet the foreign language requirement goes beyond unfair academic policies. It represents a larger problem of diminishing Asian-American classes and majors at Stanford. As Bright Zhou pointed out, “Look at the number of Asian-American classes and how many Asian-American majors there are.” A previous Daily article described the vicious cycle of decreasing enrollment in Asian-American Studies classes due to lack of visibility, resulting in fewer course offerings and even less enrollment. Allowing Cantonese classes to count toward the language requirement would encourage more students to learn Cantonese and greater visibility of the Cantonese-speaking community that has always existed at Stanford.

My language matters. My culture matters. My presence matters. And if you believe that, then Cantonese classes should receive the same legitimacy as all of our languages.

Contact Samantha Wong at slwong ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Samantha Wong

Samantha Wong '18 is the former Executive Editor of vol. 252 and former Managing Editor of The Grind. She is majoring in Human Biology with a minor in History. To reach her, please contact slwong 'at' stanford.edu.
  • Frankie Leung

    I strongly urge universities in North America to start courses on Cantonese. It has a large speaking population in many parts of the world, especially in SE Asia.

  • Yi Hu

    Cantonese is only spoken in one of 30 provinces, and most of young people in that province can speak mandarin. It is completely wasting time for others to learn Cantonese.

  • Frankie Leung

    This is nonsense. First, Cantonese was narrowly voted down as an official language of the Republic of China in 1911 and Mandarin became the official language. Why only one out of 30 provinces speak the language, then it should not be taught. What kind of logic is this? Thirdly, in SE Asia, and North America, it is widely spoken. Very often, there are always attempts to save languages which are facing perishing by teaching them. Be sensible as a Stanford student.

  • Frankie Leung

    This is another nonsensical statement. In Switzerland, every Swiss can speak three languages. Doe that mean two of the languages a Swiss can speak need not be learnt?

  • Lee Dennig

    The numbers are off. Cantonese is actually spoken in two of the 22 provinces in the PRC: much of Guangdong and Guangxi. In addition, it is the 3rd most commonly spoken language in the PRC with over 62,000,000 speakers (Asher and Moseley, 2007). There are over 10 million more Cantonese speakers overseas (https://www.ethnologue.com/language/yue) and Cantonese remains an important language in established overseas Chinese communities. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (一帶一路) will likely give new impetus to Cantonese in many Southeast Asian countries as Cantonese immigrants have traditionally played an important role in trade in these countries.

  • Lee Dennig

    We’ll lose the richness in Chinese culture and history if we don’t preserve Cantonese and other Chinese regional languages. For example, Cantonese has preserved many expressions from 中古漢語 “Middle Ancient Chinese”: e.g., kéuih 佢(渠)“he/she/it,” géisìh 幾時 “when,” and hàahng “to walk” in hàahng-louh 行路. Mandarin doesn’t use these expressions any more.

    Losing Cantonese can also affect the arts. For example, Cantonese has preserved 入聲 “the entering or checked tones” (final stop consonants: -p, -t, and –k), which are important in classical poetry. Take a look at a poem by 柳宗元 (773-819 AD): “千山鳥飛絕,萬徑人蹤滅。孤舟蓑笠翁,獨釣寒江雪。” The last words in three of the sentences still rhyme in Cantonese: 絕 jyuht “absolutely no more,” 滅 miht “to vanish,” and 雪 syut “snow.” The final -t consonant stops the flow of air through the mouth without releasing it, creating an effect of being cut off abruptly. That’s the mood the poet wanted to create in his poem — absolute isolation heightened by the chilly white snow.

    Cantonese also tells a story of ancient Chinese history — the conquering of what’s today’s Southern China by Emperor Qin over 2,000 years ago. Cantonese linguistic features that seem so foreign to Mandarin speakers came from an ancient indigenous language, 古壯語 “ancient Zhuang language.” For example, the contrast between short and long vowels (e.g., gāi 雞 “chicken” vs. gāai 街 “street”), expressions such as leng 靚 “pretty, nice” and ngāam 啱 “correct, coincident” and also the omnipresent sentence-final particles such as lok 咯, bo 噃, and wo 喎. Cantonese was born out of this marriage between ancient Chinese and Zhuang languages.

    The main point is that there’s a lot to lose culturally if we don’t promote the preservation of Cantonese and other Chinese regional languages.

  • Lee Dennig

    The number of provinces is listed as 23 on the official PRC website as Taiwan is considered a province by the PRC Government: http://www.gov.cn/test/2005-06/15/content_18253.htm

  • Yi Hu

    Sik, thank you for the wealthy info about Cantonese. I thought that rebuttal to my comments would be from the cut and paste sentences of the Wikipedia.

    I don’t disagree with you about why studying Cantonese is important, especially for the preservation of the past. My question is if it is necessary to teach Cantonese to the mass for the purpose of communication. There are too many dialects, and as you mentioned that Cantonese is not even the second most speaking language.

    Second, I am not sure preserving the language is the way to keep the past. Like the Oracle bones, the meanings of most of original words have lost. It was not we did not want to keep them, just it might have been too much of a task to do so. I’m not sure if AI will eventually be a tool to do this. There is a lot to do, especially to think drastic differently, to solve this problem.

  • Yi Hu

    Thank you for letting me and my parents live when the entire china was gone, or most of the northern parts of China except the last south province.

    In this case, it is fine. No need for Mandarin, and Cantonese serves the purpose of communication, if that is the case.

    There is a distinction between foreign language requirements and the research/preservation of a language.

    Also, why Cantonese? Why not Sichuan dialect? Why not Zhejiang local dialects? Is that because we don’t really know those dialects that much?

    Also, I don’t think stanford in anyway is influenced by anyone from teaching Cantonese or making it as a foreign language. I am wondering why this is still the case.

    BTW, hope this comment does not put a bad taste in your mouth. Just want further explain to sik.

    — a stanford parent.

  • Leena Yin

    Actually, 叔叔 or 阿姨, my mother is from Sichuan and I’d love it if that was taught in school and I could better communicate with my grandma, uncles, aunts, and cousins! If not all languages can be taught, does that mean nothing should be taught at all?

    I’m afraid I’m genuinely having a hard time understanding the rest of your points. What do you mean by the distinction between foreign language requirements and preservation of a language? What are you wondering about when you say “why this is still the case”? I think I know what you mean, but I’m not sure–if you clarify, we can further this discussion

    –a Stanford student

  • Yi Hu

    I give you 3 weeks and you will not talk to me as you will be really busy on your “biology ” finals.

    What I meant was that there is only so much people can do, and a foreign language requirement is mainly for communication or for “use.” For example, if you eventuallly become a medical doctor, you might use your foreign language skill to help patients, the foreign language in this case is more for communication than to preserve the “original ” meaning of certain things like what dr. Lee dennig mentioned. Of course which foreign language is more important is really depending on where you are and what you do.

    To preserve /research a language /dialect is different. It is for the people like dr. Lee dennig do. There are too many dialects in china, and there is no way to keep all of them.

    It might be by chance that Mandarin became the official language, but we should not doubt the wisdom of the people who made the decision. After all, we may not be smarter than them, the generations before us.

  • Francis

    Could you possibly be more condescending?

  • Frankie Leung

    I agree. Cantonese will survive even if the Mainland government try to encourage Mandarin over other dialects. Go to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The taxis drivers speak Cantonese. Dr. Lee Denning is doing a very important job preserving and developing Cantonese. Thank you.

  • Frankie Leung

    Why not preserve all the dialects? Can people speak Mandarin and their own dialect too. We should always doubt the wisdom of a government. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Learn this lesson if you have not learnt anything at Stanford.

  • Frankie Leung

    Who are the “others” in your statement? The others can choose which language he or she wants to learn. I am Cantonese-speaking. I speak Mandarin and some Shanghaiese too. I also taught at Stanford. The human mind is more dexterous than you think.

  • Lee Dennig

    Hi Yi, I responded to you twice over the weekend, but both times my replies were not posted. I’m trying one more time. This time I’ll make sure that my response doesn’t look like something from the Wikipedia 🙂

    I want to say that these young students that you’ve engaged with in this discussion are passionate about preserving “heritage languages” because they know firsthand what it means to be able to speak the language of their parents and extended families – it’s an important part of their cultural identity.

    You and I are both parents. I want to say that we should be proud of them. Just look at what Leena did as soon as she realized you are a parent. She addressed you as 叔叔 “uncle” or 阿姨 “aunt.” Isn’t it amazing that these young people who grew up in this country have inherited the traditional Chinese value of being respectful to older people?

    In fact, my students who come from Cantonese families always cite “being able to talk to my grandparents” as the #1 reason why they are taking Cantonese. That is another important part of Chinese culture – an emphasis on family!

    I have also taught many students who are Mandarin speakers. The #1 reason for almost all of them is an interest in Cantonese culture – be it ordering dim sum, singing Cantopop, watching Hong Kong movies, or understanding social issues in Cantonese communities. That’s amazing, too. If everyone shows this kind of interest in another culture and language, we’ll have a much more harmonious world.

    Your concern about how to deal with “many dialects” is valid. This does require careful planning, the availability of resources, and the will of the people with the power to make decisions. Fortunately, many countries have been able to do so successfully. Frankie Leung has given us a good example. The human brain can indeed handle more than one language. There has been mounting scientific evidence that bilingual brains have more developed executive functions. Bilinguals are better at multi-tasking, among other things. When we think about it, if someone grows up having to switch back and forth between two languages, it makes sense that the individual would have had more training in multi-tasking.

    Thank you for your interest in this discussion! Having a dialog is always constructive!

    -A Stanford alum and instructor of Cantonese

  • Yi Hu

    Thank you, Dr Lee Dennig.

    First of all, the Wikipedia comments were not directed to you, and pardon my Pekinglish for not expressing myself clearly enough. I did enjoy your unique views on the connections of Cantonese and Chinese history. My arguments really were on the difference between the foreign language requirements and the study/research on a specific language.

    For Leena, I realized that my language was too strong on her. I was about to apologize to her but then there was another commentator trying to drag me to another direction. I knew that Leena was a Stanford student before I replied.

    I was actually more mad at her on the comments she made on China than that on me. You can dislike certain people or even the government, but you can never curse the place you originally came from. It is like to wish your house to be burned down. Her arguments on communicating with her grandparents might be invalid too — she could always learn her grandparents’ dialect from her mom. My wife came from Chengdu, so I know it should not be a difficult task to do, if she really wants to do so.

    Obviously I don’t speak Cantonese. But, this was not the reason I made arguments here. I was born and raised in Peking, but I originally came from Zhejiang. I still remembered my grandfather told me when I was Leena’s age that there were so many dialects in the area of Wenzhou back then: if you walked along the sea shore starting in the morning, you would not understand (in terms of language) the people you met when it was sunset. In the 80s when I met two other people from the Zhejiang in a hotel in Hangzhou, none of us could understand each other’s language except Mandarin. There are simply too many dialects.

    It is a wonderful thing that those at Stanford can learn Cantonese from you. Maybe it is less virtue that the purpose of learning Cantonese is to escape the foreign language requirements.

  • Leena Yin

    叔叔, you misunderstand. When did I curse the land I come from? If this is about the you-are-the-only-Mandarin-speaker-left-in-the-world example, that was absolutely metaphorical and I was asking you to empathize with people who are told that their language isn’t important just because they are in the minority. I apologize if that example frightened you.

    If this is about the comments I made about the choices of the Chinese government: it’s possible to be critical of something but still hold it in high regard, right? As a parent, I’m sure you understand that feeling.

    It almost seems like you know me. I am applying to medical school right now, although I’m not currently taking biology. As a native Mandarin speaker, the main reason I am taking Cantonese is because I worked at a clinic over the summer that serves primarily Asian patients, and my Mandarin was practically useless: 80% of the Chinese patients in that clinic spoke Cantonese. Even when I look for jobs with community health centers in the Bay Area who work with Asian immigrants, the majority of them want Cantonese speakers or at least Cantonese-Mandarin bilingual. And so, I am indeed taking Cantonese to “use your foreign language skill to help patients,” because in the future the work I want to do is with Asian immigrants and monolingual communities, and that means that Cantonese will be really useful to me.

    I agree that it’s overwhelming thinking about investing the resources to teach every single dialect. I also understand the difference between preserving a language and “studying it for use.” However, I think what my example above shows is that it is too simplistic for you, the Chinese government, or even the university to decide what languages aren’t useful, without careful consideration of the consequences or the people whose lives are impacted by that language.

    Finally, I wanted to say that I don’t mind if you are rude to me–perhaps in your eyes I am just a naive young person–but thank you for treating my teacher with respect.

  • Lee Dennig

    Thanks, Leena, you’re so sweet 🙂

  • Lee Dennig

    Hi Frankie, it sounds like you have some familiarity with Malaysia. I’d love to hear more about the Chinese immigrants there. Professor Dana Bourgerie of BYU has been studying the Chinese communities in Cambodia. I attended one of his talks and was amazed to hear recordings of 3rd generation Chinese Cambodians conversing in Cantonese – fluently and flawlessly! 🙂

  • Lee Dennig

    Hi Yi, please feel free to address me by my nickname, Lee (莉).

    I replied to you earlier this evening, but my reply has disappeared!? Let me try again.

    I’d defend my students first. They cannot use my Cantonese classes “to escape the foreign language requirements.” My classes are 2-unit conversational classes. The language courses that can fulfill the foreign language requirement need to be 4-5 unit courses that teach all 4 skills — speaking, listening, reading, and writing.

    You were making “a distinction between foreign language requirements and the research/preservation of a language.” The two are related and the key word is education. If a language is not taught in some manner, it can be lost quite rapidly.

    This is the typical pattern in this country:
    • 1st generation: immigrants who can speak a language other than English;
    • 2nd generation: children who are born here may be bilingual in English and the home language;
    • 3rd generation: grandchildren of the immigrants are most likely monolingual in English.

    Similar things are happening to regional languages in China. For example, around mid-1990s, most young people in Shanghai could speak Shanghainese and Putonghua since the policy to use Putonghua in education had been implemented for a while. The consensus at that time was: Given the economic status of Shanghai and the pride that Shanghainese people took in their language and culture, there was no way Shanghainese could be replaced by Putonghua. Fast forward 10 years or so. Many in the younger generation could no longer converse comfortably with their grandparents in Shanghainese.

    The good news is language education can reverse those trends. The efforts in the U.S. to preserve immigrant languages include bilingual education and community schools. There have been various kinds of efforts in China to preserve local languages as well; e.g., a school in Guangzhou has recently developed a textbook to teach Cantonese to school kids.

    Though the main purpose of foreign language requirements is not to preserve languages, yet many of the students taking foreign languages are heritage speakers, especially at the more advanced levels. They are already familiar with the culture and their pronunciation is often native or near-native. By learning their heritage languages in a formal setting can take their proficiency to a very high level, hence preserving the languages.

    Thank you again for your participation in this lively discussion about Cantonese!

  • Frankie Leung

    Read Victor Purcell’s book on Overseas Chinese in SE Asia. I have a college friend Tony Pua who is an MP in Malaysia. You should read his book too. Go to visit Malaysia. Spend a summer as an intern there. Visit Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Ipoh and Malacca. Many Cantonese speakers there. I taught at Stanford Law.

  • Frankie Leung

    I would not say flawlessly. Each Chinese community adopt many local features. Even Malaysian Cantonese is very differently from the Hong Kong or Guangzhou variety.

  • Lee Dennig

    Thanks for your references! I’d love to visit Malaysia one day!

  • Frankie Leung

    It is condescending. I try to let that person see some sense in life.

  • Frankie Leung

    In European countries like Switzerland, Holland and others, people speak three language fluently. In USA, most Americans are ignorant of things foreign. They may like to eat dim-sum but learn Cantonese?? You must be kidding.

  • Frankie Leung

    You will detect that Malaysian Cantonese has adopted many Malay words mixed with the Cantonese. If a Chinese cannot read Chinese, no matter what dialect he or she speaks, the Cantonese spoken is of low level. Cantonese movies and TV series made in H K are very popular in Malaysia. That is another reason why people speak it.

  • Frankie Leung

    You should compile a directory of all colleges and universities in North America which teach Cantonese. In the old colonial days, expatriate British colonial officers learned Cantonese. Many of them spoke exceedingly well.

  • Lee Dennig

    That’s a good suggestion! I’ll work on it when I have time.

  • Lee Dennig

    When there is language contact, we expect to find loan words and some influence on grammar. Pronunciation changes over time, but the changes tend to be gradual. I’ve taught Cantonese heritage speakers from Singapore and Malaysia and I’m curious to know what kind of difference in pronunciation you’ve noticed about Malaysian Cantonese.

  • Yi Hu

    Some of your info is on stanford website, and I am actually a stanford/Google parent. 🙂 That was how I knew something about you before I replied. I needed to know you and to know myself before I started to argue with you.

    Let us move on… and I wish you the best in the medical journey.

  • Frankie Leung

    Malaysian Chinese are pretty indistinguishable from Singaporean Chinese in my perspective because I don’t live in either community. However, Singaporeans can tell differences from Malaysians. Just like Hong Kong Cantonese can tell the differences from Guangzhou Cantonese.

  • Frankie Leung

    You should organize a discussion group on Cantonese teaching at the annual conference of the Association of Asian Studies. I may attend.

  • Lee Dennig

    Thanks for the suggestion! I just took a look at the conference website. I’m more a linguist, but the conference sounds interesting. Do you mind emailing me at lcheung2@stanford.edu so that we can discuss this further? Thanks!

  • Lee Dennig

    Thanks for your reply!

  • B. Nemann

    The statement by Yi Hu that “we should not doubt the wisdom of the people [PRC government] who made the decision” really sums up the difference between independent critical thinking and rote indoctrination.

  • Frankie Leung

    Cantonese almost became the national language of China. It is still widely spoken by Chinese living outside China.