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Cantonese will survive, despite popularization of Mandarin: experts

By Kou Jie (People's Daily Online)    17:17, July 17, 2017

Following China’s new plan to further promote Mandarin as the country’s lingua franca in April, the public in Cantonese-speaking regions have expressed concern over the future of their local language, fearing that the popularization of Mandarin may jeopardize their identity and culture.

“As one of the most important varieties of the Chinese language, Cantonese is losing its former glory following the popularization of Mandarin. Less young people prefer to use Cantonese to communicate with each other, and this has worried locals,” said Han Zhiyuan, a Cantonese teacher in a Guangzhou-based language training center.

Han’s concern is shared by many locals. Thanks to the booming entertainment industry in the Cantonese-speaking regions in the 80s and 90s, the language enjoyed high vitality, attracting many language learners from both China and abroad. But in recent years, the use of Cantonese has seen a decrease at places of work and in education due to the national promotion of Mandarin, which has led to a decline in the number of Cantonese users.

According to an official document released by the Ministry of Education in April, 80 percent of China’s population will be able to communicate in Mandarin by the end of 2020, compared to the current number of 70 percent. Authorities have called for more investment in the popularization of Mandarin, adding that public sectors, including education and public services, should use Mandarin as the main language.

“As a multi-ethnic and multilingual country, it’s understandable that China wants to promote a lingua franca for better communication among the people, but other varieties of Chinese language should also be protected, as they are the roots of local culture and people’s identity,” said Han.

Thriving language

“A language’s vitality depends on its daily use both inside and outside home. Currently, Cantonese is used extensively at various occasions, while the strong cultural influence of the Cantonese-speaking regions has intrigued many young people, leading them to study the language and the culture concealed within it,” said Li Gongming, a professor at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts.

According to Li, though Mandarin has become the main language used in schools and government, the public in Guangzhou still regards Cantonese as the most important language used at home. He noted that the language has enough space to thrive, despite the national promotion of Mandarin.

“The language spoken by somebody and his or her identity as a speaker of this language are inseparable. I think people in Cantonese-speaking regions, especially in Hong Kong, have a strong awareness of their identity, thus they are keen to protect their own language,” said Yang Zhou, a 26-year-old Cantonese-speaker.

The public’s enthusiasm in language maintenance has secured Cantonese’s position as a major language used in Guangdong province. Locals there have voluntarily initiated many language programs aimed at protecting Cantonese. An online talk show named Crazy Cantonese has gone viral since it first aired in February 2016. The show whose main audience is young people uses Cantonese to broadcast interesting news, as well as teaching people to speak correct Cantonese, has been praised by many locals.

In public sectors, Cantonese has also gained some popularity. In 2017, Wuyang Elementary School in Guangzhou launched a Cantonese text book, in which idioms, stories, and opera in Cantonese are used to help local students understand the language.

Learning Cantonese has also become a new trend for people from other regions in China. On douban.com, one of China’s most famous online forums, a search for Cantonese learning group yields dozens of results, while a group named, “We like Cantonese,” has attracted over 50,000 participants.

Bluesky Language Center, a language training facility in Guangzhou, has even offered Cantonese classes for Chinese and foreigners who wish to study the language. The training fee can be as high as 195 RMB per hour, even more expensive than some English language tutors.

“Cantonese represents your identity of being a resident in Guangzhou. In supermarkets, restaurants, and other places, if you cannot speak Cantonese, people will know you are not one of them. If you want to know the essence of local culture, as well as making friends with the locals, learning Cantonese is necessary,” said Fan Jun, who has been studying Cantonese for over three months.

Unpromising future

Unlike Cantonese, many other varieties of Chinese languages are facing the potential threat of dying out, with many experts calling for more governmental protection for them.

“In my hometown, if you speak Wu language instead of Mandarin at school, the teachers will criticize you. Some people will laugh at our accent and say it’s a shame we don’t use standard Chinese,” said Ze Xiaoqing, a 27-year-old student from Changzhou, Jiangsu province.

In addition to the limits imposed on local languages, the lack of legal and governmental support has also put dialects in danger. Currently, the Chinese government has made some effort in protecting Chinese languages, mostly for research purposes. In 2008, the country launched the Chinese Language Audio Database Resources in an effort to preserve linguistic materials.

“In order to keep a language alive, bilingual education at school, as well as the promotion of language equity, is crucial. I hope dialects are not only preserved for research purposes, but are used by the public,” said Ze. 

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)(Web editor: Kou Jie, Bianji)

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