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Sunday, 15 February 2015

Cantonese Isn't Dead: The Argument For It

It impresses me to see people speaking Chinese, be it Mandarin or Cantonese. Regardless of whether they are Chinese or not. Such as Canadian Dashan, who is the most famous White guy in China and the most famously 'more- Chinese- than- Chinese' foreigner in China.

I can only speak Cantonese, but not very well. It is when I listen to someone speak it, do I understand what they are saying, even if my spoken Cantonese isn't that great. My sister's Cantonese is far better than mines, -which is sad for me I know-, but I will continue trying to get better at speaking it. Whereas my Mandarin is non-existent. I can't speak or understand it. I consider my first language to be English, as I am British- born and I have been using English for all my life. I can speak, read and write English. I converse with my siblings (who also converse in Cantonese to my parents) in English as they were also born in the UK, as well as to my sister-in-law who is Chinese and speaks Mandarin, but speaks English really well. My mother, who was born in China speaks Cantonese and Mandarin, the same thing with my father, who was born in Hong Kong, although he is more fluent in Cantonese. He can also speak and communicate in English.  

For me, Cantonese sounds more fluid, expressive, smoother, whereas Mandarin sounds choppy, rough, and in a way, annoying in a high pitched tone. It has 8 or 9 tones compared to Mandarin, which only has 4 tones. I would also say that with Cantonese with the pronunciation of words, some of them do sound similar to English, even though the meaning is not the same. Likewise, the word 'gai' means chicken in Cantonese but as written and pronounced as 'gay' in English, of course, this refers to either a person's sexual orientation or that they are happy or jolly. 'Gai Dan' translates to egg in English: 'gai' >> chicken, Dan >> being egg. Eggs are hatched by chickens and with that you get 'gai dan'. 

Above: how to say and pronounce family members in Cantonese with English written pronunciation

The writing styles share similarities with Mandarin, but the similarities do end when it comes to its grammar and pronunciation. It is also argued that unlike Mandarin, written Cantonese does not have to mirror spoken word Cantonese. Because of this, written Cantonese text looks exactly the same as Mandarin text - yet verbal wise, it is pronounced differently. 

The Chinese government along with Hong Kong, should actively promote both Mandarin AND Cantonese as the main dialects or languages, whichever you want to call it. Not one over the other. And not by excluding Cantonese outright. 

Illustration by Pang Li/China Daily 

This mandatory enforcement of Mandarin in Guangdong speaking areas of China, as well as Hong Kong by the Chinese government makes me worry about the future of Cantonese - we need to preserve this dialect for future generations of Hong Kong based and overseas Chinese communities. It is a part of our culture and we just can't let it slip away. 

The widespread use of Cantonese outside of Hong Kong by American born, British born and Australian Born Chinese is still prominent today. Many of us bi-lingual British born, American, and Australian born Chinese grew up speaking Cantonese and English at home. And for Canadian Chinese, French as well; making them tri-lingual in Cantonese, English and French. Currently, there are 70-100 million Cantonese speakers around the world. 

Most British born Chinese have origins from Hong Kong (be it from one or both parents, who are originally from Hong Kong) when it was formerly a British colony up until 1997, which could explain why many of us claim Cantonese as our first or second language. 

And Cantonese is (supposedly) the main dialect of Hong Kong. Etymologist Dr Chen once 'claimed' in HK (Hong Kong) Magazine that Putongua - the official Chinese name for Mandarin- is not even a naturally evolved language, but a language imposed by the Chinese Communist Party. 

To underestimate the influence of the Chinese Cantonese culture is a grave mistake; the Chinese food served in restaurants around the globe in Chinatowns, is of the Canton variety. Many Chinese films and movies, especially those during the 1980s, were made in Hong Kong with spoken Cantonese. Today, overseas born Chinese still speak and converse with their elders in Cantonese. A language or dialect is only declared dead, when the populations of those people stop speaking it, altogether. It hasn't happened, and thankfully also. 

Whenever I go down to Chinatown in Central London, I see there are still Cantonese speaking waiters, shop assistants, alongside Mandarin speakers. 

During the time when China took over Hong Kong from the United Kingdom in 1997, Hong Kong with Cantonese still flourished, all in spite of being under Chinese rule. It may not be as widely spoken as it is these days, but as long as TV shows on TVB still air programmes in Cantonese, it is not going to disappear overnight.  

Speaking of TV stations and channels such as TVB, I would like to see more Cantonese -based TV channels available on digital satellite in the UK. Unfortunately in the UK, TVB Europe only exists as an online TV service, and not on Sky and digital TV platforms. Whilst it is a good idea to have an online TV service, many British Chinese and Chinese living in the UK access TV through their TV sets and digital set top boxes. We do have CCTV-9, Phoenix PCNE, but the content is mostly in Mandarin. In the US, they have TVB as a separate cable channel, in addition to ICN TV & Asia Television Home Channel. 

Directv in the US offers Cantonese and Mandarin TV packages, something that I wished we had in the UK too.  

China and Hong Kong are fighting a culture war - the dominance of Hong Kong in the 1980s and early 1990s produced movies resulted in the growing usage of Cantonese as a spoken dialect. China on the other hand with Mandarin, has been playing catch up, and they have in many respects, succeeded. 

Most linguists would argue that Cantonese is a language in itself; and in spite of people saying it is harder to grasp and learn in comparison to Mandarin, I just think it's an excuse used by certain people to support Mandarin and denounce Cantonese and its years of cultural history, altogether. And add to that argument, by further highlighting China's role in society, because they are a super power. That is why lots of people are championing Mandarin, whilst overlooking Cantonese. 

Why, you ask, learn and speak Cantonese, just because China has billions of people who speak Mandarin, compared to Hong Kong who only has over 7 million people?

I'd say you should learn, because many of us overseas born Chinese, for instance, speak Canto and it would be cool for us to converse and get to know each other through Canto.  

Like all languages and dialects, Cantonese is not that difficult and impossible to learn and understand, as long as you commit to it and practice and practice. The more you enjoy using it and speaking it, the easier it gets. As a native speaker, yes it's easier if you are Chinese and your parent/s is or are Hong Kong Chinese, because you pick it up from the day you first speak it to your parents or to other native Chinese people. 

Cantonese was the oldest dialect for thousands of years before Mandarin. It was widely spoken by millions of Chinese and used in many Chinese-based TV shows and movies. Some examples being Jackie Chan's Police Story and Big Trouble In Little China, years before Mandarin so why get rid of it? English has existed for centuries - yet nobody calls for it to be abolished, so why should it be any more different because it is Cantonese? But again, this is a super power-thing we are talking here. The UK and USA for instance are countries with enormous histories and pasts, and in spite of English - the UK used old English, whereas it appears that the U.S doesn't have an official language , English is the most widely spoken language. 

And China are going about it the wrong way by not giving people more choice and more options. Having only Mandarin as the only lingual choice, not to mention its total disregard shown towards Cantonese, just doesn't cut it for me and drives a bigger wedge in the Chinese community. Languages and dialects can and should co-exist alongside each other, that Cantonese and Mandarin can work alongside, despite the tonal differences. 

Yet even more unfortunate is that in Southern China, use of Cantonese in the media, by way of speaking and being used in newspapers, has been banned. Where else in the world would you have another country that bans a dialect/language and anyone and everyone is forbidden in speaking it, anywhere? That is just insane. 

A future without Cantonese, is virtually unthinkable; if it happens, an integral part of our Chinese culture would be gone - therefore, why can't it co-exist alongside Mandarin, because it should. 


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