7 Reasons Cantonese is Dying & Mandarin is King
Image credit: Larry Salibra

7 Reasons Cantonese is Dying & Mandarin is King

Last fall, the New York Times published an article describing the rising importance of Mandarin in Chinatown. This seemed to offend travel writer Daisann McLane, an avid student of Cantonese.  She insists that Cantonese is flourishing and cites her time with certain infamous Hong Kong politicians in New York’s Chinatown as evidence of such Cantonese.  She’s wrong. Cantonese’s days are numbered.

I live in Canton (Guangzhou), which, unlike McLane’s Hong Kong, is the home of Cantonese’s prestige dialect where I have run a business for the past 3 years. I am fluent speaking, reading, listening and writing in Mandarin including obscure IT/tech vocabulary that the average Chinese does not know. I spend in excess of 90% of each day speaking only Mandarin or Cantonese and I spend zero time interacting with Guangzhou’s expat community. While learning Chinese, I spent significant time in class with the  Chinese immigrants and their children in New York City and other Chinatown.

And now for 7 reasons why Cantonese is dying…

1. Everyone in Canton speaks Mandarin

It is impossible to only speak Cantonese in Guangzhou.  Several Hong Kong and local Guangzhou friends of mine have tried this out only to find out rather quickly that they need to either break out their rusty Mandarin or get another cab.

A friend of mine who was born and raised in Guangzhou and attended Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, a native Cantonese, spent the good part of a decade abroad in graduate school in upstate New York only to return to be shocked how the language dynamics of his hometown had changed and his native Cantonese was no longer the only game in town.

2. Everyone in China speaks Mandarin

Learning Cantonese writes:

Still, despite more than 50 years of official support, education, and with all the levers [sic] of the central Chinese government pushing the primacy of Gwok Yu (national language), Mandarin is the first language of a whopping 40% of all Chinese. (It's spoken by just 70% of Chinese, which is still an astonishing figure, given the primacy of putonghua.

Getting 70% of any population to do anything is impressive. Getting 70% of 1.3 billion people (in)famous for not following rules to do anything is nothing short of a miracle.

Who are the “just 70%” of Chinese that speak Mandarin?

  • the business, political and academic elites
  • all students
  • the entire workforce
  • anyone who has gone to school since the mid-20th century.

The 30% that don’t speak Mandarin are economically and politically irrelevant because they’re for the most part out of the workforce.  They spend their time at home and their only interaction outside of their generation is constrained to their own children and grandkids, all of which are among the 70% that speak Mandarin.  The 30% that don’t speak Mandarin will be dead in the next two decades.

3. Mandarin is the language of business and money

Mandarin is to China what English is to the rest of the world. Those who want to be successful and make money speak Mandarin.  When a Cantonese person gets together with someone from anywhere else in China to do business, have fun or even get married, they speak Mandarin and not Cantonese.

When Sir Donald Tsang, Chief Executive of the Hong Kong SAR Government travels from Hong Kong to Beijing to talk policy, you can bet he’s speaking Mandarin and Hu Jintao and his underlings are not speaking Cantonese.  Money and power is ultimately controlled by Beijing.

When a Cantonese and a non-Cantonese start dating during college, guess what they speak? You guessed it…

4. New York Chinatown Kids Speak English Not Cantonese

The children of those oft-cited Cantonese and Fujianese speaking immigrants in New York’s Chinatown speak English not Cantonese and Mandarin with everyone except their parents. Almost all are illiterate in Chinese.  The few that try to learn written Chinese usually give up pretty quickly. Many of them were my first year Chinese classmates.

When these first generation children of Chinese immigrants get married and have kids, they speak English with their spouses, friends and coworkers. If they can manage to convince their children to learn Chinese, it will be Mandarin, not Cantonese.

This is no different than any other immigrant story. My great great grandparents spoke Italian.  Did my grandparents? A few phrases. Do my parents? No. Do I? No.

5. Kids play in Mandarin

Spend time in the courtyards and elevators of Guangzhou’s developments and you’ll find that when local kids play with kids from other provinces, their games are in Mandarin.  Their cartoons are also in Mandarin.  In fact Guangzhou and Guangdong children’s channels are also in Mandarin.

6. Entertainment is in Mandarin

Of 80+ cable TV channels in Guangzhou, less than 10 are Cantonese, 3 or 4 are English and the rest are Mandarin. Even the majority of Guangzhou TV, Guangdong TV and Southern TV’s channels are Mandarin and not Cantonese. As someone who is studying Cantonese, I often go out of my way to track down the original Cantonese version of Hong Kong movies.  It is much more difficult than you would think this being the birthplace of Cantonese.  You have to go out of your way to find original Cantonese movies because most DVD vendors just carry Mandarin dubbed editions.  A Mandarin edition can be sold nationwide. A Cantonese edition is worthless outside of Guangdong Province.

7. Mandarin is taking over Hong Kong

The average Hong Kong person’s English is not good. If you try to get along solely on English, it doesn’t work very well outside of expat-frequented areas. You are much better off simply speaking Mandarin. Cab drivers and cashiers in Hong Kong who speak and understand little to no English will understand exactly what you say in Mandarin.

Go into any Hong Kong government office, Inland Revenue, Immigration Department, the Companies Registry, you pick, and try to conduct your business in English.  Then try again in Mandarin.  Mandarin works every time, while English is very hit and miss.

More than 13.5 million mainland tourists visited Hong Kong, 100% of them speak Mandarin and they have cash to spend.  Hong Kong’s population is only 1/2 of that.  Hong Kong businesses are pretty squarely focused one the 1.3+ billion strong mainland market and that requires competency in Mandarin.

In fact, in 2007, Hong Kong’s Education Chief told schools to teach more in Mandarin and English and less in Cantonese. In the Hong Kong Government’s view, better English helps Hong Kong maintain its international competitiveness and better Mandarin helps Hong Kong to be more competitive in mainland China.  Any chance Beijing’s Minister of Education will be telling schools to teach more Cantonese to help mainland competitiveness in Hong Kong and Chinatown? There’s better chance the Great Firewall be dismantled tomorrow than that happening.

In Defense of Cantonese

I love Cantonese. Its a beautiful and incredibly fun language. I decided to study it because I enjoy it.  But I don’t delude myself into thinking its a good investment in the future beyond its entertainment and academic value.  Enjoy it while it lasts.

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Larry Salibra

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