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Vancouver advocates aim to save Cantonese


Cantonese has been the most prevalent language spoken by the Chinese-immigrant community in Vancouver for decades but now advocates say the language is under threat.

More than 389,000 people in Canada speak Cantonese according to a 2012 Statistics Canada report but changes in immigration trends and pressure from the Chinese government to establish Mandarin, the national language, as the dominant tongue in Hong Kong is having a dire effect on the southern-Chinese language.

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But there is hope among some academics and long-time Vancouver residents that the city can remain an outpost for the Cantonese language and culture.

“Language tends to be frozen by migration. If you leave some place, you tend to speak the language as it was spoken at the moment you left,” said Henry Yu, a UBC professor whose research focuses on Chinese-Canadian studies. 

Claudia Kelly Li (shown here sitting with niece Alanis Wong) says language is an important way through which youth can connect with their heritage.

“We can’t shame our young people about not being able to speak a certain language,” said 30-year old Claudia Li, who co-founded the Hua Foundation, an organization that aims to help Chinese-Canadian youth connect with their heritage.

“Yes it’s important to preserve Cantonese language and it’s important to understand how we can best do that with the interest that people have today.”

Li was born in Canada to parents who immigrated to Vancouver from Hong Kong in the 80s. Helping youth connect with their heritage with language, food, and traditions is her life’s work, she said.

But persuading Canadian youth to learn Cantonese when Mandarin is undoubtedly the more useful of the two languages is a battle few parents win, said Yu.

Li, who credits her Cantonese proficiency to her relatives who only speak Cantonese, agrees.
“If you grow up as a 2nd generation or 3rd generation Chinese-Canadian … a lot of my friends have chosen to learn Mandarin,” she said.

But there is hope because some youth continue to learn Cantonese, including both people whose parents or grandparents speak it and Mandarin-speakers who want to add Cantonese to their repertoire.

Students in UBC’s Cantonese program come from a wide variety of backgrounds, instructor Raymond Pai told Metro in June.

Watt, who made the program possible with his and his brother’s donation, acknowledged that UBC can only play a small role in the efforts to preserve Cantonese.

“It can never replace Hong Kong. If Hong Kong people start to speak Mandarin, then I think Cantonese will be gone in 20 years or so,” he said.

But if Cantonese can be preserved, it will happen in Vancouver, said Yu.

“I’m hopeful that [the program] gives us momentum and as people realize and think about what we’re talking about right now, that other people will step forward and say yes – this is worthwhile.”