Thursday, February 26, 2009

Mandarin Taking Over the States

Seeing that I'm an American who's put a decent amount of effort into learning how to speak Mandarin Chinese, I like reading this news.

From The Boston Globe:

The little boy answered the teacher's question in perfect Cantonese, which until recently would have earned him praise at the Kwong Kow Chinese School in Boston's Chinatown.

But the teacher shook her head.

"No," said Catherine Lui, peering at the boy over her eyeglasses as he stared up at her from the front row. "You have to use Mandarin."

Say hello - or better yet, ni hao - to Chinatown's rapidly expanding language, Mandarin. The official language of mainland China is sweeping into Cantonese-speaking enclaves across the United States, the result of increased immigration from across China and an urgent push by parents to teach children the language of one of the world's most powerful nations.

China's growing global clout, already inspiring suburban parents of varying backgrounds to enroll their children in Mandarin classes, is now looming large over tiny Chinatown, where 9,000 people are squeezed into a bustling neighborhood of shops, red-brick tenements, and narrow, winding streets. Mandarin is being heard everywhere, on subway platforms, under the blow dryers at hair salons, and at the 93-year-old Kwong Kow School.

Read On
This transition from Cantonese to Mandarin was inevitable. There just aren't that many people who speak Cantonese compared to Mandarin. As you can see on this map, only people in the magenta part of China speak Cantonese:

Historically, a very large portion of Chinese emigrants to America came from southern China and the Hong Kong area. Wikipedia has a good explanation as to why this was the case:
Chinese people were some of the early immigrants to live in the U.S., but then were banned from emigrating between 1885 and 1943 - when the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed. Immigration of Chinese was heavily restricted until 1965. During the 1970s, the vast majority of ethnic Chinese immigration into the United States was from Hong Kong and followed by Taiwan with relatively few immigrants coming from mainland China, which almost completely banned emigration for most of the 1960s. During the 1980s, in part due to the liberalization of emigration restrictions in the mid-1970s, immigration from the mainland China became a larger fraction of ethnic Chinese immigration into the United States.
But now that China's economy is growing and mainland China has liberalized, the demographic of Chinese Americans is changing. More and more Chinese Americans will be speaking Mandarin instead of Cantonese in the future.

As Peter Kiang, the director of the Asian American Studies Program at UMass-Boston, said in the article:
"Everyone just realizes that Mandarin is the language of the 21st century," he said.
It makes me feel better that my study of Mandarin has the chance of being useful in America as well as in China. Now I just have to get my Chinese more fluent so I can chat with any Chinese person I encounter. Unfortunately, that's easier said than done.


Anonymous said...

We have large numbers of Cantonese and Mandarin speakers here in Toronto. We also have Saturday Chinese schools offered in both, and any Toronto resident can send their child to either, or to many other language classes.

I just don't see that many Cantonese speakers learning Mandarin. I also don't see many non-Chinese families learning Mandarin either. Some of the Mandarin schools here are actually dropping in enrollment. No matter that Mandarin is more widely spoken in China, here in Toronto both are equal in popularity. It more depends on what dialect your parents speak.

Anonymous said...

According to the map, no one in Taiwan speaks Mandarin??

Don has a point regarding the impending irrelevance of Cantonese. I just came back from Hong Kong, and while it's not unusual to hear Mandarin spoken on the street, the language there is still overwhelmingly Cantonese. Many of the recent Chinese immigrants to Canada came from Hong Kong travel back and forth regularly (I saw many Canadian passports on the flight back from HK to SFO). Bottom line is that if you want to do business and live in work in Hong Kong, you'll still need to speak Cantonese despite what many Mandarin speakers will tell you.

Mark said...

I'm sure Cantonese won't be dying any time soon. But going forward, I have to believe that Mandarin will be increasing its prevalence abroad.

Anonymous said...

Before I left HK, I read an article in the SCMP which discussed Shanghai's proposes loosening of its residency permits for those non-residents who had the skills and education needed by the city. But one of the negatives brought up by those "outsiders" was the pervasive use of Shanghainese in business and social settings, which made those not from Shanghai felt excluded. I guess even in China, regional dialects trumps the National Languages in many ways, even in its financial capital.

Anonymous said...

There will be some increase in Mandarin study as China becomes more important on the world stage. English, though, still dominates as the universal language of business. I wouldn't even be surprised if 50 years from now English was the official language of government in China. Characters are a very inefficient way to communicate and actually hold back the Chinese from participating in the world stage.

Anonymous said...

Hey buddy! Blogspot had been blocked in China, Im not sure if you could see my comment!
Feel free to contact me via email,

we could converse either in English or Chinese

Justin Chen