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Goodbye, "Leih Hou Ma," Hello "Ni Hao Ma!"
October 22, 2009 2:57 PM   Subscribe

"Chinatown" communities across the United States (New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco) are undergoing a shift in linguistic identity, as recent immigrants are more likely to natively speak Mandarin (the official spoken language of China, Hong Kong and Taiwan,) instead of Cantonese.

Also see these anecdotal reports about similar changes in Vancouver and Oakland, CA.

Good news for the tri-literate: signs like this may soon become commonplace. :)

The Language Atlas of China

The PopUp Chinese Podcast and Arch Chinese site provide basic Mandarin lessons. Also see: Mango, ZhongWen and LiveMocha
posted by zarq (56 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite

 
When on the subway today, newer Chinese immigrants (or perhaps visitors) asked directions from an older Chinese man. He asked them if they were Chinese, they said yes, he tried to speak to them, they didn't really understand what he was saying. He ended up giving them directions in English.
posted by kathrineg at 3:08 PM on October 22, 2009


It's always interested me that great linguistic divide in China, and its fascinating to see it coming into conflict on foreign shores. Thanks for the heads up!
posted by Atreides at 3:08 PM on October 22, 2009


Not just language either, but also culture shifts comparing singapore, shanghai and san francisco
posted by infini at 3:09 PM on October 22, 2009


A lot of special dialects also have been slowly pushed out by Cantonese as well- for example, Toisanese.
posted by yeloson at 3:12 PM on October 22, 2009


I admit, I had a bit of schadenfreude while reading the NYTimes article:
“I can’t even order food on East Broadway,” said Jan Lee, 44, a furniture designer who has lived all his life in Chinatown and speaks Cantonese. “They don’t speak English; I don’t speak Mandarin. I’m just as lost as everyone else.”

This used to happen to me a lot in stores when I shopped in NYC's Chinatown and in Flushing. I don't speak Mandarin or Cantonese and quite a few shopkeepers barely spoke English.

I actually know a vocabulary of about 30-40 Cantonese words, but half of those are obscene. Not exactly good for haggling.)

It's happening less these days. Could be a cultural diffusion effect, or perhaps I'm just less likely to shop in strange stores these days.
posted by zarq at 3:15 PM on October 22, 2009


A lot of special dialects also have been slowly pushed out by Cantonese as well- for example, Toisanese.

Yep. In NY, the biggest shift from Taishanese to Cantonese came in the 60's.
posted by zarq at 3:18 PM on October 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


I started noticing this recently too. There are still a large amount of people in Oakland Chinatown who speak Cantonese or Taishanese, but I hear Mandarin spoken with a Northern accent much more frequently now.

I was on BART one time and a group of older Chinese immigrants asked a younger guy for directions, but only one older gentleman in their group knew how to communicate with the young guy in Mandarin. However, pretty much all the young people I've encountered who are from Guangzhou know putong hua.
posted by extramundane at 3:20 PM on October 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


I made a call to a hospital in NY today. The operator said to hit 1, if I wished to speak in mandarin, hit 2 for Cantonese, 3 for Spanish, 4 for English. Alas, I was born with no native language.
posted by Postroad at 3:20 PM on October 22, 2009


@zarq

If Mandarin is now the official language of Hong Kong, someone needs to tell them, cuz the vast majority is still speaking Cantonese.
posted by RavinDave at 3:35 PM on October 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


I actually know a vocabulary of about 30-40 Cantonese words, but half of those are obscene. Not exactly good for haggling.

yur doing it rong

posted by DU at 3:36 PM on October 22, 2009 [3 favorites]


Whenever I'm in Toronto's old Chinatown the shopkeepers/waitresses tend to speak to me in Mandarin, while they will speak in Cantonese to others. I've always wondered how they decide which one to use. I'm certainly not Northern-looking, having learned Mandarin as a foreign language during university and being of southern Chinese descent originally. Perhaps because I'm younger looking?
posted by pravit at 3:36 PM on October 22, 2009


Yep. In NY, the biggest shift from Taishanese to Cantonese came in the 60's.

Yeah, up in Seattle I think it was probably in the 70's - it was about 50/50 Toisanese/Cantonese when I was a kid in the 80's and now it's nothing but a few of the really old folks speaking Toisanese.
posted by yeloson at 3:44 PM on October 22, 2009


I just moved to San Francisco's Inner Richmond from the Sunset district and I'd say we're past the transition point. It seems like Mandarin is San Fran's second language. Most public service telephone numbers offer both English and Mandarin now.
posted by cbecker333 at 3:45 PM on October 22, 2009


yur doing it rong

不, 你做错了
posted by delmoi at 4:11 PM on October 22, 2009 [3 favorites]


Ravindave - actually, Mandarin, or poutonghua is the official language of all of China, regardless of what the local dialect is. Most people in Shanghai speak Shanghainese - which is imcomprehsible to most outsiders.

People in HK have been playing catch up in honing their Mandarin - while places like Singapore and Tawain (neither of which are part of PRC) have always had it as a key language to speak (despite having very strong local dialects also).

In Vancouver, this shift has also been noticable - with many Cantonese speakers not trying to pick up Manadarin (which is much easier to do than the other way around). Most times I see each party speaking their native dialect - but being able to understand eachother, even if they can't speak directly to eachother. All Chinese dialects use the same written language, so that can be used in dire circumstances.
posted by helmutdog at 4:28 PM on October 22, 2009


Oops - I should say "Most Cantonese speakers now trying to pick up Mandarin"
posted by helmutdog at 4:29 PM on October 22, 2009


@delmoi

不, 你做錯了
posted by Jerub at 4:35 PM on October 22, 2009


I thought the dynamic in Taipei was interesting, with the older generation speaking mostly Taiwanese and the younger generation speaking mostly Mandarin. When I would visit my wife's family, her parents would speak to her in Taiwanese and she'd answer back in Mandarin. I'd be sitting there trying to understand half the conversation. And of course all the little kids learning to speak English. I guess it is the same dynamic happening in the diaspora.
posted by Loudmax at 4:39 PM on October 22, 2009


In my last year of Comp Sci in college there was a project group made up of oriental students and a student from Hong Kong acted as the bridge for the different dialects.

Now if only I could find someone would could translate black country and brummie for me....
posted by srboisvert at 4:39 PM on October 22, 2009


Taiwan (neither of which are part of PRC) have always had it as a key language to speak

'course, the present gov't of Taiwan sorta predates the gov't mainland China, being the O.G. 中國國民黨 and all. The KMT would have been happier ruling from Peking instead of Taipei, but . . . certain events . . . made this somewhat difficult.
posted by mokuba at 4:43 PM on October 22, 2009


oh yeah, that reminds me that the mainland Mandarin-speakers are also going to be bringing their goddamned simplified characters. Coming to Chinese from Japanese, I sorta appreciate the simplification compared to the old forms, but I do often think they went a little overboard, especially these days when nobody actually writes the chinese anymore.
posted by mokuba at 4:52 PM on October 22, 2009


No one may be writing them, but tell me with this standard font size which of these two is easier to read on screen:離開 or 离开.

Of course, I'm biased. I learned simplified (and pinyin) and have just learned to recognize some of the common traditional versions.
posted by linux at 5:08 PM on October 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


Oh, and yeah, I've noticed more Mandarin being spoken these days in Los Angeles, particularly in the San Gabriel Valley where the new immigrants appear to be settling (LA Chinatown is still fairly Cantonese).
posted by linux at 5:09 PM on October 22, 2009


RavinDave (uh, and don't make us into Twitter), you're correct. Hong Kong has two official languages as a Special Administrative Region, "Chinese and English", by which they apparently mean Cantonese. The 1991-2001 period saw Cantonese speakers increase by 25%, while "Other Chinese dialect speakers" actually decreased in real numbers. English speakers, counterintuitively, nearly doubled.
posted by dhartung at 5:24 PM on October 22, 2009


Damn it. I liked it better when Spanish was supposed to be the invading language.

Pretty soon Hispanics in the US are going to start complaining about all of the foreigners speaking "Chinese" instead of "learning the language."
posted by oddman at 5:43 PM on October 22, 2009


Good news for the tri-literate: signs like this may soon become commonplace. :)

English sign: "Must speak Cantonese, English and Mandarin."
Chinese sign: Priority given to English and Cantonese speakers. [partial translation]

Different.
posted by msittig at 5:56 PM on October 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


At least Toisanese is close enough to cantonese to be understandable. I've gotten people in toronto's downtown chinatown speaking to me in mandarin now(I speak cantonese) and I'm always impressed with myself if I can figure out what they're asking without resorting to english.
posted by captaincrouton at 5:59 PM on October 22, 2009


If Mandarin is now the official language of Hong Kong, someone needs to tell them, cuz the vast majority is still speaking Cantonese.

Generally that's true, but more and more I am hearing Putonghua and it's not just from mainland tourists. It's also being shoved down our throats on TV.

All of which bugs the Hell out of me because I prefer the sound of Cantonese (as well as speaking it) to Putonghua, which always sounds to me like someone is swallowing his tongue.
posted by bwg at 6:06 PM on October 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Meh, Hong Kong is still heavily Cantonese and will remain so. Go across the border to Shenzhen and immediately you'll hear a lot more Putonghua because of all the migrant workers who've settled there.

What's kind of sad IMO is that Cantonese is losing sway in Guandgong (Canton).
posted by awfurby at 6:19 PM on October 22, 2009


There have been a couple of decent articles in the SCMP on this topic. Here's the summary from Language Log, because the Post hides all its archived content behind a ridiculous paywall. Something I found interesting:

"Angry about the official bias, Yao went on to explain the superiority of Cantonese, which he described as a more mature language with a richer linguistic history than Putonghua. He cited soccer player David Beckham's name to illustrate his arguments. Cantonese translates his family name using two characters, while Putonghua uses four.

"You know why?" asked Yao. "Because Cantonese is an ancient language that has a rich phonetic system, it takes only one character in Cantonese to mimic the English sound 'ham', whereas it takes Putonghua two Chinese characters."

He pointed out that Putonghua has only 23 vowel sounds, while Cantonese has 59, leaving Putonghua relying heavily on the context for meaning. "

posted by milquetoast at 6:32 PM on October 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Can anyone recommend a good resource for a gentle introduction to Mandarin? Not even targeting conversational level, necessarily...
posted by weston at 6:50 PM on October 22, 2009


China is strange to my western prespective because in linguistic matters it is pretty much completely prescriptive. Entire languages are demoted to mere "dialects," like if Spanish were considered a dialect of Italian.

Of course actual dialects of mandarin are pretty much completely unrecognized. If you don't speak like a China Central Television announcer you are doing it WRONG.

It will be interesting to see what happens if western style descriptivism starts to take a hold in China, though there are political reasons why that would be unlikely.
posted by afu at 7:05 PM on October 22, 2009


The real linguistic dilemma facing Chinese is how to stop trendy young urban professionals peppering their conversation with English buzzwords. Now get out of my siheyuan courtyard.
posted by Abiezer at 7:13 PM on October 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


I find the rush to learn Putonghua in the West is very similar to the rush to learn Japanese in the 80's and 90's. It seemed for a while that almost every high school in Australia was offering Japanese classes - all predicated on the idea what we'd need it to communicate with our largest trading partner.

And now China's on the way to being our largest trading partner so it's "Quick - everyone learn Chinese - the 21st century is going to be China's century."

Not that I think there's anything wrong with learning either language - go for it. Still, I find this a bit odd:
1. Learn Chinese
2. ??
3. Profit!

I think it should be more like:

1. learn a skill or trade or profession
2. learn how to do 1. really well
3. learn a foreign language
4. if by happenstance you get to practise your skill, trade or profession in a place where you can use your foreign language ability as well, great!
5. profit.
posted by awfurby at 7:39 PM on October 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


even in the small Canadian town of Waterloo, ON, the shift from Cantonese-speaking to Mandarin-speaking Chinese has been drastic. I don't mind, I speak Taishanese and Mandarin, so I get the best service at restaurants!
posted by growli at 7:48 PM on October 22, 2009



Of course actual dialects of mandarin are pretty much completely unrecognized. If you don't speak like a China Central Television announcer you are doing it WRONG.


You want to know the funniest thing to me? I grew up around people who spoke Mandarin Chinese with a Taiwanese accent. Back in undergrad, I decided to take Chinese, and the Chinese teacher spoke (and taught) Mandarin with a Beijing accent.

Now, to my ear, there are a few differences between the two accents: Beijing style Mandarin adds a bunch of 'h' sounds: "Ni yao senme?" (What do you want?) becomes "Ni yao shenme?"

Beijing style Mandarin also has a bunch of added 'er' noises at the end of some sentences. "Ta zai na li?" Becomes "Ta zai narr?"

So whenever I want to do a Beijing accent, I pretend that I'm Sean Connery. As a pirate.
posted by Comrade_robot at 7:59 PM on October 22, 2009 [18 favorites]


Uncle Chu: 中国是在这里,伯顿先生。

Jack Burton: What does that mean? Huh? "中国是"? I don't even know what the hell that means.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 8:08 PM on October 22, 2009 [3 favorites]


All of which bugs the Hell out of me because I prefer the sound of Cantonese (as well as speaking it) to Putonghua, which always sounds to me like someone is swallowing his tongue.

Mandarin sounds nice and sing-songy to me, while the experience of listening to Cantonese is similar to that of being screamed at.

Back in undergrad, I decided to take Chinese, and the Chinese teacher spoke (and taught) Mandarin with a Beijing accent.

My Chinese teacher was from Taiwan and taught all of us to speak with a thick Beijing accent.

So whenever I want to do a Beijing accent, I pretend that I'm Sean Connery. As a pirate.

Quoted For Truth.
posted by deanc at 8:54 PM on October 22, 2009 [3 favorites]


Of course actual dialects of mandarin are pretty much completely unrecognized. If you don't speak like a China Central Television announcer you are doing it WRONG.

This is true in the US with American English. If you have a regional accent (southern, Boston, New York), and you leave your area, people will make fun of your accent, and such accents are made fun of in general on television shows. It's regretful, because the regional variations give life to the language.
posted by eye of newt at 9:30 PM on October 22, 2009


Years ago I worked for this company that had a lot of Chinese employees, including my boss, who had such a strong accent when he spoke English I could barely understand him. One day the VP had a party at his house for all of us. Everyone was speaking Chinese, so I just sat on a couch by myself. My boss came over and sat with me.
"You probably don't know what anyone is saying."
"Yep"
"I don't either" he said, shocking me. "Everyone else speaks Mandarin. I don't understand Mandarin."
posted by eye of newt at 9:30 PM on October 22, 2009


Mandarin sounds nice and sing-songy to me, while the experience of listening to Cantonese is similar to that of being screamed at.

Funny, considering Mandarin only has four tones and Cantonese has eight (or six or nine, depending on who you ask).

True, sometimes Cantonese speakers sound like they're arguing when they really aren't, whereas in Beijing Mandarin everyone sounds like they're pissed off.
posted by bwg at 10:39 PM on October 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Randomly, I found it to be kinda weird that there's a Chinatown in Singapore...
posted by mhh5 at 10:46 PM on October 22, 2009


Randomly, I found it to be kinda weird that there's a Chinatown in Singapore...

I don't think it's that weird - Singapore started out as a Malay fishing village, then a British colony with Indian and Chinese people being imported for labour. Town planning was organised by ethnic group. So in that context a Chinatown seems normal.
posted by awfurby at 11:43 PM on October 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


mhh5--

Singapore has three cultures -- Indian, Malay, and Chinese. None of 'em want to adopt eachother's system, so they all stuck with what the brits left 'em. It works for them.
posted by effugas at 11:44 PM on October 22, 2009


I find the rush to learn Putonghua in the West is very similar to the rush to learn Japanese in the 80's and 90's. It seemed for a while that almost every high school in Australia was offering Japanese classes - all predicated on the idea what we'd need it to communicate with our largest trading partner.

And now China's on the way to being our largest trading partner so it's "Quick - everyone learn Chinese - the 21st century is going to be China's century."


Yeah, German also seemed big for the same reason in the 80s, Arabic was big after 911 for placement in intel... I definitely think there are language opportunity fads. However, Mandarin's always been a good bet from a sheer demographic standpoint. I had people telling me in 1991 learning it would probably turn out to be useful someday... not necessarily from an economic standpoint, just in a "chances are pretty good you will meet people who speak it because there are more native speakers than English and Spanish combined" kindof way.

That turned out to be sooner than I thought; I ended up with four chinese roomates three years later. Figuring I'd take advantage, I enrolled in a University class, but did so horribly in school in general that semester that I dropped out. Have always had it in the back of my head since then.
posted by weston at 12:24 AM on October 23, 2009


Pretty soon Hispanics in the US are going to start complaining about all of the foreigners speaking "Chinese" instead of "learning the language."

Previously, Hispanics in California were complaining about all of the foreigners speaking "English" instead of "learning the language."
posted by ActingTheGoat at 12:28 AM on October 23, 2009 [3 favorites]


Here in Argentina, all the local grocery stores are owned by mandarin speakers...
posted by conifer at 1:56 AM on October 23, 2009


Yeah, in Vancouver, there's much more Mandarin than Cantonese - especially in the sciences; there's a dearth of people from HK who are in Vancouver for university (especially graduate studies) compared to people from the mainland or Taiwan. Mandarin (er, Taiwanese) is the de facto language of Asians in my particular field.

I figure that people from HK are smarter (or more materialistic) than to try for a career in neuroscience, or science in general.

Haven't come across as many people with "huang ha yum" (old village [cantonese] accents) in a looong time. Used to run into them a lot; had to try to explain to a vegetable seller sitting at Waterfront that they really aren't allowed to do what they were trying to - on pain of being arrrested. Do hear lots of conversations, lately, in a mostly cantonese dialect about how - yeah, they're collecting pop bottles and cans from the UBC trash bins but they have kids at the university.

My 4th grade teacher was an over-the-top Anglophile (ie., British) Sino(Japanese)phile. He looked remarkably like Roger Moore and idolized the Japanese society and tried to influence his students to adopt the language and his (flawed) impression of how Japanese society worked.

Language - it really depends on where you are and what you do.
posted by porpoise at 1:58 AM on October 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


the superiority of Cantonese

We're discussing the superiority of one language over another now? I look forward to the rich and substantial debate that's sure to follow.
posted by fatehunter at 3:08 AM on October 23, 2009 [4 favorites]


The first time I went to Beijing (late '90s), the all the TV news was read in a barking tone that seemed to say "I am making a public announcement, and you WILL pay attention." Since then, that tone has softened enormously; now the harsh mode seems to be used mostly by government officials making speeches.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:34 AM on October 23, 2009


Excellent post. Thanks.
posted by nickyskye at 3:45 AM on October 23, 2009


weston: Can anyone recommend a good resource for a gentle introduction to Mandarin? Not even targeting conversational level, necessarily...

how about ChineseClass101?
posted by greasepig at 4:50 AM on October 23, 2009


In my experience, in the US, Chinese immigrants are as likely as not to speak some dialect of Hokkien as their first language. Most of them speak Mandarin, but only as a second or third language.

And really, if you survey the most frequently spoken language in the kitchens of Chinese restaurants, it's as likely as not to be Spanish.
posted by jiawen at 6:46 AM on October 23, 2009


Since someone asked:

Mandarin with Serge Melnyk Very casual, small operation. Great if you're just dipping your tootsies. Taught by non-native speaker, but he knows his stuff and is quite good. This is actually a plus, since he has a better idea of what Western students find difficult than most native speakers.

ChinesePod aka: CPOD. Not only the most robust of all online Chinese language learning, but probably the mother of ALL online language learning (in that most everyone borrowed their business plan and teaching style). Tons of information, a solid reputation and a faithful community.

ChineseClass101, from a Japanese-based company. Japanese is their strongest offering (obviously), but they've recently started pushing Chinese and it is evolving quite nicely. They've watched CPOD and managed to avoid some of the pitfalls they ran into.

Then there are communities like LiveMocha. You can get a basic grounding, but it seems to me that the value here are the social contacts you can make (ie: for 1-on-1 Skype-style learning or to have your writing "graded") and these are more useful after you get some knowledge under your belt.

Personally, I'm mostly familiar with CPOD, though I have gravitated toward ChineseClass101. That's simply a personal choice -- both are very nice.

And, of course ... there's always Pimsleur, which is surprisingly strong.
posted by RavinDave at 7:36 AM on October 23, 2009 [9 favorites]


Great post, thanks!

For some reason I decided to learn some Cantonese while living in Taiwan (where nobody spoke it); I got a chance to try it out when I got back to the States and was doing fine with a waiter who spoke it slowly enough I could understand him, but then it turned out he was a Mandarin-speaker who was also studying Cantonese. How we laughed!
posted by languagehat at 11:52 AM on October 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


English sign: "Must speak Cantonese, English and Mandarin."
Chinese sign: Priority given to English and Cantonese speakers. [partial translation]

Different.


Chinese sign: Priority given to English and Cantonese speakers [who are able to read this goddamn sign]

Maybe not so different after all...
posted by sour cream at 3:59 AM on October 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


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