Putonghua or bust
August 3, 2016 12:07 AM   Subscribe

Cantonese is a great language. Taking Cantonese lessons was one of the best things I did in Hong Kong. It made the city more open to me, I can use it in Australia. It's such a humorous language too - lots of great expressions. I wish I was still learning it to be honest.
posted by awfurby at 12:25 AM on August 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

Dialects and Singlish are deliberately excluded and mocked because they bring social cohesion among races and groups - when you can't speak to the older generations, when there's no common tongue in an ethnically diverse group except four carefully maintained and monitored languages, then it's a lot easier to control and you don't have to worry about cross-pollination of ideas.

I don't speak Singlish properly because I struggle to pick up languages of any sort (my few languages are all hard won) but I have the accent if not the vocabulary and it's so clear with my kids who have differing abilities in it what a difference it made for their friendships and work to be able to speak real Singlish.

The article on it touches on national service but that's where Singlish really survives and thrives. It is used in schools but stamped out all the time by teachers, but in the army, it's the standard language because the commands are given in Malay but everyone is from all groups and it's where the new phrases start.

Right now, I'm struggling with whether to teach my daughter Mandarin, as my others got exempted for different reasons. I would dearly like to say no because I hate the politics behind the language policy so much even while I know she'd enjoy Mandarin.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 1:36 AM on August 3, 2016 [10 favorites]

I didn't realise the landscape in Hong Kong had changed so much with regard to language since I left in 2005. The sound of the language is such a part of my youth. I'm sad I never learned more, and that what little I had has gone.
posted by Dysk at 1:36 AM on August 3, 2016

Not looking forward to the loss of words from my childhood - Hakka, Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese... yat ee sam sei is all that's left along with kong hee fatt choy - I remember when they started imposing gong xi fa cai
posted by infini at 2:48 AM on August 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

I live in Hong Kong as a non-Chinese speaker, though I know a few words of both Cantonese and Mandarin.

The barriers to learning Cantonese informally compared to Mandarin seem significant when you're studying on your own, especially without family or partners/friends who speak it. It's hard to find quality Cantonese learning materials, books that share the same romanization scheme, or online resources with sufficient English explanations; Mandarin is far more accessible given how much it's taught globally.

Yet I treasure Cantonese - it's Hong Kong's most enduring cultural artifact and makes life a joy - it's full of puns and double-entendres, and my students love teaching me this week's ridiculous new coinage.

In a few decades, I assume more people will use both Mandarin and Cantonese in everyday life, and who knows what will happen after 2047; I can see teachers being required to use Mandarin only in the classroom, for example. But for now, I can't see Cantonese dying out anytime soon; it's just too vibrant as it is.

Ten Years/十年, an award-winning film from 2015, portrays a Hong Kong where Cantonese is definitely on the wane and it's very depressing to watch. The Mainland government calls Cantonese a dialect even though it's mutually unintelligible with Mandarin, and the Guangdong National Language Regulations have effectively banned Cantonese in official life just a few miles away over the border. More and more, simplified characters are used in Hong Kong to facilitate mainland shoppers or tourists, like on the East Rail Line, our direct link with Shenzhen.

Language is power, and it's chilling just how close Hong Kongers are to losing their freedoms and heritage.
posted by mdonley at 3:30 AM on August 3, 2016 [11 favorites]

(Also, awfurby, where did you take your lessons?)
posted by mdonley at 3:30 AM on August 3, 2016

This is a great post! So many great posts lately!
posted by DoctorFedora at 4:13 AM on August 3, 2016

Great round up of links, thank you very much.

Something more than one article touches on is the growing disparity in the Chinese diaspora, as those who were in many respects exiles or well apart from the Chinese state, the ccp and its culture are now seeing a rising tide of Chinese immigrants who are very well integrated with the Chinese state, its rhetoric and fictions.

The latter both consciously and unconsciously are advancing a hegemony that wittingly or otherwise seeks to erase much diversity. It may be in future years that the largest populations of these dialects end up being in "third party" countries, languages frozen in amber through exiled communities. I see this in Australia with the viet community, refusing to adapt the northern communist words and terms that are now commonplace "back home".

That all said, it's always worth remembering the CCP's tendency to exaggerate and to highlight what it wishes was real, rather than what is. The bastards are patient though,I'll give them that. Cantonese etc may face no real threat today, but in fifty years, who can say.
posted by smoke at 4:26 AM on August 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

This makes me quite sad to hear about the deemphasis on Cantonese. I started learning Mandarin because that's what there was at my university, but my great-grandmother spoke Cantonese - her father was born in Macau - and I always promised myself that once I had a decent grasp on Mandarin I would go back to my roots, so to speak, and learn Cantonese. The prospect of learning this language becoming more and more difficult depresses me.
posted by chainsofreedom at 5:39 AM on August 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Growing up in California, I didn't hear anything but Cantonese til I was an adult. Perhaps expat communities will keep it alive.
posted by small_ruminant at 7:20 AM on August 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

This is a fine post about an important subject; thanks for making it.
posted by languagehat at 8:27 AM on August 3, 2016

Shanghainese represent! Though watching shows now, they still can't get it right. Unless my family's accent has drifted due to isolation...hmm.
posted by Therapeutic Amputations at 8:38 AM on August 3, 2016

That all said, it's always worth remembering the CCP's tendency to exaggerate and to highlight what it wishes was real, rather than what is. The bastards are patient though,I'll give them that. Cantonese etc may face no real threat today, but in fifty years, who can say.

That's probably true for HK, but certainly Singaporeans and Malaysians feel... I'm not sure what's the right word to capture this Malay word I have in mind (terkilan)... aghast/nostalgic/sorrowful (?) that the push for Mandarin in our countries is very much pushed by the local establishment rather than any direct CCP involvement. Part of that is due to an intra-community cultural war between Sinophone and Anglophone Chinese, and all its attendant cultural markers (British colonial identity vs the nascent nationalist Chinese one for one) and which one is considered superior. In its attempt to assert this native Chinese identity, the actual clan identities and associated languages of the diaspora communities become erased and subsumed within this paradigm that the only true, elite/high-born Chinese language is Mandarin, so in itself it becomes another expression of both class warfare as well as postcolonial construction of native identity.
posted by cendawanita at 8:48 AM on August 3, 2016 [13 favorites]

(and who the heck knows, maybe I'll do another post about how non-Middle Eastern Muslims are currently grappling with Arabization of their faith, which is another point of angst for Southeast Asian Muslims. Per infini's anecdote, for a while also public expressions of Eid wellwishes stopped being 'Selamat Hari Raya', and became 'Eid Mubarak' instead. This region is just in a permanent state of cultural amalgation I guess -- always the consumer, never the producer)
posted by cendawanita at 8:52 AM on August 3, 2016 [7 favorites]

ooof! cendawanita, I saw that just now in the decorations for Hari Raya in Joo Chiat - Eid Mubarak, Salama Aid il fitri and other stuff but no Selamat Hari Raya Puasa

Also, everything you said above I've heard from various friends back in the days when this was happening starting with Singapore. There were directives back in the day, iirc, "don't speak dialect" - its an erasure of history and culture since the different language groups also reflect teh migration histories.

The story of the most famous Kapitan Cina, for instance
posted by infini at 8:58 AM on August 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Young people pick up dialects to explore their roots and connect with the older generation

More young Chinese Singaporeans now see dialects as an important part of their heritage, and are taking steps to make sure they will not be lost.

Business undergraduate Jasmine Tan began uploading basic Teochew tutorial videos on YouTube last year. Her channel, Teochew Gaginang (which means "our own people" in the dialect), currently has 214 subscribers.

Of Dialects and Dodos – Dialect in Singapore

Grandmother Tongue speaks from the heart
By Akshita Nanda, Straits Times

A young man moves in with his 84-year-old grandmother, who speaks only Teochew, and realises the extent to which she is isolated from the world.
Part of this is because the subtitles are in English and Chinese, but it is mostly because the play is not just the story of a linguistic minority.

It is the story of anyone lucky enough to grow old and therefore unlucky enough to no longer fit into the boxes a society requires to build its future.

posted by infini at 9:09 AM on August 3, 2016 [6 favorites]

This is delightful, cendawanita, thanks so much for posting! I had a good bunch of laughs from the "Do You Speak Singlish?" column from NYT. Speaking Cantonese is pure pleasure for me, and there's a style of comedic timing/exaggeration/stupidity that works super well in it (mo lei tau) that never fails to warm my heart when I engage in it with my brother.
posted by coolname at 9:28 AM on August 3, 2016

I really relate to this, as my family has (by American standards, but I think not by Chinese diaspora standards) a very high number of languages:

My paternal grandparents were native speakers of Taiwanese Hokkien and were educated in and spoke fluent Japanese; my father grew up speaking Hokkien at home and Mandarin in school under the KMT administration.

My maternal grandparents were native speakers of Hakka from Guangdong, then immigrated to Thailand and then to Laos. My mother grew up speaking Thai/Lao at home and Mandarin at school (she did all her schooling in Chinese-language schools). She has some passive Hakka from home and Hokkien from her time in Taiwan but doesn't speak them.

My parents speak Mandarin (sprinkled with occasional English after having lived in the US for decades) to each other, and I speak a mix of Mandarin and English to them. (I've got some French and Spanish from school too!)

Sometimes I wish that I spoke Hokkien in particular, as I do identify fairly strongly with my Taiwanese family (and have pan-Green political leanings), but I feel like in my situation maintaining my Mandarin is already a sufficient challenge.
posted by andrewesque at 9:34 AM on August 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'm sad that Hokkien (and other dialects) may die, given its contributions to the Malaysian vernacular. IMO, a big challenge it has is that there is no written form of it (that I know of), so it is almost impossible to learn without interacting with fellow speakers. Wa ai lu, Hokkien.

Bonus content: Petronas makes some good ads, and this one features Hokkien.
posted by kyp at 9:35 AM on August 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've regularly stayed with friends in Southern Taiwan for the past twenty years and it's been interesting to see the changes in language over that time. It was always memorable visiting their grandparents because they would speak Japanese to each other, but then use Taiwanese with the next two generations, who usually favoured that amongst themselves too. Meanwhile my friend's children had grown up with Mandarin as a first language so conversations involving their mum and aunt used that. The aunt then married a man from a Hakka background who speaks Hakkanese and Mandarin but not really Taiwanese so her wedding was a real mix of languages. (There are also those from the non-Han indigenous people of Taiwan who have their own languages and shouldn't be forgotten.)

My friend's children are now grown up and while they understand Taiwanese reasonably well and happily watch dramas on TV that are in Taiwanese they only really speak Mandarin, though incorporating Taiwanese words and local slang. In neighbourhood shops and cafes when I hear people talking to sales staff Taiwanese seems to be used less than it was, but it feels quite a way from disappearing. I get the impression that with the growth in a distinct Taiwanese identity in recent years younger people perhaps feel that the language should be a part of that, but because Mandarin is so essential for education and work have instead settled for a Taiwan-style Mandarin.
posted by kerplunk at 9:37 AM on August 3, 2016

Thanks for this! I could use these in class.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 9:46 AM on August 3, 2016

kyp, I know a couple of friends based in Penang, who're working hard to preserve and keep Hokkien alive, and I think part of that is also coming up with a standardised writing system for Penang Hokkien. Here is one of them, giving a TedxPetaling Street talk, but in Cantonese (and no subtitles! Sorry!). He's part of this initiative, which you can check out as well.

As a KL-ite, I'm not a Cantonese speaker in any meaningful sense (but I can understand a bit, I'll just reply in Malay/English). Having Penang friends who became really into language preservation really opened my eyes. I think it's because in KL, the prevalence of Cantonese-language media (from HK) makes the locals don't feel the urgency quite so much, and would quite happily maintain the status quo. And it's actually an interesting wrinkle in this whole conversation as well, in this part of the country, Cantonese also becomes a dominant language that steamrolls the other local languages, because of HK pop culture. I mean, as a non-Chinese, this is how I learned Cantonese, and in fact I would daresay there're more Cantonese words in Malay creole/patois now via this route, instead of Hokkien or Teochew, though we'll still have mainstays like kiasu, bohsia and 'nang bo ti nang, kui bo ti kui' ('neither a spirit nor a man').
posted by cendawanita at 9:52 AM on August 3, 2016 [4 favorites]

Thanks cendawanita, I'll definitely check that out, I'm pretty sure I've listened to their podcast before somehow. Unfortunately, my Cantonese is virtually non-existent so that Tedx talk is going over my head.
posted by kyp at 10:05 AM on August 3, 2016

Growing up in California, I didn't hear anything but Cantonese til I was an adult. Perhaps expat communities will keep it alive.

This was my thought too - not quite the same thing though.
posted by atoxyl at 11:12 AM on August 3, 2016

As a Shanghainese speaker who has been living in the US since college, I didn't realize how much I was missing out with my mother tongue until I read the novel "繁花“ by 金澄宇 a couple of years ago. The novel was written in my dialect, and the language is so rich and so expressive and evocative of it times and places. It's impossible to imagine how the same story could be told in mandarin, and it really made me love my dialect in a way beyond the instinctive, unthinking way of a child.

But with my preschooler daughter growing up in the US, making her speak Shanghainese would be a luxury -- even making sure she would keep speaking (and learning to read) mandarin would be a big challenge. So it goes.
posted by of strange foe at 11:20 AM on August 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

I love this post, and I mean to pop by later today to add my thoughts to the conversation.

Thank you so much for sharing this!
posted by invokeuse at 11:44 AM on August 3, 2016

mdonley - I learnt Cantonese here and here.
posted by awfurby at 4:31 PM on August 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

I grew up in Canada speaking Cantonese to my parents and grandparents -- in high school I would speak canto to a couple of my friends (international students from HK) so we could snark about teachers behind their backs, and I remember them always laughing at my turns of phrase, which were totally retro/old-fashioned, my parents having left HK ~25 years earlier.

I think a lot about whether or not my hypothetical future children would be able to learn it. I would certainly like to teach them (for various reasons, not the least of which is that knowing multiple languages is just fun) but I know first-hand how hard it is to pick up even a semi-functional ability when you're not motivated to use it 24/7, and this was with 2 native speakers and cantonese-language media playing in the background. My parents' attempt to put me in formal language classes backfired spectacularly, too.

(My dad's side of the family also speaks Hokkien, but I can only say/understand two - really more like 1.5 - things: I can tell someone to eat, and also tell them to eat shit. Thanks dad!)
posted by btfreek at 5:53 PM on August 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

My other favourite mini-hobby is to look up youtube videos of people comparing their respective Englishes, or whatever, and so from this guy: Malaysian [Mandarin] Chinese vs Taiwanese [Mandarin] Chinese - vol 1; vol 2; and vol 3. I can't speak for the Taiwanese, but I can totally see the grammatical borrowings from other Malaysian languages for the Malaysian one heh eg interchangeably using air and wind for the same thing because it's the same word in Malay.
posted by cendawanita at 8:47 PM on August 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

And getting thoroughly confused with ayer batu?
posted by infini at 12:24 AM on August 4, 2016

lol but how??
posted by cendawanita at 12:38 AM on August 4, 2016

sound and also use of the spelling 'air' especially at hawker stands
posted by infini at 12:52 AM on August 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

ohhhh. Yes, the modern spelling for water in Malay is 'air' (pronounced ayer, as you note). A common target for a good old English-Malay bilingual pun. In those videos though, I've learned the lack of distinction is now carried over into Malaysian Chinese - the word for 'wind' is also used when they mean 'air'.
posted by cendawanita at 1:18 AM on August 4, 2016

My mother was totally into multilingual puns, though us giggling as preschoolers over drinking susu probably wasn't what she had in mind ;p
posted by infini at 2:22 AM on August 4, 2016

The other thing I've retained more than 35 years later is pronouncing 'c' as 'ch' e.g. percuma
posted by infini at 2:22 AM on August 4, 2016

In Vancouver I feel there's some angst about the survival of Cantonese in the city - it's also in many ways tied up with the gentrification and demographic shifts of our Chinatown. (And shifts in the Chinese immigrant community as well; there has been an increase in immigration from Mainland China over the last two decades, and concerns about how much responsibility they bear for the inflated Vancouver real estate market. That's a whole 'nother can of worms though.) Early last year there was an art exhibit (Transgression/Cantosphere) about it. As the generations that occupied Chinatown for decades dies off, Chinatown has become a quaint cultural artifact. I have very mixed feelings about it. I'm happy to see new life in Chinatown, but I'm sad there isn't more Cantonese there.

Cantonese is a wonderful and funny language, with some hilarious idioms. I wish I spoke it better; I have basically only ever spoken it with family - growing up I always had an English-speaking circle of friends. I'm heading to Hong Kong in two weeks, for the first time ever, and I'm alternately really excited to be plopped into a place where I will hear lots and lots of Cantonese and terrified that I will actually have to use my Cantonese.

(In one of the articles someone mentions "how fun" Cantonese kinship terms are - for anyone's who not familiar with them here's a detailed video for every single family member you can possibly think of. Both of my parents come from large families and this was never fun to deal with - I eventually just defaulted to "Uncle" and "Auntie" to save myself the hassle of getting ribbed over using the wrong term. Also, by re-watching this I have just discovered that the ribbing that father gave me for using the "wrong term" to refer to some cousins on my father's side was COMPLETELY UNDESERVED. Vindication!)

kyp or anyone else who wants a gloss of the TEDx talk that cendawanita linked above, feel free to MeMail me - I get about 90% of it but am not comfortable posting a public translation due to my incomplete understanding. :)
posted by invokeuse at 9:50 PM on August 5, 2016 [4 favorites]

re: demographics in Vancouver -- as recently as 5 or 6 years ago I could walk into any predominantly-Chinese business in Vancouver or Richmond and be fairly sure that I could conduct my transaction in Cantonese. Nowadays it's a tossup between Cantonese and Mandarin, to the point where I find myself defaulting to English more often than not just to avoid the awkward oh-we-don't-actually-share-a-common-language dance. I've noticed a lot of "Help Wanted" signs in these places now specify trilingualism as a requirement.
posted by btfreek at 1:23 AM on August 6, 2016

Another Shanghainese speaker who grew up in the U.S. Apparently in Shanghai even the kids who do speak Shanghainese speak it with a Mandarin accent. For example, the word for "I" (Mandarin: "wo3") should have a nasal consonant that doesn't exist in Mandarin, but instead people use "w". When I go home, it's clear that I'm not from around here, because my Mandarin is too poor and my Shanghainese is too good. Which is kind of a horrifying thing to say to someone with a third-grade vocabulary.
posted by d. z. wang at 7:33 PM on August 6, 2016

Invokeuse, those idioms and proverbs are AMAZING
posted by DoctorFedora at 7:51 PM on August 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

Yet another person who grew up in the U.S., horribly awful at Mandarin, much less awful but still pretty awful at Taiwanese Hokkien. My parents spoke Taiwanese Hokkien at home, and I love it when I run into other Taiwanese Hokkien speakers. It makes me so happy to have this kind of obscure language in common that I associate so strongly with my family and my roots. I find it heartbreaking to think of the language dying out, but I don't know how my kids would learn it when I don't even have the basic language skills.

Requisite multilingual anecdote - my uncle speaks English, Mandarin, and Taiwanese. His wife speaks English, Mandarin, and Cantonese. Their kids speak English and Mandarin. My uncle once confided to me that he understood just enough Cantonese, and my aunt understood just enough Taiwanese (both from watching media in the other language), that he speaks Taiwanese and she speaks Cantonese when they switch to secret parent code so the kids can't understand what they're saying.
posted by cdefgfeadgagfe at 4:03 AM on August 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

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