Cantonese language could disappear, says UBC linguist Zoe Lam

The Cantonese language could disappear within a couple of generations because of social pressures and the actions of the Chinese government, according to a UBC linguistics researcher.

Chinese government's preference for Mandarin seen as major threat to Cantonese

The text reads: “Be civilized. Use simplified written characters. Speak Putonghua (Mandarin)," says UBC's Zoe Lam. (UBC)

The Cantonese language could disappear within a couple of generations because of social pressures and the actions of the Chinese government, according to a UBC linguistics researcher.

Zoe Lam says while there are an estimated 70 to 100 million Cantonese speakers around the world right now, the Chinese government's preference for the Putonghua language — also know as Mandarin — is threatening the survival of Cantonese.

"When I was last in China, there were banners saying, 'Be civilized. Speak Putonghua,' everywhere, including at the airport," said Lam, who recently won UBC's Three Minute Thesis competition.

UBC linguistics researcher Zoe Lam warns Cantonese could be wiped out. (UBC)

Cantonese is the traditional language group of southern and southeastern China, including Hong Kong and Macau, and is spoken by many overseas Chinese communities around the world.

Mandarin is a group of languages traditionally spoken across the north and southwest regions of China, including the ruling elite in Beijing, and is the official language of the government.

While the two spoken language groups are distinct, they share many words and a closely related written form.

In southern China, the Guangdong National Language Regulations were enacted to restrict the use of Cantonese in the media, she said.

"Many people see that as a threat of cultural genocide," she said.

This elementary school textbook lists examples of uncivilized behaviour that include spitting on the street; ignoring traffic lights; and speaking Cantonese, notes UBC researcher Zoe Lam. (UBC)

She also claims that  in Hong Kong, where people have traditionally spoken Cantonese, 72 per cent of primary schools now use Putonghua as the medium of instruction in Chinese language classes according to an unofficial survey.

"That's worrying. For a lot of abstract concepts like political science or philosophy, they may only know how to think in Mandarin, and not be able to express themselves very well in Cantonese.

"The chief executive of Hong Kong, Leung Chun-ying, took the oath of office in Putonghua, unlike the former chief executives, who did it in Cantonese. Many people think that his language choice was a 'kowtow' to Beijing."

And it is not just in China where the language is threatened, said Lam.

"For example, in Vancouver there are a lot of Cantonese speakers whose children are 'heritage speakers,' which means they learn the language from their parents. But when those heritage speakers have children they will probably speak English to their kids."