British Columbia

Vancouver Chinese school turns Chinatown into classroom

An advocacy group in Chinatown is putting a new spin on Chinese school by losing the textbooks and turning to nearby shops and restaurants for lessons.

School focuses on 'survival' language skills, and keeping Cantonese alive amidst Mandarin influx

Two students at Youth Collaborative for Chinatown's Cantonese school get out into Chinatown to practise their language skills at a Chinese grocery store. (Vivian Luk/CBC)

An advocacy group in Chinatown is putting a new spin on Chinese school by losing the textbooks and turning to nearby shops and restaurants for lessons.

At Youth Collaborative for Chinatown's Cantonese school, organizer June Chow says the classes focus on conversational, "survival" language skills rather than literacy.

She likens it to traveling to a foreign country with a different language. 

"You pick up the Lonely Planet, the little phrase book, to be able to navigate," Chow told On The Coast's Vivian Luk. "Where's the bathroom, how much does this cost, left or right? Very practical [for] daily use."

Unlike many Chinese language schools, practice at this school isn't just reading poems or textbooks out loud: instead, they go to local businesses and practise using the language in a real-life setting.

Keeping Cantonese alive

In addition to imparting practical knowledge to students the school has a second purpose: instructor Zoe Lam says it is trying to keep the Cantonese language alive.

Instructor Zoe Lam says the number of people fluent in Cantonese is decreasing in Vancouver as younger generations speak more English, and more Mandarin speakers move to the area. (Vivian Luk/CBC)

Lam says many people consider Mandarin to be the more useful of the two dominant Chinese languages. It is also the language spoken by the majority of new Chinese immigrants in Vancouver.

But a stroll through the city's Chinatown demonstrates most residents and shopkeepers there still speak Cantonese, the main language of Hong Kong and the southern Chinese province of Guangdong.

"We can definitely see the number of speakers is decreasing ... especially in Vancouver," Lam said. "A lot of children who are raised by Cantonese-speaking parents are English-dominant. They think in English and they may be able to speak a little bit of Cantonese.

"Imagine when they have kids themselves. [Those kids] definitely won't speak Cantonese because their Cantonese isn't fluent enough."

Many feel disconnected without language

Student Erica Isomura is half Chinese, but her mother doesn't speak the language, and Erica never went to Chinese school.

Her por por — grandmother — speaks Cantonese, but the two always chat in English. Erica wants to change that.

"My por por practises with me sometimes, and she's impressed that I'm improving slowly," she said. "No one in my family really speaks Cantonese or at least, in terms of the generation before me, or my cousins or anyone in my generation."

Instructor Zoe Lam helps students practise on Saturday, Oct. 15, before they put their skills to the test in Chinatown shops. (Vivian Luk/CBC)

Chow was surprised by the number of students like Erica who felt there was some void in their life because they hadn't gone to Chinese school as a child and felt disconnected with their culture.

She hopes this Chinese school will pave the way for a new model of learning. 

"Nobody, I think in our generation, is expecting children to go to Chinese school and come out literate," she said.

"It's really about, today, an appreciation for the cultural heritage, especially if there are identity issues and heritage students who have Chinese background. But also for Vancouverites who live in city like Vancouver where there is a huge Asian population."

With files from CBC Radio One's On The Coast

To listen to the audio, click on the link labelled Vancouver Chinese school turns Chinatown into classroom