A Piece of News Report

I am taking the English Literary Journalism course this term. Here is my own news report about language policy in Cantonese families. 

In today’s multicultural and multilingual Guangzhou, parents of Cantonese children have different opinions about whether young Cantonese should learn Cantonese.

Cantonese is a heritage language in Guangzhou, and it was once the most dominant one in the local language landscape. In recent decades, however, with policies on promoting Mandarin, more and more younger Cantonese people have poor or even no proficiency for this traditional language.

“When I was young most people in Guangzhou spoke Cantonese. Now I know many children here cannot speak it,” says Mrs. Lin, a 43-year-old local Cantonese and mother of the 14-year-old Lin Hao. With a deep emotional link with Cantonese language, she has been concerned about this issue for long.

“I cherish my cultural identity, and I consider Cantonese, the language, as the foundation of such an identity. Not speaking Cantonese, a person cannot really identity himself with culture of Guangzhou,” Mrs. Lin says.

She further mentions she can also understand the necessity of the Mandarin promotion policy. Since China’s opening up in 1978, many people have moved to Guangzhou, one of the most prosperous cities.

The latest data from Guangzhou Statistics Bureau shows in 2021 around 50.2% of the population in Guangzhou came from other areas. Since Cantonese is unintelligible for non-Cantonese people, Mandarin becomes more necessary for communication particularly in public contexts.

The 45-year-old Mr. Lin is from northern China. He has lived in Guangzhou since university. He recalled how Mandarin acted as a common Chinese language. “I knew nothing about Cantonese when I first came here, but thanks to Mandarin I could still make friends. So Mandarin seems more inclusive to me.”

Mr. Lin now works in a big technology company where most conversation is in Mandarin. “Mandarin is much more useful than Cantonese both at school and at work.”

Disagreeing with Mrs. Lin, he believes it is not a must for young Cantonese to learn a “less significant” language. Instead, “they need to focus all their energy on improving Mandarin. It is crucially important for their study and career.”

After Lin Hao was born, their opposing opinions made it difficult to decide the language policy at home. Mrs. Lin once suggested using one parent-one language strategy. “I hope to speak Cantonese to the kid, and he (Mr. Lin) speaks Mandarin.” In this way, she expected Lin Hao to be a fluent Cantonese-Mandarin bilingual.

The one parent-one language pattern is often used in bilingual families (Paradis et al., 2004). However, things did not go as Mrs. Lin planned. Because Mr. Lin preferred to limit Lin Hao’s exposure to Cantonese, worried about the potential negative influence it could have on his competence in Mandarin.

Most schools in Guangzhou nowadays are required to offer classes in Mandarin. Students need to finish homework and take exams in Mandarin. Great proficiency for this language is a key to achieving satisfactory academic performance.

In today’s highly competitive society, parents make considerable efforts to ensure their children are competent enough for school. That is why, Mrs. Lin thinks, some Cantonese parents choose not to speak Cantonese with children.

In the end, after serious consideration, Mr. Lin slightly compromised so Mrs. Lin used Cantonese with Lin Hao. However, since he went to school at six, Mrs. Lin finds that his Cantonese has been less and less proficient. Now, Lin Hao can only understand some but cannot speak it at all.

“I remember when I was very little I could speak Cantonese. But you know, at school teachers and classmates don’t speak Cantonese. Gradually I just feel unnatural and awkward to say something in Cantonese,” Lin Hao says.

Mrs. Lin knows her child went through a process of language attrition. It means proficiency in a language declines or is completely lost. It happens more often if the language is not a powerful one in a certain community (Paradis et al., 2004). With teachers, classmates, and father speaking Mandarin, Lin Hao has few opportunities to use Cantonese. Moreover, because Cantonese is not directly related to examination grade, he has little motivation to improve it.

“Sometimes I tell myself such attrition is inevitable, but still I feel really upset about it,” Mrs. Lin says.

Some educators in Guangzhou have the same concern as Mrs. Lin’s, including Liu Lingling, vice headmaster of Zhixin Middle School which Lin Hao is now studying in. Liu incorporated an optional Cantonese course into the curriculum.

Zhixin Middle School is the first in Guangzhou to provide Cantonese classes. “I believe students will feel much closer to this city if they can speak Cantonese,” Liu says.

The course attracted many students, including Lin Hao. He had a mood of melancholy when he learned one of his two mother tongues again. Despite this, he did not think he could be fluent in Cantonese in the future. “It’s a great pity I lost one of my mother languages, but only by taking this course I cannot learn to speak good Cantonese. After all, Mandarin is much more widely-used.”

Both of his parents considered Liu’s decision as bold and innovative. However, Mrs. Lin still feels pessimistic about the future of Cantonese and Mr. Lin does not change his attitudes. “My idea is always the same. There will be fewer and fewer Cantonese speakers. It is more far-sighted for young people to prioritize Mandarin.”

Many other Cantonese families in Guangzhou are facing the same language issue as the Lins. Social, financial and cultural concerns contribute to language policy making at home. “This is really difficult for all Cantonese parents, especially when we realize every choice has both advantages and disadvantages,” Mrs. Lin says.

Reference Paradis, J., Genesee, F., & Crago, M. B. (2004). Dual language development and disorders: A handbook on bilingualism and second language learning. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.