A Tense Scene in the Family Reunion, But Why?

Happy Mid-autumn Festival! It is, at least in my family, the second most important festival in a year (the most important one is certainly Spring Festival)! Just now I came back from a family reunion meal, during which an unhappy scene really disturbed me, particularly because it was related to my academic interest. It was provoked by an argument about language use and language preference in a bilingual context.

People involved:

Abby (female, 4 years old)

Abby is my little cousin, who has been I a kindergarten for one year. She mainly spoke Cantonese before 3 and has started to get much Mandarin exposure since kindergarten.

Jay (male, 5 years old)

Jay is my another cousin and he began kindergarten 2 years ago. Much the same as Abby, he spoke Cantonese as L1 and now learns Mandarin in kindergarten.

Molly and Tom (Abby’s parents, Molly 40 years old and Tom 50)

Molly is my distant aunt. She comes from a low socio-economic status without decent educational background. She is a native Cantonese speaker and a local Cantonese person, who cannot speak Mandarin fluently. She has worked for a state-owned company for many years and usually communicates with colleagues in Cantonese. Tom is from a quite wealthy family but he did not receive good education either and took over his father’s business at an early age. He is a native Cantonese speaker, and he seldom speaks Mandarin.

Jill and Rick (Molly’s parents, 65 years old)

Jill is my grandfather’s sister. She and Rick grew up before the Mandarin promotion policy so their competence in Mandarin is very low. Like all other members in my family, they are locals with Cantonese as L1.

What happened then?

Before Jay and his parents arrived, Abby played with Molly, Tom, Jill and Rick using Cantonese. Afterwords, Jay came to the meal. Our family do not get together very often so Jay and Abby are not familiar with each other. Whereas since they are little children, they began to play together “automatically.” Later on, suddenly, I heard Jill saying in a patient voice,”Why do you two speak Mandarin? Use Cantonese.”Then I noticed the two kids did shout out loud in Mandarin. However, they neither responded to Jill nor switched to Cantonese. Therefore, Molly, Tom, and Rick continued what Jill did but all failed. I first assumed that they would give up but I was wrong. Because soon later when Abby went to Rick to ask for toys, he said somewhat coldly, “I don’t know what you are saying (actually he did), use Cantonese.” Immediately the atmosphere turned embarrassingly tense. What’s worse, Abby just ran away and continued to play with Jay in Mandarin, which completely infuriated Jill, who shouted, “I tell you to speak Cantonese!” Fortunately, right after that other relatives started a conversation with Jill and also all dishes were served, so we began to eat. The disconcerting scene was thus able to end. 

Classifying Abby and Jay according to 4 categories of dual language children

Recently I have been reading Dual Language Development & Disorder: A Handbook on Bilingualism & Second Language Learning (2004). They identified 4 types of dual language children: majority/minority group simultaneous bilinguals, majority/minority second language learners. I wonder whether Abby and Jay belong to the minority group or not. In addition, their language profiles and changing language preference are highly similar to mine. Is Cantonese widely used and highly valued in Guangzhou? Honestly, it is hard to say, and that is why Cantonese-Mandarin bilingualism keeps confusing and exciting me. the mere fact that Abby and Jay now seem to prefer Mandarin is a convincing testimony to the dominance of Mandarin, whereas only in educational setting. Cantonese is still cherished by a great number of Guangzhou people and it has by fay never been necessarily associated with lower social status or less socio-economic power. However, it can be concluded that particularly in our society where most families prioritize quality education and excellent academic performance, the influence of almost everything in education system on children is decisive and long-lasting. Abby, Jay, and I all gradually switched our language preference and accordingly, our proficiency in Cantonese has gone through attrition.

Why did not Jay’s parents blame Jay and Abby for speaking Mandarin?

I noticed that Jay’s parents did not team up with Molly, Tom, Jill, and Rick. I asked them what they thought of Jay’s preference for Mandarin. They admitted the impact of considerable exposure to Mandarin especially teachers’ constant use of it in kindergarten, but they were not that disappointed with Jay’s shifting language preference. “Speaking Mandarin is good for academic preference in school, isn’t it?” I suppose such a stark contrast between Abby’s and Jay’s parents should be at least in part attributed to social environments they live in. It is known that since reform and opening up in the 1980s, migrant workers have flocked to Guangzhou, but it is less widely known that many of them have settled in Yuexiu, Tianhe, and Baiyun districts. Jay’s family lives in Yuexiu where they know and interact with many non-local residents who cannot speak Cantonese and who do not see it requisite to learn Cantonese due to extensive use of Mandarin in public contexts. In contrast, Abby’s family lives in Liwan, which is the most historical and traditional area in Guangzhou. Most people there are local Cantonese. In a word, I would say the sense of independent Cantonese linguistic and cultural identity is much stronger in Liwan than in Yuexiu. What’s more, Yuexiu boasts the best education resource in the city, so no wonder Jay’s parents are more aware of the prestigious position Mandarin is now occupying. 


Despite some tension this “accident” caused, it further aroused my enthusiasm for research on language preference and attitudes in the multilingual Guangzhou. It occurred to me that as a member of the city and a trilingual myself, I am allowed a favorable linguistic background and social environment to delve into the sociocultural and humanistic aspect of language, the extensiveness and complexity of which has fascinated me and will do so in my academic, linguistic, and cultural life.