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Cantonese in Vancouver

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Written by Randeep Purewall

Mandarin has overtaken Cantonese as the predominant non-English language spoken in Metro Vancouver homes.[1] That’s the latest report from Wanyee Lee in More Mandarin Than Cantonese Speakers, which featured recently in the Vancouver Metro.

The decline of Cantonese concerns many in Greater Vancouver. Fewer Cantonese speakers have been migrating to Vancouver in recent years. The Cantonese communities of Vancouver are aging and younger generations prefer to speak English.

Still, Cantonese is the third most spoken language in Metro Vancouver. And there are reasons to suspect why it won’t fade out just yet.

First, Cantonese is supported by an affluent community. This community represents a source of investment in the language. For instance, in 2015, the Watt brothers donated $2 million to the University of British Columbia, helping to create the first Cantonese language university program in Canada.

Second, Cantonese is a historically and culturally significant language in Vancouver. It is connected to the Chinese-Canadian heritage of Vancouver, including the community’s pioneers, Chinatown and generations of immigrants. Cantonese opera performances pack the M.J. Fox Theatre in Burnaby while local Cantonese television and radio command large audiences.[2]

Third, Cantonese forms an important part of the identity of Vancouver’s Hong Kong community. As Lee points out, most of Vancouver’s Chinese-Canadians from Hong Kong (or their descendants) live in East Vancouver. This gives Cantonese a geographic concentration in Vancouver and makes it a distinctive community.

Fourth, Cantonese will continue to have a role in an increasingly multilingual world. Many Chinese-Canadians in Vancouver in fact speak Mandarin and Cantonese. Cantonese is often spoken in one context while Mandarin and English are spoken in others contexts. Seen this way, Cantonese may end up co-existing with Mandarin in some instances.

The number of Mandarin speakers has increased in Vancouver, but Cantonese still has its speakers, its integrity and its heritage.

[1] According to the 2016 census, Mandarin has 138,680 speakers to 132,185 for Cantonese.

[2] Thank you to Dr. Jan Walls for your contribution here

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