Mandarin vs. Cantonese in America

There’s an interesting article in the New York Times today about the increase in the use of Mandarin among Chinese-Americans, to the detriment of the formerly more common Cantonese. When we think of language loss in the US we rightly think of situations where English replaces the languages of more recent immigrants (or of Native Americans), but here we have an interesting case where two languages, each vital in China and sharing a common script, come to be in competition here due to the nature of social ties in American Chinatowns. It’s not just that more Chinese immigrants are coming from Mandarin-speaking areas today (although that’s true); because Mandarin is an international language of commerce, there is perceived economic value for Cantonese-American families in having their children become trilingual in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English. It would be interesting to know whether some Chinatowns are less prone to Mandarin-ization than others, and why.

4 Comments

  1. Well, it looks like the positive aspect of this is that in these cases Mandarin isn’t so much supplanting Cantonese as it is supplementing it. Even if the overall proportion of Cantonese speakers to Mandarin speakers suffers, children are gaining an invaluable third system of insight into thought and into the world, when most children in the US have to settle for a single, insular tongue.

    Nice blog—I’ll be back!

  2. I was surprised a couple years ago in Chicago’s Chinahamlet when a Chinese guy read the 北京大学 shirt I was wearing and proceeded to speak to me in Mandarin. I was still very much under the impression that Cantonese was king. Then I remembered a Taiwanese friend of mine who works in California as a Spanish Translator for Mandarin-speaking businesses there, not Cantonese.

    If I were to guess, I’d say the smaller Chinatowns will change more quickly. Just a guess.

  3. This phenomenon, as described in the LA Times about three years ago, was one of the first things I blogged about, back when world history (which I was teaching then) was a major emphasis of my blog.

    It was a “local interest” story in the LAT, including complaints that California Mah Jong players were having a hard time finding a decent game played by Northern/Taiwan rules, which were being displaced by Hong Kong rules.

  4. Yea, Cantonese and Mandarin use the same script, but they use the same characters for completely different meanings, and some of them combine characters to form new characters that the other language never thought to do. It’s like German and Swedish. Both sound different and are read different. Or like how the Vietnsmese use Latin letters to write their language nowadays.

    Two villages side by side in the same Chinese province can’t understand each other, let alone another language from the other side of the country (at least before Communist China, for better or for worse).

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