Stanford Quad with Memorial Church in the background. Photo: Wikipedia

As Covid-19 takes a toll on the global economy, universities and colleges have had to make some tough decisions in light of new financial restrictions as they reconsider their budget and infrastructure.

It is truly unfortunate to see higher education institutions make cuts to their services, including courses and positions that are now deemed non-essential or redundant, and one such position is that of a Cantonese lecturer at Stanford University, which, despite being in existence for more than 20 years, is currently under threat.

Stanford has informed its Cantonese lecturer, Dr Sik Dennig (張錫莉博士), that it will not renew her contract, which expires at the end of this academic year, and may only offer her hourly contracts without benefits in the short term if possible.  

This decision has drawn widespread reaction, as Dennig’s former students have launched a petition urging Stanford University to reconsider. The petition has gathered several thousand signatures of support from people both affiliated with and outside of Stanford, all of which is indicative of the immense popularity of Cantonese and its teaching and organization by Dennig.

In addition, there is growing media attention on the campaign to save the Cantonese lectureship at Stanford, which is appropriately named Save Cantonese at Stanford, and various fundraising activities have been launched in hope of preserving Dennig’s position and ensuring that she continues teaching Cantonese at the university.

Cantonese at Stanford is truly at a crossroads, and this is a moment not only to show support for the continuation of its teaching at the university but also to reflect on the importance of Cantonese and why it deserves to be taught as an independent subject at Western universities.

Most of the facts and figures have been reported in various media, which can be found on the “Save Cantonese” website. Here is an academic sociolinguistic argument for why Cantonese should be retained as an educational option at Stanford (and elsewhere in the West).

It has been explained that it is a common misconception that Chinese only consists of two dialects, Mandarin and Cantonese, and that these two varieties are so different that they are better conceived of as two separate languages, which is wrong on multiple fronts.

In summary, the sociolinguistic situation in the Sinosphere is far more complex than these foreign stereotypes imply, since Chinese does not consist of two mutually unintelligible languages but thousands of regional varieties that fall into a dialectal continuum and have been systematically classified into numerous dialectal groups and sub-groups.

Yet despite such a massive pool of linguistic micro-variation there is a diglossic configuration of dialects and sociolinguistic registers in contemporary Chinese society where official Mandarin and the local vernacular are clearly demarcated in accordance with societal functions.

This has many implications for the status of Chinese dialects, whose number ranges in the thousands because of the enormous size of China and the longevity of its civilization.

The sociolinguistics of Chinese is hence much more complex than is commonly (mis)conceived, as Cantonese is by no means the only other dialect that exists besides Mandarin, and one should acknowledge the many regional varieties of Wu, Hakka, Min, Gan and Xiang as well, all of which have been attested since antiquity to the modern day.

Nor is it the case that Chinese dialects, despite being mutandis mutatis orally mutually unintelligible (though not necessarily unintelligible in terms of written communication), are mutually exclusive or in any way antagonistic to one another.

The diglossic structure of contemporary Chinese society makes it possible for native speakers of Chinese to acquire a very high level of competence both in official Mandarin and the local vernacular as acquired at school and at home respectively, and this is shown in the very sophisticated code-switching between Mandarin and Cantonese in Hong Kong, which indicates the possibility of co-existence, rather than mutual exclusivity, in dialectal processing.

It is hence this author’s opinion that both Mandarin and Chinese dialects, given the correct sociolinguistic settings and effective language teaching methods, can be acquired concurrently, which can also promote linguistic awareness of the social and formal linguistic properties of Chinese, that is, a “win-win” situation for all Sinitic varieties.

One may wonder why we should persist with Cantonese as a variety in its own right, as it seems to be just another dialect out of thousands in the Chinese-speaking world, and given that official Mandarin is taught widely in schools and used throughout the population, one could argue that learning this official variety is sufficient in terms of mass communication throughout the Chinese-speaking world, which seems to make the study of Cantonese or any Chinese dialect redundant.

One should bear in mind that Cantonese is a major dialect family not just in southern parts of China, where it consists of many regional sub-dialects, but also in numerous diasporic communities in the West, chiefly in North America, which has seen mass migrations from China since the 19th century, and many of these migrants did not speak the standard Mandarin that we know today, since this underwent major reforms in the 20th century.

Indeed, one of the main arguments proposed by the campaigners of Save Cantonese at Stanford is that the foundation of Stanford University owed much to the Cantonese-speaking immigrants who worked as laborers for Leland Stanford, founder of the university, and their historical contributions to the wealth and subsequent foundation of the university deserve to be repaid by installing the study of Cantonese at the university.

Cantonese has therefore earned the status of being a heritage language variety with roots in various parts of world that go back several generations, especially in North America.

Indeed, I have mentioned before that in my experience of teaching Chinese (Mandarin/Cantonese) as a foreign language, I have, rather surprisingly, had more students for Cantonese than for Mandarin, and they expressed their desire to learn Cantonese with me for all kinds of reasons ranging from professional to social to cultural, which shows the deep-rootedness and pervasiveness of all things Cantonese beyond southern China.

It would be inaccurate to see Cantonese as just another regional dialect in China on a par with all the others, and its international distribution puts it on a par with other dialects like Teochow, Hakka and Min that have also gained footholds abroad, though Cantonese is significantly more advanced than these in terms of geographical distribution and numbers of speakers.

In this sense, Cantonese can certainly be argued to be a special variety of Chinese that is numerically and geographically more prominent than other dialects. To disregard it in Western education would be to ignore not only a prominent part of Chinese history and culture but also of Western culture, seeing that Cantonese heritage is deeply embedded in the West.

The argument that learning Mandarin is sufficient for communicating in the Chinese-speaking world is also weak if not untenable, since although speaking the official variety of Mandarin may make one understood by the many millions of educated literate people in the Chinese-speaking world (although illiteracy is still commonplace in parts of China), it probably will not bring one much, if any, further than that, namely be passively understood by Chinese speakers but not actively understand them.

As China’s position continues to grow in international affairs and is rapidly gaining prominence in the world, the study of Chinese language is no longer just a matter of communication, which can be acquired by students and adult learners attending language classes at university language centers, but is an inherent part of East Asian and China Studies that should be and indeed has been integrated with other branches of social sciences and the humanities like politics, history and culture.

Chinese dialects all have clearly attested historical roots which go back to antiquity, and to deny students the opportunity to study Chinese dialects is to reduce the scope and quality of one’s understanding of the vast richness and deep nuances of Chinese history and civilization.

Nor is it valid to argue that learning Chinese dialects is in any way detrimental or distracting to one’s acquisition of official Mandarin, since, as argued before, Chinese varieties can be acquired in parallel in ways that can be hugely beneficial to one’s understanding of (Chinese) grammar.

As one learns to code-switch between them not only in accordance with sociolinguistic norms but also in line with formal grammatical rules, one can gain a very high level of linguistic competence in Chinese language and dialects that can be transferred to one’s learning of other languages.

Chinese, therefore, is not a monolithic language that can be reduced to simply official Mandarin, which is not the only form of Mandarin as there are also numerous northern varieties.

The dialectal micro-variation of Cantonese both internal to itself and external to other dialects underscores the dialectal variety and diversity of the Chinese language, and it is essential to recognise this in order to achieve any meaningful or constructive understanding of China and East Asia. If not, one risks of gaining only a superficial understanding of China and the Sinosphere, which is not helpful to Western approaches toward China.

Chinese dialects are hence central to Chinese linguistics, and the present author has looked at dialectal micro-variations not just between Mandarin and Cantonese but also among all Chinese varieties in mainland China and beyond.

Regional varieties of Chinese are of huge interest and value in academia, as shown in the many studies, research papers and academic journals that have been published in the field of Chinese dialectology in recent years and are still going strong.

Cutting Cantonese from Chinese language teaching and research would be disastrous, especially if it conveyed the impression of there being just one official variety of Mandarin Chinese, which is deceptively and simplistically monolithic.

This would do huge injustice to the linguistic profile of Chinese as one of the world’s most widely spoken languages both in terms of number of speakers and in terms of its geographical spread as attested in the diasporic settlements of Chinese migrants who do not necessarily speak Mandarin at all.

Cantonese, being a prominent dialectal variety not only in mainland China but especially in North America, is an important Sinitic variety that must be studied in order to make the study of China possible. One would hope to introduce all Chinese dialects into the basket (all hundreds of thousands of them), but let’s start with Cantonese and ensure its survival at Stanford University.

The author has lent his support for the cause by signing the petition and he hopes that his readers will as well.

Keith Tse is a professional linguist who studied classics and modern languages at Balliol College, Oxford, after which he trained as a public service interpreter and language teacher in Manchester, where he also received his postgraduate degree in languages and linguistics from the University of Manchester. He is also a member of the Ronin Institute and the Institute of Globally Distributed Open Research and Education.