Contemporary Chinese American language maintenance: perspectives of youth and young adults in Philadelphia and San Francisco.

Author:Wu, Ming-Hsuan


Although Chinese in the form of Mandarin is currently heavily emphasized in language teaching arenas and the media, (1) little attention has been paid to other equally relevant and diverse Chinese languages that have coexisted in the United States and Asia for centuries. Inattention to this diversity, specifically in the U.S. context, calls into question what and how local Chinese American speakers of non-Mandarin Chinese languages feel about their heritage language(s), especially when this population is sizable and continues to grow. In fact, Cantonese, Southern Min, and Hakka have a long-standing presence in many Chinese diasporic communities in the United States and in some South Asian countries. Immigration trends show that Fujian Province has actually surpassed Guangdong by becoming the number one emigrant province in China since the mid-1990s, resulting in burgeoning Fujianese immigrant associations in metropolitan cities like New York. (2) However, an interesting disjunction arises in the field of language teaching in the United States. In the language education field, Surendra Gambhir notes the need to distinguish "less commonly taught languages" (LCTLs) and "truly less commonly taught languages" (TLCTLs) because programs of the two types of languages face different issues and challenges. Compared to other commonly taught languages, such as Spanish, French, and German, Mandarin is still considered an LCTL in the United States. (3) Although Mandarin is an LCTL at this moment, it was identified as a critical language to the U.S. economy and security in the National Language Security Initiative in 2006, thus receiving growing governmental and educational attention since then. Following Gambhir's distinction, other less-esteemed varieties of Chinese that receive even fewer funds and attention should be termed "truly less commonly taught languages" (TLCTL). These terms are one way to organize and ally speakers and instructors of languages that enroll smaller numbers of students in K-16 language courses compared to the commonly taught languages. However, these terms can be misleading because some TLCTLs (e.g., Cantonese) actually have a large majority of speakers in various local communities in the United States. Growing research in Mandarin heritage language in the United States has documented a high percentage of Cantonese speakers placed in the Mandarin heritage language classrooms due to lack of language programs in Cantonese as well as their struggles as the surrogated Mandarin heritage language learners in the classrooms. (4) These discrepancies necessitate closer analyses of local-level processes of "small" languages and minoritized varieties to better understand how we can bring them forward in U.S. contexts.

This paper begins with background information on the varieties of Chinese, is followed by a description of the methodology and data collected by the authors (which specifically focus on Chinese American youth and young adult perspectives), and concludes with suggestions for reenvisioning contemporary Chinese language maintenance efforts in local U.S. contexts.


Those involved in language maintenance argue that to reverse any threat to a language's survival, it is crucial to understand the historical and social circumstances that have created the threat. To understand the interrelationship among the many varieties of Chinese, one must view the macro-level processes of how the term Chinese currently came to seemingly refer to only Mandarin Chinese, and why this tradition must be questioned. Through the linguistic lens of mutual intelligibility, a language like Cantonese is a separate language from Mandarin because a monolingual Cantonese speaker would not understand Mandarin although there is some overlap in phonology, intonation, and particularly in grammar and script between Mandarin and Cantonese. However, from a more sociolinguistic lens, "we usually do not speak of Chinese in the plural" (5) and thus Mandarin, the official language of the People's Republic of China and Taiwan, is deemed the status of a language while the rest of the varieties are deemed dialects. This ideology is bolstered by the fact that standard written Chinese, matching most closely spoken modern standard Mandarin (MSM), overrides all oral varieties of Chinese because it is (more or less) the shared writing system of speakers of all varieties of Chinese.

The cross-cultural (mis)translation of terminology also causes confusion. The name for these varieties of Chinese, called [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (MSM: fangyan), has long been erroneously translated as "dialects." (6) The meaning is better captured with the term topolect, referring to language groups (Sinitic or otherwise) by topographic distribution. The perpetuation of the term dialect without cultural and historical prefacing has ample sociolinguistic ramifications, namely, it further solidifies the ideology bolstered by a Western linguistics tradition studying mostly Indo-European languages that maintains "the language variety that has the higher social value is called a 'Language,' and the language variety with the lower social value is called a 'dialect.'" (7)

We find Lauren Keeler's notion of translingual language practices as palimpsests to be a useful lens through which we understand contemporary understandings of that which is purported to be Chinese. According to Keeler, "Any discussion of the translation into 'Western' languages of the Chinese words for 'dialect' or 'language' must make clear that the Chinese words themselves are palimpsests of over a century of events of translation and cross-cultural negotiation." (8) Palimpsests are where parts of a document are written over more than once or erased, often incompletely, to make room for more text. The metaphor of a palimpsest reminds us we must consider languages diachronically, not just synchronically, as well as why disentanglement of Chinese is duly required.

Research on language policy and planning reveals that, in creating national hegemony, states often ignore language diversity in order to define who is in and who is out; (9) education becomes a major means to achieve this end. More equitable approaches to education that take into account linguistic diversity, especially the learning experiences of speakers of nondominant languages, are being explored. (10) In Language Education in China: Policy and Experience from 1949, Agnes Lam writes:

A land of many languages and dialects, China is also faced with making linguistic choices; so are learners in China. Focusing on one language or dialect means less learning resources for others.... The language learning experience of learners in China is certainly not linguistically discrete; each learner tends to be exposed to more than one language and more than one dialect. Hence, a multilingual approach is quite essential for an...

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