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Cantonese classes saved at SF City College after long fight to preserve them

The Wellness Center at City College of San Francisco is pictured on June 7, 2022. | Juliana Yamada/The Standard

City College of San Francisco will provide two certificate programs for Cantonese learners next school year after a long fight to save the language spoken by many in the local Chinese immigrant community.

The new certificate courses will be the first of their kind for Cantonese education in the nation, according to Julia Quon, the founder of the Save Cantonese campaign at City College. 

Though the credits aren’t transferable to a four-year college, the programs will ensure state funding for the classes and incentivize more students to sign up, according to City College Trustee Alan Wong. 

Wong, together with multiple community activists, gathered at Chinese Hospital in Chinatown Thursday morning to unveil the news.

“I am ecstatic that City College of San Francisco will finally provide equity to the Cantonese-speaking community,” said Wong, the lead author of a resolution in January urging the school to develop the certificate courses. “Our movement to save the Cantonese program at City College has succeeded.”

Trustee Alan Wong, together with multiple community activists, speaks at a press conference at Chinese Hospital in Chinatown on Nov. 10, 2022, to announce that SF City College will, after a long fight, establish certificate programs to ensure resources for Cantonese language classes. | Han Li/The Standard

Previously, City College provided limited conversational Cantonese classes with only one faculty member, and the classes faced cuts due to a lack of funding. Meanwhile, more resources were invested in classes for Mandarin, the official language of China.

According to enrollment data, every Cantonese class in City College since the 2019 fall semester has had over a 100% fill rate. Typically, students enrolling in the classes aim to reconnect with their culture and families or want to better serve the immigrant community in nonprofit and public-service jobs.

Dr. Jian Zhang, the CEO of Chinese Hospital who used to teach health-care classes in Cantonese at UC San Francisco, said bilingual health-care workers are critical in helping monolingual immigrant patients. They help communicate patient needs to staff, she added, and explain medical procedures to patients in their native tongue. 

“A large number of our patients can only speak Cantonese,” Zhang said. “Without bilingual Cantonese staff, we could not function.”

City College of San Francisco’s Ocean Campus is pictured on June 7, 2022. | Juliana Yamada/The Standard | Source: Juliana Yamada/The Standard

Two new certificates, under the World Languages Department, will be listed in the 2023-24 catalog at City College, including a nine-unit Conversational Cantonese Certificate of Achievement and a 17-unit Chinese (Cantonese) Certificate of Achievement.

The effort at City College comes amid a broader push to preserve Cantonese education in the U.S. Stanford University recently announced it would offer Cantonese-language courses after student activists demanded their return after the school cut the classes during the pandemic.