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City College of San Francisco’s Cantonese program at-risk again

A rally to support saving Cantonese classes in San Francisco in 2021.
Protesters hold signs at a rally to support saving Cantonese classes in San Francisco in 2021. | Courtesy Save Cantonese at CCSF | Source: Save Cantonese at CCSF

The movement to save Cantonese instruction at City College of San Francisco is once again facing a major setback.

The long-awaited 16-unit Cantonese certificate program, the outcome of an extensive community effort to preserve the language spoken by many local Chinese immigrants, will not be available in the coming school year, according to the college's Board of Trustees President Alan Wong.

“This tone-deaf decision is a disappointment to the Chinese community,” Wong said. “To suddenly pull the rug from under our feet after it had been approved is unjust and undemocratic.”

In early 2022, the board approved a resolution to save the popular but shrinking Cantonese classes. Two additional programs—a nine-unit certificate and a 16-unit certificate—were approved later in the year. This was a significant milestone because the 16-unit certificate program meets the necessary criteria for state funding.

Months later, in November, City College’s curriculum committee walked back the decision, saying the 16-unit program was not ready “until the department has the resources to develop more Cantonese offerings, including a grammar course.”

Diana Garcia-Denson, the chair of the World Languages and Cultures Department, which oversees the Cantonese programs, explained the delay at a recent board meeting.

“There are only four conversational courses in the curriculum and one part-time Cantonese instructor,” she said. “We can't build this certificate around such limited resources.”

She also slammed the board for overreaching in pushing a certificate program.

“It is not the board's purview to dictate curriculum," she said. "Let's follow procedure and the code and work together so we can launch the certificate in 2024.”

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

Currently, Grace Yu is the school’s only part-time Cantonese teacher, although City College is looking to fill another part-time position to develop the program. 

City data has shown that San Francisco has 150,000 Chinese-speaking residents. About 90,000 of them are immigrants with limited English proficiency, and Cantonese is the second-highest requested language service (31%) when city employees interact with residents.

But the use of Mandarin, the official language in China, has been rising—especially in the American education system, as credits are transferable to a four-year college. This contributes to the marginalization of Cantonese in San Francisco, a city with a history of more than 170 years of Chinese immigration from the Cantonese region.

Wong will lead the discussion in the upcoming board meeting on Thursday to emphasize the school’s commitment to the 16-unit program.

In the meantime, the nine-unit program is still available for the fall 2023 semester, including classes such as "Beginning Conversational Cantonese" and "Intermediate Conversational Cantonese.”

Han Li can be reached at