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Why is it so difficult to teach Cantonese in San Francisco?

Supervisor Myrna Melgar speaks at a rally with San Francisco City College faculty and staff to celebrate collecting enough signatures for a ballot initiative in San Francisco, Calif., on Monday, July 11, 2022.
City College of San Francisco board chair Alan Wong, center, is leading the push to preserve Cantonese classes at the school. | Source: Juliana Yamada/The Standard

The movement to save and expand some classes teaching the dominant language spoken in San Francisco’s Chinese immigrant community has yet to make any progress after two years.

Cantonese, which originates in Guangdong Province in Southern China, is widely used in many overseas international cities that have historically significant Chinese populations. It’s especially prominent in San Francisco because of Chinese immigration dating to the 1800s.

However, with China’s 21st century status as a rising geopolitical power and the designation of Mandarin as the country’s official language, Cantonese has become increasingly marginalized—in China and America alike.

In 2021, administrators at City College of San Francisco, which has long struggled financially, indicated the potential cutting of Cantonese classes because they were only offered at entry level and there were no certificate programs for the language, even though the classes were popular.

For two years, San Francisco’s grassroots activists and Chinese American city officials fought to bring back more Cantonese classes, which are open to the public for enrollment. But after continuous advocacy and media publicity, they’ve found themselves back at square one.

“It wasn't able to move forward,” Alan Wong, the chair of City College’s board and a leader who led the Save Cantonese campaign, told The Standard. “San Francisco is the Cantonese capital of America. City College has a lot of healing to do with the Chinese community.”

Create a Certificate Program, and Kill It

The rising significance of Mandarin is reflected in America’s education system. High school AP Chinese classes are offered in Mandarin, and City College’s Mandarin classes are offered at different levels, including advanced bilingual classes, with certificate programs that are transferable to the four-year University of California system.

In contrast, Cantonese class credits at City College, without any certificate programs, are not recognized by UC.

San Francisco public schools still offer Cantonese programs but only for younger students. Mandarin classes are available from kindergarten through the 12th grade.

In January 2022, the City College Board of Trustees passed Wong’s resolution to set the path for creating two new Cantonese certificates, which is the key to protecting the language classes. The college's curriculum committee recommended a nine-unit conversation-level certificate and 16-unit comprehensive certificate later that year, which was passed by the board.

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

But the 16-unit certificate, which would have qualified for more state funding, was soon killed even before it was implemented.

After board approval, City College’s curriculum committee immediately retracted the 16-unit certificate, citing a lack of a grammar class.

Diana Garcia-Denson, the chair of City College’s World Languages and Cultures Department overseeing the Cantonese programs, said that the current conversational courses are insufficient for a certificate.

“We can't build this certificate around such limited resources,” she said at the board meeting in March.

Garcia-Denson also mentioned the staffing shortage as there’s only one part-time Cantonese lecturer—longtime teacher Grace Yu—at the school now.

City College tried to hire more Cantonese lecturers to support potential certificate programs but failed. In summer 2023, the school posted a job listing for a part-time Cantonese lecturer, with an hourly rate of $90. Because the qualified lecturer would need to teach intermediate-level Cantonese, the requirements are very high: at least a master’s degree in Chinese or a bachelor’s in Chinese plus a master’s in another language or linguistics. 

In an email, Yu said that though there were some applicants, none of them met the minimum requirements, so no one was hired.

Professor Grace Yu poses for a portrait in her office at CCSF in San Francisco
Grace Yu, seen in her office at City College of San Francisco, is the school's only Cantonese lecturer—and she's part-time. | Source: Juliana Yamada/The Standard

“We are still searching for a qualified one,” she told The Standard.

Wong said that after the failed search, the school has found a retired former lecturer to temporarily return for the next semester, but his frustration over the halted certificate is clear.

“I still feel that the withdrawal of the 16-unit Cantonese certificate was unjust and improper,” Wong said. 

He and other activists argued that Cantonese is a spoken language that does not require grammar classes and written Chinese is based on Mandarin, so the certificate program should have advanced. 

However, the conflicts remain an unsolved pedagogical issue. Because of the previous approval and sudden cancellation, City College even issued an apology for causing confusion in July 2023.

Why Cantonese Matters

Immigrants from Cantonese-speaking regions in China began arriving in San Francisco in the early 19th century. To this day, Cantonese remains the major language spoken by the city’s Chinese population.

According to city data, there are about 150,000 Chinese-speaking residents, and 90,000 of them are immigrants with limited English proficiency. Among that population, many are Cantonese speakers, as 30.88% of the non-English-speaking residents are requesting Cantonese interpretation services, nearly 10 times more than Mandarin (3.71%). Spanish has the highest demand at 51.98%.

In other words, many city residents use Cantonese to call the police, talk with public health staff or apply for business licenses. Advocates have long pushed for more Cantonese classes for city staffers to improve multilingual services for the public, and some American-born Chinese also take the classes to communicate with their older immigrant family members.

Public school district data also indicates over 75% of Chinese speakers in the district use Cantonese as their home language.

Those data make no mention of Taishanese or Toishanese, a separate dialect spoken by many early immigrants from Guangdong Province. But as most Taishanese people also speak Cantonese, the figures may have combined them into one group.

However, scholars are expecting that both the rise of China and the changing nature of the Chinese population in America, with more mainland China immigrants coming to the U.S., are the factors in the decline of Cantonese and the triumph of Mandarin.

People walk on Ross Alley in Chinatown, San Francisco on Wednesday, June 22nd, 2022. The alley is full of restaurants and shops and is a popular location for tourists.
San Francisco's Chinatown is populated with Cantonese speakers, although in China, Mandarin has become the dominant language. | Source: Juliana Yamada/The Standard

In Chinatown, where many family and regional associations still center on Cantonese, the rise of Mandarin has appeared to push out the historic language. Two of America's oldest Chinese and Cantonese language schools, Nam Kue School 南侨学校 and Central Chinese High School in America 美洲中華中學校, have become all-Mandarin schools now.

Ding Lee, a board member at the Central Chinese High School in America, said that the school has replaced all Cantonese classes with Mandarin teaching since the pandemic because of the increasing interest in China’s official language, ending its century-old Cantonese program.

But facing the shrinking Cantonese influence, Wong believes the movement must continue in San Francisco because it’s relevant to the immigrants’ daily lives.

“This isn’t just about cultural or language preservation,” he said. “It’s about the practical needs of the city’s large immigrant and senior Cantonese community.”

Han Li can be reached at han@sfstandard.com