At a time when many in Hong Kong are worrying about the decline of Cantonese in classrooms, the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Canada has announced plans to roll out a course in Cantonese for the first time this fall.

“The Department of Asian Studies has wanted to teach Cantonese for many years. It is an important Sinitic language in its own right, but is also important in the history and culture of Vancouver,” Ross King, head of the Department of Asian Studies at UBC, told HKFP.

“However, there were various challenges for us to overcome before we could offer Cantonese.” The primary one was “budgetary”, he said.

“Many other Chinese language programs in North America have a similar problem—they would love to add Cantonese, but are so starved for resources already for Putonghua that they cannot.”

Cantonese at UBC
Cantonese at UBC. Photo: HKFP.

King said that the new Cantonese course was made possible with external funding. The Economist reported earlier that in 2013 UBC had accepted CAD$2 million (around HK$12 million) from a pair of Hong Kong philanthropists to offer Cantonese.

Plans will not stop there, King assured, if more resources became available. There are plans for a new course on Hong Kong cinema as well as on the history and culture of the Cantonese-speaking region.

“We believe strongly in integrating language teaching with culture,” he said.

UBC has a vigorous and diversified Putonghua program. It is also why the university remained untouched by the expanding global reach of Confucius Institutes, the education program backed by the Chinese government that aims to promote Chinese language and culture. The UBC had reportedly rejected four offers from the cultural body. Responding to this, King emphasised the importance of academic freedom: “We don’t need [the Confucius Institutes] and prefer to maintain our autonomy.”

In the past year, the University of Chicago, Penn State and Stockholm University all shut down their Confucius Institutes. Penn State cited a lack of “transparency and academic freedom.”

UBC, library
Library at the University of British Columbia. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Although local media applauded the university for fighting against the “overbearing” culture, King rejected the idea that UBC is focusing on Cantonese instead.

“We are adding Cantonese to our already rich offerings in Putonghua because we want our students to understand that China is a multilingual country with diverse local languages,” he said.

According to the Los Angeles Times, 16 percent of Greater Vancouver’s 2.5 million population, and 28 percent of the city proper, are ethnically Chinese.

Vancouver, which saw an influx of migrants from Hong Kong after the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984 and the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, has been dubbed “Hongcouver”.

For now, King said, the course will mostly target non-heritage learners who already have a basic knowledge of Chinese characters, but further courses for those who speak Cantonese at home but cannot read and write may be introduced in the future. 

The Cantonese course instructor is a Hong Kong native with an MA in Chinese language and linguistics from Brigham Young University in Utah, and has developed Cantonese proficiency tests for US universities and government agencies.

Karen is a journalist and writer covering politics and legal affairs in Hong Kong for HKFP. She has also written features on human rights, public space, regional legal developments, social and grassroots activism, and arts & culture. She is a BA and LLB graduate from the University of Hong Kong.