Thursday, October 11, 2007

Mandarin vs. Cantonese

This is Alice. Should she learn to say "ni hao" or "nei hou ma"?

I almost skipped the Alice Fong Yu tour because it's a Cantonese-based program—and Mandarin is the official language in China. Mandarin is actually the most widely spoken language in the world when you consider all the various dialects, and it's what the Chinese business world uses. Cantonese is supposedly more complex and difficult to learn than Mandarin. But I'm glad I took the tour because right now AFY is at the top of my list.

So why would I ever want to send my daughter to a Cantonese school? Well, 100 million people speak Cantonese—it's the second most used language in China. It's also the common Chinese language in San Francisco and the de facto language in Hong Kong (where Alice has actually visited and says she would like to live some day). And those who speak Cantonese can easily pick up Mandarin. AFY introduces Mandarin in junior high—i.e., children graduate in the eight grade speaking both Mandarin and Cantonese.

The differences between Cantonese and Mandarin are much more complex than what I've outlined above and apparently some even dispute whether or not they're languages or dialects. If you want to learn more, I recommend checking out Wikipedia.

Here's a rundown of the Chinese immersion programs in SF:

Alice Fong Yu
West Portal

Starr King

Please offer up any information on Chinese immersion? Did I get all my facts straight? Did I leave out any schools?


  1. And why does a 5 year old need immersion in any second language, except in cases where the second language is already spoken at home or by relatives?

    Is this about the kid or a transferrence of the parents' aspirations?

    Doesnt the kid have enough to learn: socialization, reading, math, going to the bathroom solo down the hall?

  2. I think choosing language immersion is a personal decision. It's something that I happen to value; for me it's a huge priority. I grew up learning a second language and it's been a huge benefit to me and I'd like my children to have the same opportunity. I initially thought that I would want to send my children to a Spanish immersion program because they've already been exposed to the language and my son fully comprehends Spanish. But I had an especially good feeling about the Chinese school; it's where I could see my daughter starting kindergarten. Plus, I have had family living in Asia and my husband has opportunities to work there. For my family, this choice makes sense but it might not be the right fit for everyone.

    Studies show that the earlier a child is introduced to a language, the greater the chances are that that child will become truly proficient. Children at a young age are very sensitive listeners and posses an astounding ability to correctly remember and reproduce sounds. This ability declines with age.

  3. I was born in Shanghai, China and went to US in 1999 at my 30s'. There are hundreds of different dialect languages in China, but only Mandarin is the only official language which kids start to learn at school. Worldwide, there are 1.5 billion people speak mandarin.

    My boy did got chance to go to AFY because we didn’t win the lottery.

  4. As someone who spent several years studying both Cantonese and Mandarin, I've found Mandarin much more useful. The only people in Hong Kong who do not speak either Mandarin or English well enough to have a conversation are taxi drivers, shop-keepers, factory workers, etc. (those who rarely interact with foreigners for more than few simple words--good people, but not the people that a global citizen most needs to have an in-depth conversation with). In contrast, China is full of important businesspeople, fascinating intellectuals, and many others who do not speak English. Mandarin also has a much closer link between spoken usage and written usage. I would suggest studying Cantonese first only to someone with a family connection to the culture and language or who lives in Hong Kong and wants to get outside of the somewhat insular foreign community.

  5. I do think teaching a 5 year old a foreign language is important. I felt like I learned more about English in high school Spanish classes than I ever learned in an English class. The linguistics and analysis of parts of speech is worthwhile, and it makes you think about how you express yourself.

    And languages like Chinese cause you to think about tone of voice in whole different ways. Having new ways of expressing yourself doesn't just increase the number of people you talk to, it changes the way you think about how you express yourself.

    As far as the choice of language goes though, I'd consider Mandarin to be far more useful. Over a billion people speak mandarin, as opposed to some hundred million or so Cantonese. Mandarin is growing in importance worldwide, and people in Hong Kong are learning Mandarin.

    Here's an interesting link about a shift away from Cantonese:

    I'm an American studying Mandarin in China now. The two languages are in fact two different languages. They don't have the same number of tones, the writing can't even be romanized in a similar way. They aren't mutually intelligible.

    I get by fine in Hong Kong only speaking English. People who don't speak English often speak Mandarin.

    I have friends who are native Mandarin speakers, and speak reasonably good English. When they go to Hong Kong, they only speak Mandarin and get by just fine.

    I know of a couple of foreigners who were working in Hong Kong. The two I can think of,... when they wanted to learn the language, they quit their jobs, and studied Mandarin full time. Mandarin was useful enough to be worth learning for working/living in Hong Kong, ... but Cantonese wasn't worth it to either of them.

    Sure there are people in Hong Kong who only speak Cantonese, ... but... worldwide, Mandarin is far more useful.

  6. CIS De Avila is a brand new Cantonese Chinese Immersion School. There are currently 3 Kindergarten classes and they are full. Impressive considering it being new.

  7. Can someone tell me why the new chinese immersion school is cantonese and not mandarin? AFY and West Portal are large schools, centrally located in the city, whereas Jose Ortega and Starr King are not centrally located and are still building a reputation. However, there is a much higher demand for mandarin immersion among the non-chinese community (look at the demographics at CAIS for example). If de avila was mandarin, it would serve a stronger need in the community.

    I have studied Mandarin and lived in China and HK and can tell you that there is a much stronger need for mandarin on a global level. Ever since 1997, the younger generation has been trying to perfect their mandarin in HK, something that is hard to do when cantonese is your first language. (My mom is from HK and her Mandarin sounds so bad!)

  8. I'm guessing the idea is to serve both the native-speaking and the non-speaking communities. SF has a lot of Cantonese speakers who presumably would find this attractive, and apparently enough non-Cantonese who are willing to join in, too.

  9. My reason for wanting immersion is that at this age, language learning is playful and much easier than the drudgery that most of us go through after puberty. I personally would prefer a Cantonese program for my daughter, since my in-laws are Cantonese speakers and their English isn't that great. I would love if she could thus get in touch with this part of her roots (without having to go to Chinese school in the afternoon). Based on communications I had with parent representatives during the enrollment fair and other events, it actually sounds as if the CIS at De Avila is also planning to add Mandarin instruction in grade 2, probably to address the concerns mentioned by previous posters. Since we'll be facing this wonderful lottery system and don't know where she'll end up, so I'm trying to relax about it and then do what I can to make the best of whatever assignment we get...

  10. A few parents (assigned and not assigned) asked about the possibility of changing the program to Mandarin last spring. However there is a much bigger base of Cantonese speakers in SF and as the program was conceived of as dual immersion, they need the native speakers. Also the group of students assigned to the school was drawn from those who went 0/7 and listed one of the Cantonese immersion programs on their Round 1 list, so the district thinking was that there would be more interest in Cantonese. As a 1st gen Mandarin speaker I was hoping this would be an MI program, but it was very eye opening at the board meeting last May where DeAvila was discussed, to see a large contingent of Cantonese speaking people, very few Mandarin speakers. In the end, the district had to make a decision very quickly about the program and felt they had already started down the path of Cantonese dual immersion. As I understand it things are going pretty well at DeAvila, worth checking out for sure. The initial group of parents there is very active and organized. If you want MI come check out Starr King, it is a great program. (I can't speak from experience about JOES perhaps a parent there can speak to it.)

  11. i don't purport to know much, but have heard from more than one cantonese speaking individual that learning/knowing cantonese does NOT help you pick up mandarin more easily--- that is, that it's NOT like the romance languages where if you know italian, you can sort of understand spanish and/or pick it up pretty easily. i don't know if my sources are the authority, but i think there must be some dispute about your assertion that knowing cantonese helps you get mandarin more easily... don't think it can be said so definitively as you suggest

  12. Learning Cantonese does not mean you can easily pick up Mandarin which is the formal language taught in schools in China/Taiwan/HK. I have many Cantonese friends who can't understand conversational Mandarin.

  13. As a child I spoke two languages, Portuguese and Toishan (dialect similar to Cantonese). I immigrated to U.S. in my teens and learned English and Cantonese. In college, I studied Spanish for three years. Now that I'm going into my thirties and English is the only language spoken at home, I can't say that I'm truly fluent in any of those languages except for English (though I have confidence I would do fine if I were to live in any country that spoke those languages). Now that I have children, besides English, I really want them to speak Toishan and Cantonese (other languages would be a bonus) because those are the only language my parents speak. This way, they would have an opportunity to practice it as oppose to other languages. After being exposed to so many languages, I realized that it's the day to day practice that really makes a difference once you learn it. I have friends who spoke Cantonese fluently throughout elementary school, but because of lack of practice, they have forgotten everything. Though, I'm sure they would pick it up quicker than others who have not learned the language before. Anyway, my point is language (specially learning the grammar) is a true work out for the brain, just as math is. And, if Hong Kong and SF is the place that you are connected to, then I think it would make more sense for your little one to say "Nei hou" before "Ni hao". She could always pick up Mandarin later, since its easier anyway. So, I think you should think of it more like Cantonese and then Mandarin instead of one vs. the other. It may not be like this in the U.S. but it's actually pretty common for people, even children, to speak more than two languages. The human brain is amazing!

  14. From every Cantonese and Mandarin speaker that I have spoken to, all have said that Mandarin is easier to learn because of the Ping Yin system. So, in reply to those whose said that knowing Cantonese doesn't make learning Mandarin easier, I would say that that's not true. If you know Cantonese, or any other Chinese dialect, it makes learning another easier because you'd have the Chinese language background down (meaning the words and expressions that might not exist in other country). Therefore, making learning Mandarin easier, but of course you would have to really try like learning any different language.