Survive + Thrive

Mandarin begins surpassing Cantonese in Boston's Chinatown

As the economy in China is developing rapidly, Mandarin, the official language in China, has become more popular in Boston's Chinatown.

By Jui Ting Yu


Chinese speakers in Chinatown no longer talk in only Cantonese, but they are learning a new "foreign" language: Mandarin.

"It's a big change. Cantonese and Mandarin speakers used to isolate each other, because they could not communicate," said Kun Chang, the Vice Executive Director of Greater Boston Chinese Golden Age Center. "Mandarin is becoming more popular in Boston's Chinatown."

Chang said that the increasing acceptance of Mandarin has improved the communication between Mandarin and Cantonese speakers, narrowing the gap between young Mandarin speakers and old Cantonese speakers.

There are 35 Mandarin schools in the Boston area, including the 93-year-old Kwong Kow Chinese School, the oldest Mandarin school in the city. Yan Yu Zhou, the principal of the Kwong Kow Chinese School, said that thanks to the quickly growing economy in China, Chinese parents have realized that Mandarin, China's official language, would be a useful tool in their children's success."Even Cantonese-speaking families have sent their children to Mandarin school," she said.

Zhou also said because of the growing economy in China, more and more families there can afford to send their children to study in the U.S. for higher education.

This growing popularity of Mandarin is reflected in the Open Doors Report, which is published annually by the Institute of International Education (IIE). This report on the 2008-2009 academic year found that the number of international students from Mainland China studying at colleges and universities in the U.S. increased by 21 percent to more than 98,000. In comparison, there were only around 8,000 students from Hong Kong, where Cantonese is mainly spoken.

Hsien Hui Huang, a Mandarin Chinese teacher at the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association of New England, said that the population of different Chinese language speakers has always decided the dominant language in Boston's Chinatown.

Huang said Boston's Chinatown was founded in the 1870s, mainly by immigrants who spoke the Taishanese dialect, which was used around Taishan, a city in Guangdong Province. In the 1960s, there was a trend of learning Cantonese when Cantonese speakers who were mainly from Guangdong and Hong Kong, began dominating the neighborhood after immigration reforms in the 1960s. "Now, more and more Mandarin speakers from non-Cantonese speaking areas have immigrated or studied here, so Cantonese people start to learn Mandarin in order to have better communication with them."

Huang said business concerns also provide motivation for learning Mandarin.

Lih Ming Chen, the owner of Gourmet Dumpling House in Chinatown, said the number of Mandarin speakers has increased substantially over the last 30 years. "Mandarin proficiency is the first requirement for waiters and waitresses in order to serve the increasing number of customers who can understand only Mandarin."

Tiger Tsoi, a young Chinese immigrant from Guangdong Province who came to Boston two years ago, said that he was taught Mandarin when he studied in elementary and junior high school in Guangdong Province, where Cantonese is widely used. He said young people from Guangdong are at least able to carry on a basic conversation in Mandarin. "People in Guangdong Province also realize the importance of Mandarin proficiency. Mandarin courses are offered in schools in Guangdong."

Iris Fong, a nurse at the Midtown Home Health Services, said that she has noticed there are more and more Mandarin-speaking elderly Chinese coming to the center to seek help. "I've studied Mandarin for three years. I know learning Mandarin is an inevitable trend in the future," she said, "actually, it's now."

Raymond Giang, the Manager of Quincy Tower, a branch of the Greater Boston Chinese Golden Age Center, said that "95 percent of nearly 200 members here who are over 65 years old can only speak Cantonese, but most of them can understand Mandarin more or less, because Mandarin speakers are everywhere around them."

Huang, a Mandarin Chinese teacher, said that elderly Chinese are also seeking more entertainment in their daily life from TV shows. "Elderly Cantonese speakers want to understand Mandarin dramas and comedy shows to color their life."

While there is a higher interest among Cantonese speakers to learn Mandarin, Mandarin speakers seem less motivated to learn Cantonese.

Hui Fang Chang, a member of the Greater Boston Chinese Golden Age Center, who only speaks Mandarin, said that she is not willing to learn Cantonese. "The official language in China is Mandarin; I knew Mandarin in Boston's Chinatown would be dominant sooner or later," she said.

Leave a comment

Remember personal info?