Cantonese under threat at Stanford

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Opinion article in SCMP (2/26/21), by Brian Chan, Kevin Hsu, and Jamie Tam:

Why Stanford University must strengthen, rather than cut, its Cantonese courses
The plan damages the university’s global reputation and undermines its self-professed commitment to diversity
As the most widely-spoken Sinitic language other than Mandarin, Cantonese offers a more pluralistic understanding of China

The article is accompanied by this intriguing photograph (credited to AFP):

The sign reads as follows:

我 (愛) 廣東話
ngo5 oi3 gwong2 dung1 waa6/2
‘I love Cantonese’

「m4 sik1 bou1 dung1 gwaa1」
I don’t know how to cook winter melon’

Of course, one wonders, What does cooking winter melon have to do with Cantonese?

The humor arises because the phrase 煲冬瓜 bou1 dung1 gwaa1 'cooking winter melon' is to be interpreted as punning on the term 普通話 pou2 tung1 waa6/2 ‘Putonghua’:

m4 sik1 pou2 tung1 waa6/2
‘I don’t know (how to speak) Putonghua.’

The phrase in the red circles is as follows:

Gwong2 jan4 hon6 jyut6
‘Guang(dong) people protect Cantonese’

粵 jyut6 ‘Cantonese; old name for Guangdong province’

(Courtesy of Robert S. Bauer)

Here's what's happening at Stanford:

Despite more than 3,500 petition signatures and negative international media coverage, Stanford University still plans to drastically cut its Cantonese language offerings. This is a grave misstep that damages Stanford’s global reputation, undermining the university’s intellectual leadership and self-professed commitment to diversity.

With more than 80 million speakers globally, Cantonese remains a vital and useful language. In the United States alone, Census Bureau data shows that there are nearly as many self-reported Cantonese speakers (459,000) as Mandarin speakers (487,000) among those who specify a variety of Chinese.

After an initial outcry over its effective cancellation of Cantonese, the university’s School of Humanities and Sciences has committed to only two courses this autumn, to be taught by an hourly contractor without health insurance or job benefits.

Stanford and Penn have traditionally had two of the strongest Cantonese programs in the country.  I'm very proud that Cantonese continues to thrive at Penn, but am puzzled why wealthy Stanford is gutting their program to save a small amount of money.

I should also note that — among other East Asian languages — Penn has had a Taiwanese language program that has flourished under the tutelage of Grace Wu since 1993.

I consider the Penn Language Center, under whose auspices dozens of less commonly taught languages are offered, to be one of the greatest glories of our University:

In the regular language departments (Romance, Slavic, Germanic, Near Eastern, East Asian, South Asian, etc.), there are dozens more.  If you like studying languages, come to Penn!  We even offer Tocharian!!

Selected readings

[Thanks to Lada Vassileva, Ronald Egan, Susan Egan, Chaofen Sun, and Ban Wang]


  1. alex wang said,

    February 27, 2021 @ 2:30 am

    Not sure how many people have seen the South Park episode that mocks Hollywood for caving to pressure.

    But perhaps south park should visit Stanford

  2. Neil Dolinger said,

    February 27, 2021 @ 9:38 am

    Only slightly off topic I hope. I note that PLC offers Spanish, even though the Romance Languages department also offers Spanish. Do you know whether they have chosen to focus on different topolects? I believe that many public school systems in the US have moved from teaching Castilian Spanish to Mexican Spanish because of the higher numbers of US speakers of Mexican Spanish.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    February 27, 2021 @ 9:50 am

    Did you notice that PLC also offers Judeo-Spanish?

  4. cliff arroyo said,

    February 27, 2021 @ 10:55 am

    Is the cutting of its Cantonese offering related to CCP policy?

    If, like many universities Stanford…. benefits from PRC… connections, then I can easily imagine pressure to remove offerings that are not in line with CCP preferences (and cultivating Cantonese is extremely not in line with their preferences AFAIK).

  5. Victor Mair said,

    February 27, 2021 @ 11:08 am

    @cliff arroyo

    Excellent question!

    The person who called the Stanford situation to my attention suggested that it may have something to do with the fact that Stanford is one of the very few top tier universities that has a Confucius Institute, that it cost the PRC a pretty penny to buy it, and that the Dean was the first director of the CI — may still be for all I know.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    February 27, 2021 @ 11:11 am

    From a professor of East Asian linguistics at Cornell, which used to have one of the preeminent programs in Chinese:

    Cornell eliminated its Cantonese program in ~2012, with the retirement of our longtime teacher. This, in addition to the demise of the FALCON program, led directly to our loss of NRC status, which we have never regained.

  7. Dwight Williams said,

    February 27, 2021 @ 11:20 am

    I also suspect that someone applied political and/or economic pressure to make this happen.

  8. Peter B. Golden said,

    February 27, 2021 @ 12:39 pm

    Bravo to Penn for teaching an extraordinary range of languages! This is what a university should look like. Full disclosure: my younger son (now an Associate Prof. of Ancient History at Rhode Island College) did his BA at Penn in Classics and we are Penn enthusiasts.

    Penn reminds me of the Columbia I knew when I started my graduate work there in 1963, but retrenchment in languages soon followed. I was the last person to sign up for Mongolian, which was promptly cancelled. I was able to study Georgian at Columbia, but was the only student in the class. There was one student each in elementary, intermediate and advanced Georgian. Remarkably, Georgian (taught by Prince Giorgi Nakashidze, a walking encyclopedia of Georgian History and Culture) survived for several more years.

    Cantonese should be part of any serious East Asian language program.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    February 27, 2021 @ 12:46 pm

    From Alexander Vovin:

    These were still golden days when it was possible to have just one student in a class. My last years at the U of Hawai'i were a nightmare when the U bean-counters started to demand at least 5 graduate students in a class. The end result? Classical Tibetan, Taiwanese, Cantonese, Old Turkic, Classical Mongolian, Manchu, and Middle Korean were all axed. Classical Japanese, Okinawan, and if I remember correctly, Classical Chinese as well were given to the people who were not qualified to teach them. The glorious result was that only modern Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean survived. I always marvelled how Victor managed to keep his ABC series at the U of Hawai'i Press alive and well in the middle of this butchery.

  10. Not a naive speaker said,

    February 27, 2021 @ 7:00 pm

    I consider the Penn Language Center, under whose auspices dozens of less commonly taught languages are offered, to be one of the greatest glories of our University:
    I don't see any of the indigenous languages of the US here

    And off topic:
    Why do the Hollywood movie guys invent "new" languages like Klingon or Na'vi. Might as well have used some of really existing endangered languages in the US.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    February 27, 2021 @ 7:22 pm

    "I don't see any of the indigenous languages of the US here."

    PLC offers languages that students request.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    February 27, 2021 @ 8:18 pm

    From Alan Kennedy:

    As an undergrad at Penn, I recall a course in what was called Serbo-Croatian, of course prior to the breakup of Yugoslavia. I see that neither Serbian or Croatian is on the amazing list of languages offered at Penn.

  13. Keith said,

    February 28, 2021 @ 1:10 pm

    SLAV390 seems to include teaching of at least some Serbo-Croat and Bosnian.

  14. Calvin said,

    March 2, 2021 @ 1:23 am

    Here is an article from Stanford Daily, its student-run newspaper.

    The decision was not to renew the contract of its sole Cantonese lecturer, instead offering her to return on an hourly basis if there are funds available.

    Yes, the cut (or outright elimination) was drastic, but the program wasn't exactly thriving to begin with:
    Student activism preceded the Language Center first offering Cantonese in 1997 and allowing Cantonse to satisfy the oral portion of the language placement test. With the exception of the 2006-07 academic year, Stanford has only offered conversational and film Cantonese courses, which do not satisfy the University’s language requirement.

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