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Why advanced Cantonese education matters

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JULY 20, 2023

In May 2021, 84-year-old Jean Chang Kan Fung passed away after California Highway Patrol officers dropped her off at the wrong location, miles from her home, due to their not speaking Cantonese. 

Cantonese is the most spoken Chinese language in the Bay Area and is spoken even more widely in San Francisco, with over 250,000 limited-English proficiency, or LEP clients served in fiscal year 2021-22. Despite this, Cantonese speakers experience widespread communication difficulties in obtaining health care and other social services — difficulties which would be mitigated by advanced language instruction. 

Only one local college, the College of Alameda, teaches advanced Cantonese courses — reading and writing classes beyond the second year of instruction. Languages such as Mandarin and Korean offer multiple years of advanced instruction proportionate to the communities they serve. Cantonese, however, lacks this — a deficit that has serious consequences.

Advanced language education allows students to move beyond regimented textbook dialogues and practice language as used in real life, developing the level of proficiency required for nuanced communication. A first- or second-year Cantonese student may be able to ask a patient “What’s wrong?” but being able to navigate the resulting conversation — especially with idiomatic, fast-paced or emotionally charged speech — takes linguistic flexibility and practice that can only develop with advanced instruction. 

This cultural competence goes beyond textbook definitions: A doctor needs to be able to wish a patient well and assuage their fears with compassion and courtesy in a culturally acceptable way, instead of matter-of-factly telling them “You have cancer.”

Cultural competence is essential for building trust and rapport, and without these, there exists a linguistic barrier that prevents effective service. This is something that is not present for speakers of more widely represented languages, such as Spanish. 

The current highest-level Cantonese class at UC Berkeley, Cantonese 30X, is an intermediate course that prepares heritage speakers to discuss topics including the environment and educational policy. Classes like these allow students to build effective foundations in these communication skills, but a single semester of classes is not enough. Such offerings should also be available to nonheritage speakers who are currently constrained to a one-year elementary sequence.

Students additionally benefit from advanced courses for nonvocational reasons: Advanced Cantonese classes allow students, who are often heritage speakers, to create deeper connections with their families. This communication also improves the mental health of relatives, who are typically elderly and frequently marginalized from traditional means of social support. 

This is a universal reason as to why people learn languages, but Cantonese speakers are not given an equal opportunity to satisfy this need. They therefore cannot, for instance, advocate on their family members’ behalfs during an emergency. Many Cantonese learners sheepishly admit they 識聽唔識講 (can understand but not speak), but want to change that. 

Why should they be denied the opportunity to improve their language ability to the same level available to other language learners?

A petition by the aptly-named group Cal4Canto has established the student demand for a more robust Cantonese program at UC Berkeley. It is imperative we support UC Berkeley students’ desire to be altruistic and serve their communities by offering advanced Cantonese classes to support their demonstrated essential needs. 

This ensures equality between Cantonese and other languages, but more importantly, ensures justice and equity for non-English-speaking community members. Founding executive director of UC Berkeley’s Criminal Law and Justice Center and former San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin said regarding the death of Chang Kan Fung, “All of us feel that had there been more language access … perhaps this devastating situation could’ve been avoided.” 

Perhaps, if those highway patrol officers spoke Cantonese or could have had access to live interpretation services, Chang Kan Fung might be alive today. 

The ideal Cantonese program would mirror the offerings available to learners of Mandarin. This would include a three-year sequence of beginning, intermediate and advanced instruction that similarly prepares students to apply Cantonese in a wide variety of contexts, from their personal lives to business and literature. Some individuals argue, for instance, that reading Tang dynasty poetry with Cantonese pronunciations instead of Mandarin best captures the original rhymes. 

Most importantly, this ideal program would satisfy aforementioned community needs, which include classes to help train Cantonese medical interpreters, who are scarce in the Bay Area. UCSF formerly offered a Cantonese medical terminology elective, and while that class no longer exists, the demand remains. The program could also aid future bilingual elementary school teachers, who can pass Cantonese onto the younger generation. 

Everyone benefits from students being able to learn Cantonese to an advanced level, regardless of their personal interest in Cantonese or even their affiliation to Berkeley. We all should empathize with those cut off from their culture and heritage because of educational inequities.

Furthermore, we all should care about the persistent violence against monolingual elders and the lack of social support they and other Cantonese speakers with limited or nonexistent English face in our community. An advanced Cantonese program on campus is just one small part of combating these systemic issues, but nevertheless, it is an important one. 

There is no reason a language barrier in the Bay Area should be a matter of life or death.

Ryan Talvola is a graduate of the UC Education Abroad Program in Hong Kong Samuel Cheng works at a nonprofit serving Asian seniors in Oakland. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter.

JULY 20, 2023