An op-ed by Chester Leung
As a student who has taken Cantonese classes here at City College, I’m deeply disappointed that there is another delay in the approval of the 16-unit Cantonese certificate. While I understand many of the concerns that the curriculum committee has over this 16-unit Certificate, the Cantonese-speaking community can no longer wait. The Cantonese Language has come under attack internationally and here in the Bay Area from the closure of the Hong Kong Language Learning Association (港語學), to the decimation of Cantonese instructors from its height of five instructors down to only one here at CCSF. The Cantonese-speaking community in the Bay Area and beyond needs a stronger state-backed certificate in order to prevent future endeavors to eliminate the Cantonese program, and to stand up to forces that believe Cantonese is not worth teaching and should come to an end.
One of the primary arguments against the draft 16-unit certificate is the belief it is pedagogically weak to have a degree program without characters or a dedicated grammar course. While I personally share the same opinion that written Cantonese is a legitimate writing form that should be taught, it has not achieved universal acceptance within the Cantonese-speaking community. The Chinese that is actually being written down in Cantonese-speaking places like Hong Kong and Macau is actually Mandarin spoken in Cantonese, which is reductive to include in the Cantonese program when we already have a Mandarin program at CCSF. Many people, including the sole Cantonese instructor at CCSF, view Cantonese as mainly an oral language and have shown no interest in teaching a reading and writing course or a grammar course. I have even conducted surveys of students who are taking the conversational classes at CCSF for interest in learning how to read and write, and only a fourthof the student body agreed. Even though Cantonese language learning textbooks that include written Cantonese (a recent writing standard in Cantonese that matches the spoken form of Cantonese) or standard written Chinese (written Mandarin spoken in Cantonese) exist, the curriculum committee should not force their standard on the student body, faculty, and the Cantonese-speaking community.
This lack of character learning should be supplemented with cultural classes that better suit the students who are seeking personal reconnection with their roots and a better understanding of their loved ones. Currently, the draft certificate includes classes like “ASAM 20 - Asian American Experience Since 1820,” and “ASAM 40 - Chinese American Community,” that help students understand the struggle of early Cantonese-speaking immigrants who created the foundation that helped future Chinese Americans prosper in the US. This can be complemented by “ASIA 11 - East Asian Calligraphy: An Introduction,” which will give students a historical understanding of China, and create a love for Chinese characters that can motivate them to continue their Cantonese studies in other colleges like Alameda City College, Sacramento City College, UC Berkeley, or Stanford that do have Cantonese classes that have reading and writing components.
Finally, the curriculum committee thinks the Cantonese certificate should have a higher standard of literacy and fluency, but their vision for Cantonese does not match reality. The main Cantonese language proficiency test in the United States,. is run by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, which only has an oral component and no reading or writing component. The current certificate will do well to prepare students for this test, but a characters or a grammar course will not help students in passing this exam. Instead, the school can wait until they find an instructor who is willing to develop the curriculum to teach Cantonese with writing, and for the linguistic and Cantonese-speaking community to move toward a position that is more open to written Cantonese before mandating such a requirement in the 16-unit certificate.
The curriculum committee’s dissent against the draft of a 16-unit Cantonese certificate is well-meaning and has many valid points, but they must moderate their views to match the opinions of the Cantonese-speaking community, their faculty, and the professional linguistic community in the US. The 16-unit Cantonese Certificate does enough to provide a strong oral foundation for students wanting to learn Cantonese, and the historical framework to navigate through the local Chinese community here in San Francisco. Let us not use the perfect to destroy the better and allow this certificate through.
Views and opinions expressed in op-eds are solely those of the author.