Cantonese Alliance

Cantonese as a Heritage Language

Heritage Language Learners

Who is a heritage language learner?

"A heritage student is a student who is raised in a home where a non-English language is spoken, who speaks or merely understands the HL, and who is to some degree bilingual in English and the other HL" (Valdez, 2001, p.3 8).

Cantonese as a Heritage Language (CHL) in the U.S. Context

Historical Background

Most of the early Chinese immigrants to the U.S. came from Gwongdung (Guangdong) Province during the Gold Rush, most notably from a coastal county known as 新寧 (modern-day Taishan). Many of them settled in San Francisco and formed a community known as 唐人街 (Tang People Street) in Cantonese and Chinatown in English. By 1960s, Taishanese still made up over 60% of the Chinese immigrant population in the U.S. An example of a famous Cantonese American of Taishanese descent is former ambassador to China Gary Locke.

Who is a CHL learner?

Bases on Valdez' definition, a CHL learner "is raised in a home" where Cantonese is spoken. The learner can speak or understand Cantonese to a certain extent.

What does CHL learners' Cantonese sound like?

  1. Beginning of a Frog Story told by Siubou, a 10-year-old CHL speaker.
  2. Beginning of a Frog Story told by A-Ling, a young adult.
  3. Beginning of a Frog Story told by A-Ming, a young adult.
  4. Beginning of a Frog Story told by A-Wai, a young adult.
  5. Beginning of a Frog Story told by A-Cheung, a young adult.
  6. Beginning of a Frog Story told by A-Lau, a young adult.
  7. Beginning of a review of Infernal Affairs III by A-Lau.
  8. An interview with A-mei about her language experience while growing up in the U.S.
  9. A-mei talks about her dissertation, which investigates the maintenance of Taishanese language in the U.S.

What are the characteristics of CHL?

General Trends are identified in CHL:

My colleagues and I have found general trends when we focus on CHL learners who are the second generation of Cantonese immigrants (Dennig & Leung, 2012a, 2012b; Dennig, Leung, & Uchikoshi, 2011):

  • Culture: Familiarity with Cantonese culture
  • Pronunciation: Near-native to Native.
  • Syntax: Basic Cantonese grammar is acquired. CHL learners' production of grammatical categories such as NP, aspect markers, and discourse connectors mirror the controls' to a large extent. For example, the distinctive NP type, [CLASSIFIER  NOUN], which interacts with word order to derive its definiteness, is the most frequent from produced by CHL speakers and controls alike.  Major word-order errors commonly found in Cantonese as a foreign language, e.g. placing PP after the main verb, is not common in this subgroup of CHL learners. Re-analyses may occur when English becomes dominant, most notably, the order of the direct and indirect objects with dative verbs.
  • Semantics: Novel forms may involve restructuring of contrasts consistent with semantic primaries. For example, in producing noun classifiers while performing a cognitively demanding task, CHL speakers may rely on the primary distinction between small (one or two) vs. large or undefinited quantities, using di correctly for the latter and overextending go for the former though they know the correct classifiers when they are asked directly to provide the classifiers for specific nouns.
  • Syntax-Semantics Interface: Novel structures involve hybridization of Cantonese verbs and English syntactic structures, e.g. inserting the verb for shouting giu into a directional PP: * giu yahp go lūng  "shout into a hole."
  • Discourse: Discourse structures, e.g. narratives, can be learned in English at school and transferred to Cantonese. The CHL learners' acquisition of discourse functions, e.g. referential functions, is comparable to monolingual children's acquisition across diverse languages.
  • Syntax-discourse Interface: Certain forms may be underused, e.g. bare nouns largely disappeared in lower elementary grades after English became dominant and re-appeared again later on. The under use is not ungrammatical but differs from the controls' pattern of usage.
Variability is a fundamental part of CHL learning:

Variability is fact part of any form of language learning. Research on L1 acquisition by monolingual children has increasingly found individual differences, not just in the acquisition of vocabulary and complex structures, but also in basic grammatical structures (Dąbrowska, 2013). Variability is to be expected in CHL learning as CHL learners are more influenced than their monolingual peers by a synergy of social factors, e.g. availability of Cantonese in their school systems, societal attitude towards Cantonese, and the social context in which they use Cantonese. The social factors combined with their personal experience with speaking Cantonese help shape their cultural identity, which influences how motivated they are about maintaining their HL.

  • "Members of minority groups are not simple inheritors of fixed identities, ethnicities, cultures, and languages but are instead engaged in a continual collective and individual process of making, remaking, and negotiating these elements, thereby constantly constructing dynamic new ethnicities" (Hall, 1988, p. 547).
  • Variability stems from the ongoing self-organization of systems of activity. To honor this, we need to take into account learners' histories, orientations and intentions, thoughts and feelings. We need to consider the tasks that learners perform and to consider each performance anew - stable and predictable in part, but at the same time, variable, flexible, and dynamically adapted to fit the changing situation. Learners actively transform their linguistic world; they do not just conform to it" (Larsen-Freeman, 2010, p. 53).

HL Learners as Human Resources

About three-quarters of the adult CHL learners in our research project were administered ACTFL's Oral Proficiency Interview and their proficiency levels ranged from intermediate-low to advanced-mid, which is consistent with my observation about the CHL learners in my Cantonese program. Being able to reach these levels is impressive. According to a report published in 2010 by the Center for Applied Second Language Studies (CASLS) at the University of Oregon, only a small percentage of FL students can reach the intermediate-mid level after four years of learning a FL: "Of course, the number of hours needed to reach a specific proficiency level varies from student to student, but our research shows that only about 15% of students reach a proficiency level near Intermediate-Mid even after approximately 720 hours of study, which is about four years in a typical high school program" (CASLS, 2010, p.1).

HL learners are indeed valuable human resources to this and other countries: "We desperately need competence in languages-to become "a language-competent society," in Tucker's phrase (1991)-and our huge and varied heritage language resources have a definite role to play in achieving such competence" (Fishman, 2001, p. 95).

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